Terry Odell

Book beginnings are tough, as evidenced by the interest in The Kill Zone’s First Page Critiques. A blog post I’d read recently talked about having about 250 words to ‘hook’ a reader. That’s not even a full page.

And, it seems, no matter how many books we’ve written, how many times we’ve stared at that cursor on the screen under the words “Chapter One”, it doesn’t get easier.

I know this is a frequent topic her at the Zone, but it hit home (again) as both myself and my critique partner were starting new projects. And, we both were falling into the same old quicksand. She’s more of a planner than I am, and she was starting a new series, so her head was filled with ideas, many of which would fall into the “tell us this later” category. Her first chapter was full of them.

I was going back to my Mapleton Mystery series, so I know most of my main characters. But there were things from the last book that readers might need to know, threads that were left open. Not dangling, not hanging onto cliffs, just springboards to explore in a future book. If you’re interested, I posted an article about endings on my personal blog Monday.

Even “knowing the rules”, when I shared my first draft of page 1 of a new book, a draft I’d set aside to deal with final edits and formatting of Cruising Undercover, an author friend pointed out that my first paragraph was … exposition. In my mind, there was a conflict there, a problem, but there I went, letting my protagonist think about it.

Open with Dialogue. Dialogue is Action.

How many times have I “heard” James Scott Bell and others here pound that advice into us? More than I can count, yet, even knowing this, understanding this, I was so eager to describe the problem so that’s what I did.

This was my opening draft paragraph:

Gordon Hepler held his breath as Angie, his wife, stepped into the house he’d hoped she’d approve of. Not that he didn’t love her—to the moon and back—but her tiny apartment above the Daily Bread diner she ran was … tiny. She’d agreed to consider moving, but so far, she’d found fault with every house they’d looked at. This one—fingers crossed—would meet her criteria. Except for one minor wrinkle, it was perfect.

There was a line of dialogue immediately after this paragraph, but no, I hadn’t opened with it, not to mention loading the paragraph with back story.

Back to that blog post. The author suggested 7 points that should hook readers, and that authors should strive for 4 of them in their first 250 words. Rather than repeat what the contributors to TKZ say in their First Page Critiques, I’m going to open the floor to discussion. Do you agree with these 7 hooks?

  1. Plunge into the action
  2. Communicate a theme
  3. Raise a question that needs answering
  4. Hook the reader’s emotions
  5. Communicate the stakes
  6. Establish tone/voice
  7. Introduce the main character (if possible, by name)

Do you think squeezing 4 of them into half a page is effective? Obviously several can be combined (avoid the laundry list!), but 250 words isn’t much real estate to deal with.

And if you want to read the full article, which contains examples, it’s here.

Floor’s yours.

Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

30 thoughts on “Beginnings

  1. The article referenced is well worth studying.
    I’m not sure that it’s wise to utilize many hook methods in 250 words. You may get hook overload. I suspect one or two methods well applied will do the trick. Pick the best one(s).
    The danger isn’t using too few, but too many. If you use multiple methods or if you repeat a method, their hooks should work together. The objective of Method 3 is to make the reader frame one, burning question that they’ll be unable to set aside. Avoid using Method 3 again, even unintentionally. If your reader is torn in different directions with different questions, they’re more likely to free themselves from the first hook or maybe all of them. More is less.
    For instance, take the opening paragraph, above. Why is Gordon holding his breath? is one squirrel. Fine. But the possibility he might not love his wife is an entirely different squirrel, running in a different, probably unintended direction.

    • Good insights, JG, and I don’t disagree with any of them. Now, if I could pay more attention on the first draft … but that’s what revisions are for. Get it down first, clean it up later.

      • Thanks! Part of the emphasis on a quick and dirty first draft is to rough-cut a block of marble for the “boys in the basement” to sculpt into shape, as soon as possible, during the next draft. There’s magic in that second draft, because that’s when the creative center does it finest work.

        And there’s always Bondo™ if you need to add to the sculpture.

  2. Great post, Terry. I look forward to reading today’s discussion. And thanks for the link to Maggie Smith’s article.

    I do think that squeezing four hooks into the first 250 words can be effective. It depends how they are used. For example, #7 (introduce the MC) is paired with #1 (start with action). That action includes #5 (foreshadowing the conflict), and #4 (hook the reader’s emotion) as you begin to bond the reader to the MC (#8) with a “pet the dog” moment (#9). I exaggerate to make a point; the same sentences can serve dual purpose. And, those 250 pages can begin the 9 hooks, while the action flows into the whole first scene.

    If this all sounds daffy, I plead recovery from anesthesia.

    Thanks for starting an interesting discussion!

    • Speedy recovery. Anesthesia loves me and hates to leave, so I sympathize.
      Combining rather than laundry listing is a better approach, and I, too, look forward to more discussion.

    • Yes, the hook gestalt is a function of how they are used, individually and collectively. It also depends on the story. Some stories will lend themselves nicely to a hook-laden opening.

  3. So I’m in your head, eh? Well, turnabout is fair play. You are on my lips (balm, that is!)

    I shall have more to say about openings on Sunday. Looking at this list, it seems to me that #1, action, done well (i.e., with disturbance) automatically triggers 3 & 4, and 6 if the author is skilled. That leaves 2 and 7.

    Theme can wait, though there’s nothing wrong with a subtle indicator…and subtle is the key word here, as larded theme threatens to become preachy. Act first, explain later…this applies to everything from backstory to theme.

    Intro the main character, sure…unless you don’t. Prologues and “villain first” openings are standard fare.

    • Thanks, JSB. Looking forward to your Sunday post (as always). Not fond of villain prologues, but they are popular enough, and I’ve never minded being an outlier. I did start one book with a prologue, although I called it chapter 1, with a character on his deathbed, so there wasn’t much introduction.

  4. That is a lot of hooks for 250 words. The one I understand least is how in the world you communicate theme by the first page. You can certainly introduce conflict on the first page but I don’t see how you can always raise the story question by page 1–although that list of hooks says “a question that needs answering” which I assume doesn’t have to be the main story question.

    I’m not 100% sold on the “open with dialogue” advice. I agree it’s probably best the majority of the time, but honestly, when I think of books I really enjoyed, they don’t start right off the bat with dialogue. Personally, I want a few moments in someone’s head first before they start yammering away at me. But in either case, you have to hook and engage the reader to keep them reading.

    After reading this post I went back & looked at the first 250 words of a first chapter contest I won some years ago. It did open with dialogue, introduce the main character, raise “a” question (but not the story question), plunge into the action, hook into emotion & communicate the stakes of the moment. However I would not say it communicated theme or have time to establish tone/voice.

    Very interesting to consider all these points. Thank you for this post.

    • Glad you found it interesting, BK. I never know the themes of my books until my readers tell me, so that’s something I wouldn’t be able to introduce in the first 250 unless it was unintentional.

  5. To avoid the dreaded cursor stare, I bang out my first page, then worry about it later. After I finish the first draft, I go back and rewrite the beginning. 🙂

  6. I’m a big fan of combining these hooks at the start of a novel. That opening disturbance, shown through the POV of the hero, and how they are handling or failing to handle the disturbance, can cover these, except #2, theme.

    Filtering through the POV of the lead is crucial, because we can characterize how they feel about the situation, what they notice (and thus is important to them), what they care about, how they act/react to the disturbance (action), set the tone/voice, and raise a question in establishing that opening disturbance.

    BTW, #5, Communicating the stakes, to my mind is about what’s at stake for our lead in the beginning of the novel. Raising the stakes later, perhaps multiple times, drives the plot.

    Like Sue, I bang out my opening and then work on these in revision. It’s hard work, for me at any rate, this combining, but it’s so necessary as part of hooking the reader.

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Dale. Stakes do change throughout the novel, and yes, there can be a lot of them, from minor to major. Solving one problem leads to more problems … the ‘yes, but…’ situation.

  8. Authors are consumed with writing that first chapter. That’s why I taught several courses on the subject, and most of my blogs from reader questions are on the subject. On that list you provide, I’d suggest that it’s too ambitious for the first pages. You want to grab the reader’s emotional attention, first, then their intellectual attention with questions of what’s happening. Everything else is gravy.

    On your problem, Debbie, remember that most of your readers didn’t hop immediately from one book to the next, and they’re so busy trying to remember the characters, etc., that they won’t be that interested in filling in the blanks of events until a chapter or so in, and it need only be brief asides like, “Jack? I tossed his rear out of the agency. Too much mansplaining.”

    I wrote a humor piece on how to stop readers in their tracks in the first chapter. Here it is.

    Don’t you just hate it when someone keeps reading your book?

    Me, too!

    Here are a few tips on how to stop that reader before the end of the first chapter. Heck, if you do it right, most readers won’t read more than a few pages.

    1. Start your story off with

    * your main character eating popcorn and watching a movie or TV show in their living room. Give details of the movie’s plot.

    *your main character waking up, getting breakfast, and dressing for the day.

    *your main character at her workplace or job doing something mundane that has nothing to do with the plot. Be sure to go into great detail to insure boredom!

    *your main character running into a hot former flame but immediately leaving then spending many pages remembering how screwed up their relationship was. Whatever you do, don’t let those ex-lovers talk about those old times and let sparks fly!

    *a prologue that has little to do with the rest of the novel but gives lots of back story the reader will never really need.

    *so much information about your world building and character’s magical abilities that the reader is totally confused.

    *introducing so many characters that the reader becomes hopelessly confused.

    2. Make sure your first chapter has the right percentage of dialogue, narrative, and introspection.

    10% or less: Narrative which includes action (John flinched as she wagged her finger in his face.), immediate emotional comments (Mary fought her desire to strangle him with his tie.), and description (Clothes littered the room like confetti at a ticker tape parade.).

    10% or less: Dialogue, particularly dialogue that gives information (“I know that Mary murdered John! I hope they hang her.”), shows conflict between characters (“You’re a liar. Mary loved him. She was framed.”), or moves the story forward. (“And I’ll prove she didn’t do it.”)

    80% or more: The viewpoint character’s introspection about the past. Give that reader back story, internal whining, and emotional navel gazing until she is screaming for mercy and throwing that manuscript down!

    3. Have the main character or characters wander around aimlessly with no goal or motives.

    4. Have such poor grammar and spelling that no one can understand half of what you write.

    5. Love your writing so much that it is impossible to cut out anything.

  9. I usually don’t have a problem coming up with an opening disturbance. I choose one of two types: either the disturbance leads right to the story question like the opening of the hunger games, or it’s a very specific in-your-MC’s-normal world disturbance. You can easily weave in a bit of the theme into the second by having it incorporate whatever core issue the character is struggling with.

    I do have a bit of an issue with number 1, not because it’s wrong but because most people misinterperet it. I find that, myself included, plunging into action gets translated into “big battle scene or equivalent like in the movies.” A movie opening does not work in a book, no matter how hard you try. Completely different medium.

    • Good reminder. Opening with a battle scene where nobody knows who’s who doesn’t engage readers. What works as a James Bond movie opening doesn’t work on the page. People going to a James Bond movie know who he is and will root for him.
      I had a lot of trouble with the new Hawaii 5-0 television remake because episode one tried to introduce characters dealing with bad guys and I didn’t know which was which.
      Another no-no is the dream sequence opening.

  10. Terry, you’re so right that beginnings never get easier.

    A lot of writers get stuck on the first page and never move forward until they have what they think is the perfect beginning. Not a good plan b/c it wastes precious writing time that could be spent developing the rest of the story.

    Like Sue and Dale, I don’t worry too much, figuring I’ll fix it on rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Eventually the right one pops out.

    Maggie Smith’s article offered excellent examples from published books. Thanks for that helpful link.

    • I just want to get moving when I start a new book so I know what’s going to happen. Fixing is for later, although I do review passes after each chapter. Glad you found the link and examples helpful, Debbie.

  11. Yes, as they say in film, you can “fix it in post.” Even after release, if you’re self-published. Which reminds me of a previously mentioned project where the film was “in the can,” before the team realized the theme was not what they’d thought. They fixed it in post-production by re-recording the sound track using different music. Genius.

    • If only we had music soundtracks for the books, although I rarely know the theme of mine, anyway. And yes, we CAN fix things “in post” as indie writers. I’ve done it.

  12. I agree that the first page is especially hard to write. I spend more time on the first chapter of my novels than any other part. I suppose an expert could include all those seven hooks in the first 250 words, but I’d be concerned that it would look too much like the author was forcing the issue, rather than letting the story flow naturally.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is the use of first person. In my last published novel, I wrote the first chapter in first person and I found it much easier to dive into the story and set up the characters and crisis right away. I’m doing the same thing now with my WIP. Any thoughts on this approach?

    • With one exception, I write in deep third, Kay, which is almost the same as first, so I’m always in the character’s head. But there are still the same pitfalls as we can write the character stuck in the mundane instead of the action.

    • Kay, great observation that first person can be a useful way to get into a character’s head and voice. It works like a conversational ice breaker between author and character.

      Sometimes the whole book remains in first person if the voice is compelling enough. But there’s always the option to switch to third POV later if that works better.

  13. I’m like a lot of the other writers here–I get what I think is a good opening and move on–by “The End” everything could change making that first chapter I worked so hard on obsolete. I usually revisit it about halfway through the story when I know more about said story. 🙂

    • We ‘organic’ writers don’t waste a lot of time fretting about things that might change. One way or another, we all get to ‘the end.’

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