Wednesday, September 3, 2014

In the Beginning: How to Create a Strong Narrative Hook

Good beginnings are crucial in capturing a reader’s attention. Every writer knows that a narrative hook is needed in any successful type of writing. Many readers pick up a book, glance at the first page, and if it doesn’t grab them, simply toss it aside. Of course, creating a good narrative hook for a novel or short story is easier said than done. However, here are a few suggestions that I believe will help to     interest readers in your novel:

Point of View:

One of the most important things in writing a successful work of fiction is to develop a unique voice. That does not mean that you must write from a first person point of view.
It is important to create a central character that your readers can sympathize and/or identify with. Whether writing a realistic or fantasy novel, if the reader can't care about the main character, then the reader won't believe or accept what follows.
Regardless of whether or not you use first person narration, try to stick to a main point of view which makes reader identification more likely. This viewpoint should be from the perspective of a major character in the story. This is one way of hooking your readers from the beginning. And it goes without saying that the main viewpoint character should be either the heroine or hero or both in a romantic novel. However, breaking the rules worked for F. Scott Fitzgerald when he used a secondary character as narrator in The Great Gatsby.

Element of Mystery:

Readers enjoy an element of mystery. Every good novel should have a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to discover what is going to happen next. It's important to set up some sort of a question that can't be easily or immediately answered, a secret of the human heart that must be delved into. Prick your reader’s curiosity. This needs to be done in the first few pages and if possible from the first paragraph.

Start in medias res:

Start with a bit of intriguing, provocative dialogue or some piece of action. Get your reader involved in the plot from the beginning. Don’t begin with detailed description of people and place. You will lose your reader!
Don’t start with your main character getting up in the morning or doing anything mundane like tooth brushing. Long boring descriptions were fine for Victorian novelists, but remember that Dickens was paid by the word. Plunge the reader into the heart of the story from the beginning words.
When you do need to use description, keep it pertinent. Don’t overdo adverbs and adjectives. Use active verbs. Replace your “is”, “was” and “are” with action words whenever possible. Vary your sentence lengths and structures. You want your writing to be dynamic and exciting. Your reader must be quickly involved, must be made to care about what is happening.
Get your reader focused, placing your heroine and/or hero as close to the main action and problem as possible. Build suspense from the beginning by getting your reader into the thick of things. Weave details and necessary background information into the story as you keep the action of the plot moving along. Introduce the protagonists as early in the story as possible.

Make It Dramatic

Dramatize your story. Don't show, tell. I'm certain you've heard that advice many times before before! How to do this? Create meaningful, realistic dialogue for your characters. Each character should be an individual, talking a certain way to reflect a personal point of view, a unique way of thinking. Good dialogue leads to action and conflict between people with different viewpoints and goals.
Avoid stilted dialogue. One way to accomplish this is by reading your writing out loud. Remember readers have to accept the characters in your novel as real people.

Setting the Scene:

Although you don’t want to overwhelm your reader with too much detail from the outset, settings need to be vividly described so that they seem real. Think like a film director. Create your novel in scenes as if it were a movie.
Finally, take the time to write and rewrite the beginning sentences and paragraphs of your novel, recognizing that this is crucial. You probably won’t get it right the first time through. I confess I never do! I truly agonize over beginnings.
 Go back after you finish your novel or story and see if the opening could be more compelling. Ask some fellow writers and intelligent readers to look at your beginning and give an honest opinion.
Hopefully, these suggestions will help you create the perfect narrative hook that will compel readers to read your work from beginning to end.

Here’s the beginning of my novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, a YA appropriate for both teens and adults. It’s got elements of mystery, romance and a paranormal edge:

When my mother talked about Lori, she always got a funny look in her eye — not ha-ha funny but strange funny. When I was little, I never understood. As I got older, I wondered more about Lori, but I hardly ever asked because it just seemed to make my mother sad.
Lori was locked away in my mother's past life like the things in the old attic trunk. I wondered about them too. But Mom would always say when I asked her to open the trunk that the past was best forgotten. Yet, every now and then, I would say something or do something that made her sigh and exclaim: "You remind me so much of Lori!"
Not long ago, I was sitting on the living room couch reading a novel I found on the bookshelf. My mother walked into the room and gasped.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
She stared at me for a moment and shook her head. "No, but for a moment, it seemed like I was looking at Lori. I remember when she read Rebecca. She loved to read old-fashioned romances."
"Mom, what happened to Lori?"
"Danna, I'd rather not talk about her. It only brings back sad memories."
"Sure, except I didn't bring it up."

As a reader and/or writer any comments, suggestions or input you would like to share are welcome here.




37 comments:

  1. Jacquie, all good points for opening a compelling story or novel. I note that your example both opens with a hook and ends with one. Good post.

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  2. Thank you, Susan. The old saying, practice what you preach, applies here. Not much point in telling others what they should do if I don't follow my own advice. Hopefully, my books will find an interested audience.

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  3. What you suggest in this post follows what I have learned from books on writing and from my own experience. It amazes me that there are so many writers who don’t get into the middle of the action from page one. One reviewer/critic read one of my novels and said, “You should have spent the first chapter describing your characters and the setting and left the action for chapter two.” I strongly suspect that he has spent too much time reading classics and not enough time with today’s literature. Most of what I write is suspense, and the successful writers in this genre knock your hat off from sentence one. I loved this article. I’m looking forward to many more.

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    1. Joe,

      My response to your thoughtful comment was printed after my response to D'Ann.

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  4. I love hooks! They are kind of my strong suit! I won over almost 800 people in a First Line contest last year. No hook? No reader.

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  5. Thank you, Joe. I suppose those that are writing literary fiction rather than genre feel they should begin at a leisurely pace. But these are not Victorian times. We live at a faster pace and attention spans are much shorter. Readers expect to be engaged immediately. And there are more writers out there than ever before. So I do agree that a strong narrative hook is essential for writers. I'd love to have some readers respond with their opinions as well.

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  6. An excellent blog, Jacquie. I'm glad you noted authors like Fitzgerald, who broke the rules. But most of the time your instructions work for a dynamic opening!

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    1. As a teacher, I taught Gatsby. I think the book worked because Gatsby remains something of a mystery man. We never get into his mind or that of Daisy. And it works for that particular books--but it won't for most.

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  7. Here is the beginning of my newest release, UPON YOUR HONOR, a historical romantic suspense:

    PROLOGUE

    April 4, 1880

    Chloe Ann Waverly sat on the stone bench in her father’s garden, her fingers curling around the hard edges. She gazed unseeingly at the sculptures, the whimsical shapes she’d always loved. Now, she could not lift her spirits.
    Flashes of the previous day terrorized her young eight-year-old mind: a maid’s blood-curdling scream, the chaos afterward, the footmen who carried something out of the house in a white sheet. The words her nursemaid told her, words that made no sense. Her mother was gone. But why? She had cried most of the day, and she had slept very little since she’d heard the news. Now, she believed her tears must have dried up, she felt so empty.
    Still, she did not know why her mother was gone. She was not naïve. She knew of childbirth. She knew some women perished during it, but that simply was not the case here. Her mother had not been with child that she knew of. She was so vibrant before all of it, before she’d been taken away. Why couldn’t anyone tell her what was wrong? She had tried to get her nursemaid Veronica to give her some information, but the woman believed it was better for her not to know. What was so terrible that Chloe could not be told the truth?
    “Sweetheart?”
    She lifted her head to see her father standing on the steps. “Papa!” She rushed to him, closed her eyes as he picked her up, and buried her face in his shoulder.

    http://smarturl.it/uponyourhonor

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  8. Diversely, here is the beginning of MAGICK & MOONLIGHT, my latest paranormal romance novella:

    Ethan Hamilton walked along the shore, kicking rocks. Up above the water, the moon looked as big as a saucer. It was a full moon, the kind that people usually associated with werewolves, vampires, and all those silly legends. The kinds of things pop culture made people believe were true. But, he knew better. Monsters weren’t real. There were monsters, of course, but they were humans who did terrible things.
    There was always an explanation for everything. Just as there was a reason he was standing by the shore in Yachats, Oregon, wondering if his decision to start all over was warranted. Could he forget what happened and just move on, move to a new town, and hope that a new life would provide him with better options? Could he forget what had happened in Seattle, the pain and humiliation of it all?
    Just as he was getting disgusted with his self-analysis, he caught something out of the corner of his eye. He turned and noticed firelight in the forest to his right. A campfire was burning. He’d been told the forest was usually empty this time of year. That was why he’d chosen the cabin, for the seclusion. He figured it was probably just a couple of kids screwing around. Concerned that they might start a forest fire, he went to investigate. Suddenly, he stopped. “You’re not a cop anymore,” he reminded himself gruffly. He shook it off. That didn’t matter though. The last thing he needed on his conscience was a careless accident turned into a royal nightmare.
    He grimaced, but went on to seek out the person who’d started the campfire. He walked for a while, before he could see a small stream of smoke wafting up above the line of trees. He eventually neared a clearing, but stopped as he could hear a voice. Stepping closer without drawing attention to himself, he peered around a tree. In the clearing was a campfire. A woman was dancing naked around it. Occasionally, she would stop moving and stir something inside a cauldron hanging over the fire. She chanted low words in another language.
    The flames cast light over her nude body, while the darkness of the night partly obscured it in shadow. Her hair, as black as licorice, swung freely about her shoulders in thick waves. Her eyes in the firelight looked nearly obsidian.

    http://bookgoodies.com/a/B00IRKN5P2

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    1. Marie,

      Thanks so much for sharing these book beginnings with us! Hopefully, you will pick up new readers here today.

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  9. This is from my untitled WIP:

    A sweet ass ground against his cock.
    In the predawn light, Johnny Cortez couldn’t make out the woman next to him although a familiar fruity perfume filled his senses. Whoever lay next to him wiggled until his dick jumped in response.
    Not a girlfriend.
    He didn’t have one.
    Not a groupie.
    He hadn’t wanted one.
    Who, then?

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    1. Hi, D'Ann,

      Well that certainly caught my attention! This is a question that is often asked and I'll throw this open to readers. If you are reading a romance, would you like it to start with a sex scene? If you are reading a mystery, would you like it to start with a crime?

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    2. D'Ann's beginning is provocative and lets a reader know exactly what kind of book s/he's into.

      In the Columbo TV series, the murder often initiated the book. I liked those, in spite of knowing who, what, when, how and, usually, why.

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  10. Fisher people study bait and try to dangle the most provocative one they can find. You, my dear, would make a great fisher person. Your selection of bait would be just right.

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  11. Thank you, Sharon. I love your analogy!

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  12. Very interesting post! Great beginnings are not as easy to do as it sounds. Sometimes they're overpacked or start with action that's there only for grabbing and doesn't really relate to the plot. But I like beginnings that start with a combination of the character's personality, hints of the problem to be faced and a bit of mood as well. I don't ask for much!

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    1. Hi, Karen,

      Yes, many readers prefer subtlety. But there does need to be something that catches the reader's curiosity. What do the characters mean by a certain piece of dialogue? Why do they act in a certain manner?

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  13. I both love and hate when there is a hook at the end of the chapter. Love it because I know there's so much more to come. Hate it because now I won't get anything done because I'm reading. lol

    Great advice! Shared and tweeted. :)

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    1. Thanks, Karen. I didn't talk about it, but it's a great idea to have a hook at the end of each chapter which leads the reader into coming back and continuing to read the novel.

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  14. Shared, tweeted, pinned. Great article.

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    1. Thanks, Penny, I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

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  15. Great article, I do have one question. Above you say, "Dramitize your story. Don't show, tell." I thought it was the other way around? Show, don't tell. Can you clarify?

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    1. Sorry, Cindy, that's a mistake! Thanks for catching it. It should read: show, don't tell.

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  16. Spot on, as always, Jacqueline. Really clarifies hooks and their usefulness. And their necessity!

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    1. Without a good beginning, readers never get to the middle or the end of a work.

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  17. Beginnings are so difficult and so crucial. Great advice, as usual. Thanks!

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    1. Hi, Susan,

      Glad you made it today! I do think good beginnings are difficult to develop. That's why I give them a lot of thought.

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  18. As always, a terrific help, Jacquie. Bookmarked and tweeted.
    Here are the first few paragraphs from A Thousand Words, my wip and sequel to Framed:

    “Get yourself up here now, Jenny!” The voice on the phone was breathless and urgent.
    “What’s going on, Ed?”
    A string of muttered curses filled her ear, then, “That son-of-a-bitch Royce is tearing out the floor at the town hall. Get up here before the cops haul him away.”
    Jenny Southbury didn’t even bother to reply. She snatched up her purse and a yellow legal pad and hustled out to her dark red compact sedan, managing the rickety steps from her porch door with a groan for her achy knees.
    Constitution Hall, commonly referred to as the old town hall, sat at the highest point in Linford, New Hampshire, only a mile or two from her antique farmhouse. As Old Red steadily climbed the curving road, Jenny focused on the police radio mounted on her dash. Although she regularly wrote for the local newspapers, she didn’t normally report on accidents or crimes. Her beat was town meetings, local committee reports, and human interest stories. A corner of her mind noted that whatever she was headed for might involve all three.
    The radio was quiet for the moment, emitting only the occasional squawk of static. That meant the first excitement had passed and the responding officers were on the scene, doing what needed to be done. No sirens or flashing lights prompted her to pull over, so she didn’t think she’d run into anything exciting. Still, whenever Quentin Royce was involved, trouble followed.

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    1. Good beginning, Nikki! Thanks for sharing. I'm partial to those that start with interesting dialogue.

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  19. Excellent post, Jacquie. The beginning is like the foundation of the house--must be solid and strong or the reader falls through the floor and disappears!

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  20. Good advice and a good hook, Jacquie. Very generous of you to share this space.
    Here's a very short hook from "Their Little Secret," my short story in the new NY/Tri-State Sisters in Crime anthology, Family Matters:

    It was a Sunday evening in June and a driving rain had kept them in all day, so Cassie’s parents were pretty well lubricated—her mother’s word. Cassie, expert reader of moods and body language, figured they were minutes away from the Sunday night fight.

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    1. Hi, Anita,

      The truth is short stories need a good hook just as much as novels do--maybe even more so. Good beginning!

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  21. Great post, Jacquie! I agree that opening hooks are essential. Here's mine from my new YA novel, AFTER ME.

    When I heard the car doors unlock at the first red light I came to, I knew I’d made a fatal mistake. For a second I thought I’d accidentally hit the button, then I heard the Ferrari’s trunk pop open and looked in the rearview mirror just in time to see a man running around to the passenger side, a black bandana covering the bottom of his face.

    “Drive!” He got in and jammed the nose of a freakishly big pistol into my ribs. “Go to the intersection and make a U-turn. Keep going until you get back to where you picked up the car.”

    If I’d still felt emotions like normal girls, I probably would’ve been scared shitless, but the best I could manage was irritation that he’d tricked me.

    “Look, you don’t need the gun,” I said. “I’ll do whatever you say.”

    “You sure as hell will.”

    Even more than his words, the laugh that came from behind the bandana was the second thing that told me I wouldn’t live to see nineteen. Dang, I’d need my fake ID for all eternity. And it wasn’t even a good picture.

    Buy at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/my2krjf

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    1. An exciting beginning. You've got action and dialogue.

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