Thursday, November 30, 2006

Opening Hooks

Your opening words have to reach out and grab the reader fast or you'll lose them for sure. Sometimes a reader will stick with you for pages, maybe even chapters. But you can't count on it.

How do you choose a book in a bookstore? Read the back cover? Maybe scan the cover flap? Flip through the pages, checking the "white" to see if it contains mostly long, narrative writing or fast-paced dialogue? Read the opening paragraph?

Imagine it's the beginning of summer (a bit difficult today since the wind is howling and my upper deck is still iced over even though it’s mid-afternoon). Someone runs into the bookstore to grab a novel to read out on the beach or on a cruise. They hurry down the aisle, scanning book after book, reading the opening pages to see if it sounds interesting. Would your words reach out from the shelves and grab them?

Okay, let's back up a step. An agent (or editor), bone-tired and ready to call it quits after a long, depressing week, picks up a stack of manuscripts to take home for the weekend read. He sticks yours in among the 30 others. Will he open it, read the first page, the second, and not be able to put it down? Or will he read the first page, sigh, and fall asleep?

There are always exceptions, but readers (and agents and editors are readers, too) don't want to read pages or even paragraphs describing the weather or the bell tower (or whatever), or what a character is wearing. If you put that in the opening sentences, it damn-well better be exceptional writing and intricate to the plot. The background story on the protagonist may be necessary to understand his arc, it may be essential to explain his actions, but is it essential to put it upfront? Is it worth losing readers? Could it be sprinkled in later?

Remember to start each scene--and your story as a whole--as close to the end as possible. A lot of times that means cutting the first chapter or maybe a whole chunk of pages. We write the first draft, then go back and realize the novel begins slowly because we've started the story way too early. We've given too much background or delayed the action. That means we haven't given the reader any reason to keep reading.

And we really, really, want them to keep reading.

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