For me, there is nothing more intimidating than a blank computer screen. If I could, I would pay someone to start my novels for me. Since that isn’t going to happen, I’d better start from the beginning – literally.
For many writers, the first thing that happens in the creative process is characters suddenly intrude into your daily life. Fully formed, walking and talking – you see and hear them as plain as day. Excited over their arrival, you listen to the story of their lives before sitting down to write and…nothing happens. Or what you end up writing is nothing like you’d imagined.
So why is that?
The universal truth among every writer on the planet is that there will ALWAYS be a gap between your imagination and what appears on your page. Imagine the story-writing process as an onion. With the addition of each layer (rewriting, editing, adding description) the onion, like your story, will be fuller and rounder. But, before we get to that point, we have to write the beginning.
In an ideal world, an editor would give your book the time and attention that you, the author, puts into it. Wouldn’t you love to know that an editor is going to curl up, undisturbed, in an armchair with a cup of cocoa and your enthralling manuscript? Not only will they love every word, but also they will buy it immediately and with no revisions necessary.
I’ve got news for you, it isn’t going to happen.
Chances are the editor will be interrupted at least a dozen times with phone calls, faxes and meetings. This means that you, as a writer, need to grab their attention and keep it from word one.
So let’s start with the very beginning, the hook.
What is a hook? A hook is the opening sentence(s) of your novel that will grab your reader’s attention and suck them into your work. The hook should give your reader someone or a situation to focus on. An example of a good hook is the opening line from Theresa Weir’s 1998 release, SOME KIND OF MAGIC:
There were certain inevitabilities in life.
Like the light at the end of the tunnel almost always being a train. Like the more you cared about people, the more likely you were to lose them.
Here was a new one.
The plane was going to crash.
Hmm, he thought. We’re going to crash.
How about the following passage from PROMISE ME TOMORROW, a 2000 release from Candace Camp:
The child lifted her head sleepily and looked at the man across from her in the carriage. She blinked, then scowled.
“You’re a bad man.”
The man glanced at her and sighed. “Hush. We’re almost there.”
So what do these hooks have in common?
On the surface, very little. In the first one, a man is about to go down in a plane crash while in the second we have a child in possible jeopardy.
Are the situations something you can relate to?
If you’ve ever flown on an airplane in bad turbulence, one of the first things that goes through your mind might be whether or not the plane will actually stay up in the air. As for the second one, who wouldn’t feel some protective instincts arise at the thought of a child in danger?
Was it interesting you enough to want to keep on reading? I know it was for me and I loved both books. I just had to keep reading to find out if the plane actually went down and if the child was rescued.
That is the point of a hook.
Now that you have hooked your reader – what are the basic elements you need to finish your first scene? Strong characterizations and a suitable conflict.
As I said earlier, the purpose of a hook is the give the reader someone or something to focus on. In the case of romance novels, this is usually the hero or heroine. Let’s take a look at the opening scene of Candace Camp's PROMISE ME TOMORROW:
Marianne drew a deep breath as she surveyed the glittering crowd. She had never been to a party this large nor one filled with so many titled people. She wondered what they would think if they knew she was plain Mary Chilton from St. Anselm’s Orphanage, not the genteel widow Mrs. Marianna Cotterwood.
She smiled to herself. The thing she enjoyed the most about her pretense was the idea of pulling the wool over the eyes of the aristocracy, of conversing with some blue-blooded member of the ton - who would have been horrified if he had known that he was speaking to a former chambermaid as if to an equal.
What do we learn from this opening?
First, the character, Marianne has never been to a party quite as impressive as this one and she is uneasy about it. Two, she has arrived under an assumed name. Three, this is something she has done before. Four, she enjoys her pretense thus implying a cynical edge to her personality when it comes to the gentry.
Get the picture?
Now that you have the characterization, let’s talk about conflict. Conflict occurs when something is not going as expected and the reader should be aware of the impending conflict from early on. When dealing with a short story, the conflict should be indicated on the first page. In a novel, you have more time to develop it, however, you should give an indication of the conflict to come.
As an example, let’s examine the following passage from SOME KIND OF MAGIC:
Her scalp tingled.
In one of her daydreams, before she found out that Anton had left her for the old broad, she’d imagined him returning to her, injured and helpless. She would nurse him back to health so they could once again make passionate love.
She was beginning to think that the sound behind her seat had been nothing more than the ringing of her own ears, when something cold and hard pressed against the back of her head.
Her heart stopped.
Claire had never had a gun pressed to her head, nor any other part of her body, but if she had, she was fairly certain it would feel like this. Exactly like this.
What is the conflict in this scene?
Claire has gotten into her car expecting to go home. Instead, she hears something in the backseat and it sets her nerves on edge. She’s dreamed about the day that her ex-boyfriend will return to her, needing her, instead she gets a gun to the back of her head.
Is that conflict?
Now that you have the basic building blocks to craft your beginning, you can now sit down and start that book! Better get moving as next time we’ll be talking about that all-important second scene.
J.C. Wilder lives in Central Ohio with three dogs and thousands of dust bunnies. Her thirty-something book, Winter’s Daughter, is available from Samhain Publishing. https://www.jcwilder.com