Todd Lockwood Interview – The Summer Dragon
 

Todd Lockwood

Interview – The Summer Dragon

 
Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett
 

Vigilance

Review

 
Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan
 

Waste Tide

Chinese Translation Review

 

Consider the Start of Your Story a.k.a. The Hook and The Arm It’s Attached To

Is the hare really faster than the tortoise? Did the chicken come before the egg? Green means go, red means stop, but yellow means something in the middle – so half a stop, or half a go? What I’m trying to say is that everything starts somewhere. As writers, we have the godly say-so to decide everything about how our stories start.

The Curious Hook by ImaginestoThe most important thing to consider, in my opinion, is that you need to open with a hook. The hook is something that needs to grab the readers’ attention and will them to read on. There are various ways of doing this, from intrigue to conflict.

Take for example, George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones (side note: I’ve yet to actually read the books, but I’ve read the first chapter and seen a bit of the series, so his hook has stayed with me long enough to convince me to read them at first opportunity). The first section that the reader is introduced to is (without going into spoilers) the ‘out of the ordinary’ going’s on in the North. This is the opening hook – delivered in a dynamic scene. It’s a full chapter, and most importantly, it raises a question, a conflict, intrigue…the need to read on.

For a writer, the hook is crucially important to those hoping to pursue traditional publishing. As a general rule, agents request submissions of the first one to five chapters/50 pages/10,000 words depending on the publisher. If you’ve managed to land your manuscript on an agent’s desk, the only way to keep it out of the shredder is by instilling the ‘need to read’.

Your opening has to catch the agent’s eye. An agent is a hunter-killer, not a hunter-gatherer. Its natural habitat is the wild frontiers of the office, roaming the desks and outback of coffee-cup stains. It feeds on the hopes of freshly printed manuscripts, devouring printer ink, sparing only those worthy of passing through its territory. Prey is many, peers in prose are few to the predator. The only way to placate the agent? Lure it into a placid state, inspired by a story, delivered with a strong right hook! Agents have an acquired taste, they know what they’re looking for, and you have to prove that from the get-go.

Eat BooksDon’t info dump at the start. Purple prose is not your friend. Info dumping is a tendency (read: DROP IT!) of writers (particularly fantasy and sci-fi) to fill a character’s/situation’s/world’s backstory in a oner. A huge wall of text that’d send even the Hubble telescope cross-eyed. Without going into too much detail (and thus committing info dumping, myself) think of it like this: You need to feed your reader a starter, but hold off on the main course. Don’t over feed the reader, or they’ll grow bloated and will leave before dessert; but don’t let them starve or they’ll bail early and go for a burger at the nearest fast food chain!

The opening needs to set the tone and the standard of the novel. Your reader has arrived under the pretence of a genre/story/idea that you have pitched, but if you stray from this oath you’ll likely lose them. For example, if your story is pitched as chick-lit, why would it start with the death of the world in some apocalyptic explosion caused by a power hungry maniac, wielding a bouquet of plutonium grown flowers?

Don’t do this! Why?

1. Because it’s my idea and I want to write it now!
2. Because your reader is expecting something of a different vein.
… 3. I smell a bestseller! Move over Mr Mercury, or whatever your name was. I’ll even help you pack up your paddle and ball gag.

Lastly, let’s go back to firstly (chicken or the egg approach – alright I’ll quit it). The sharpest part of any hook is the point, and in this case, the first sentence or the first fifty words or so. No:

The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the grass was green, the bunny rabbit hopped through the wood, and the ruddy ice cream van ran me over whilst the puppy dog farted.

That’s a little odd, and I’ve massively strayed from the point, but it’ll do. As a writer, I favour an opening hook in the form of dialogue, or a character’s inner monologue. Other authors prefer action scenes, or breathtaking scenic ‘visuals’. Here’s but a few first sentences to get you thinking:

Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood pumping in his head. – The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie

On a hot summer’s day like today Flirt liked to fly straight up along the shoreline of the river, huge wings huffing against the wind. – Spirit Gate, Kate Elliot

The wind whipped the flag of the warship swaying at anchor, the stylized ‘M’ wrought in silver thread on a black background proudly proclaiming her the head of Shadowport’s triumphant fleet. – The Grim Company, Luke Scull

The great horn sounded. – The Painted Man / The Warded Man, Peter V. Brett

The magic was breaking free again. – Songs of the Earth, Elspeth Cooper

Forest litter crunched under Evnis’ feet, his breath misting as he whispered a curse. – Malice, John Gwynne

“Are we being followed, father?” – It Began With Ashes, D. E. M. Emrys

Now, to the red light, the egg, but then again maybe the chicken, or the finish line where the hare or the tortoise is waiting. Use your hooks wisely, keep ‘em sharp, but if all else fails resort to nuclear fertilized shrubbery. You’ll have to excuse me now as I’m off to pick me a bouquet of flowers from this glowing patch of dirt – charming little garden mind you. Saw a three eyed dog there the other day.

Title image by Imaginesto.

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2 Comments

  1. I agree strongly that your first sentence must grab and grip, but most importantly, intrigue the reader so he/she will want to carry on…

    “The boy lay in the dirt in the centre of New York’s Kew Park, blood flowing out of both his nostrils, his fine blond hair thrown out in little strands around his head.” (INCEPTIO, Alison Morton) 😉

  2. Avatar J.R. Hall says:

    I just commented about this to the same effect on another post on this site. The hook is crucial in getting readers to turn to the next page. You have to have them buy in early. The first line on the first place, if possible, is the best place to drop the hook and wait for an unsuspecting reader to swim by and take hold.

    The editor is most likely your first reader and they don’t have time to read 40 pages into your submission to see where the story starts. Hook’em fast and take them on a journey.

    This is the first line of my fantasy novel that I am still working on.

    “Reith never saw a dead man before, let alone three.”

    Simple? Yes. But in my biased opinion that first line would make me wonder what is going on and who killed the three men.

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