Scene Structure: Opening Hooks

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re looking at excerpts from past posts on Live Write Thrive that tie in with our exploration on scene structure.

From Hook ‘Em on the First Cast:

 Hook, Line, and Sinker

What is a hook all about anyway? It’s a line that snags your reader and pulls them into the story. Often someone flipping through your book or looking at the first page online at Amazon.com will just read the first few lines. I have heard agents and acquisition editors say that they will pretty much decide to either stop or continue reading based on that first sentence, or possibly the first paragraph.

Yikes! So, that first line should be a doozy and one that really makes an impression. As I said before, don’t get so hung up on writing that first paragraph that you don’t move forward. You will probably come back and rewrite it, unless you came up with an opening line ages ago and now you’re finally putting that masterpiece in place. Sometimes as we’re writing our novel a great first line will come to us. Other times we’ll find a great first line somewhere on page three or four.

When I went back in after completing my latest novel to chop away at my boring, extra-long first chapter (and this is usually the only chapter I do this with), I found a catchy, compelling first line on page two. I pretty much chopped out everything before it and started there. But, in the end, you will want a terrific first line.

 A Couple of Great First Lines

That line should be intriguing, and if it doesn’t specifically name your protagonist, it should have a feel of being in her POV and something that’s important to her. I keep thinking of Harry Dolan’s first novel Bad Things Happen (that won one of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contests). This is a suspense novel with intrigue and murder in a stylized voice that is refreshing and wonderful. Here’s the first line: “The shovel has to meet certain requirements.”

As you can see, it doesn’t introduce the protagonist, but it arouses curiosity. Why in the world is a novel opening with the discussion of a shovel? What will it be used for? The next lines in the first paragraph answer that question . . . to a point (pardon another pun): “A pointed blade. A short handle to make it maneuverable in a small space. He finds what he needs in the gardening section of a vast department store.”

 Of course, the reader has read the blurb on the back cover so knows what the book is about and what the genre is. This type of opening is perfect for Dolan’s audience—mystery-suspense readers looking for something a bit noir or macabre. I think this is a great hook because it is full of microtension—meaning it raises your curiosity and gets you to wonder about this character and why he needs a shovel. Obviously the shovel must be important, and we suspect it will be used for something not related to gardening. And off we go, reading on.

Another great first line comes from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. This story is told in first person, so it automatically introduces the protagonist through her voice. “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.” What the reader catches right away is the past tense: My name was Salmon. What? Did she change her name? You find out in the next line: “I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” Right away we’re intrigued, as we realize this story is being told by a girl who is dead—and not just dead but murdered.

How about Richard Matheson’s great first line in I am Legend: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.” Here’s a perfect example of what I advised in my recent post stating what writers should have in that first paragraph (or sentence): an introduction of the protagonist, showing something of a conflict or inciting incident, and the character’s core need. Need I say more?


 

From First Paragraphs, First Thoughts:

 Who’s Your Audience?

I find that I often start each novel a bit rough in terms of voice and style. I don’t write each book in the same style; in fact, many of my books showcase such diverse styles that readers have commented that they never would have known I was the author of these very different novels. In some cases that’s a bad thing—and agents may tell you in order to sell and market you, you should have one style, one voice. And there’s wisdom in that, especially if you’re trying to brand yourself and your style.

In a series, for example, you would want to keep the same identifiable voice and style, and that’s what I do in my seven-book fantasy series, which I’ve set up to be able to go deep and evocative with language and imagery. But in my “noir” suspense dramas, I use an entirely different style—more of a tight, terse voice that fits the genre.

And that’s what you want to always be thinking about as you begin to write your novel and start setting the tone as you write the first scene. You need to know who your audience is and what style they’re expecting when they read that genre. If you’re writing strict genre (tailoring your novel to fit in a very specific slot), you need to do your homework and study the style and voice of writers who write those kinds of books. No doubt you are probably already a fan and reader of that genre (that’s why you love writing it), and so you should have a feel for this already as you begin your book.

 What to Focus On

So, your voice and style will have a lot of influence on that first scene—the way sentences are structured, the length of the chapter, the tone and pacing. But for the most part, you don’t need to concentrate too much on things like pacing and chapter length, for you’ll tweak and tighten those in your revisions. What you do want to pay special attention to are the things on the first page checklist .

So, if you haven’t downloaded this one-page PDF yet, you can do so now. It’s a great handy sheet to keep in your notebook next to your desk to refer to as you dig in to your first chapter or come back to rework it.

 Don’t Aim for the Mona Lisa

I would suggest you think more about being a sketch artist rather than a detail painter as you write this first chapter. I recall reading an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez that so impressed me. In the interview, he mentioned how he often spent months honing the first paragraph of a novel before writing any more in order to get clear in his head all the major elements he wanted in that book—mostly in regard to tone, voice, pacing, and inciting incident. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite novels of all time, and his opening paragraph is a great one that does set up all those things for the entire book.

You may be like Marquez and feel you need to labor over that first page for a long while before taking off, but I think for most writers, that will only be an exercise in stalling the inevitable—which is to get to work and start writing. Okay, since I’ve aroused your curiosity, here’s his first line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliana Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” This is a perfect example of introducing a protagonist and jumping into the start of a great scene.

 Use a Pencil; Resist the Eraser

I don’t mean this literally, unless you really do like to write your scenes with pad and pencil. What I do mean is that it helps to just rough in the first chapter and get the basics down, knowing you’ll revisit it many times throughout the writing of the novel to tweak it more in line with the developing voice, style, pacing, and themes you draw out and tighten along the way.

My first chapters are always a little over-wordy, clunky, and rarely ever start out the gate with a brilliant hook and opening paragraph. I often come back later and hack about half of that chapter away, or just rewrite the whole thing. But your aim for this first scene should be to get those essential elements in at least in a rough way.

If you’re interested in more about scene structure, be sure to subscribe to Live Write Thrive so you don’t miss the posts. Mondays we’re going deep into scene structure, and Wednesdays we’re looking at first pages of great novels to see why they work. Join us!

Feature Photo Credit: 1lenore via Compfight cc

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