Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Hook and a Promise

Don’t you read at least the first paragraph before you decide on a book? The beginning of story lays down the promise for the rest of story and the author has to live by the rules she or he sets. I hate it when the opening of a book promises humor and delivers tragedy, or the opposite. I often chose my next read by my mood. Sometimes I want drama, sometimes light humor—whatever, the opening paragraphs guide my selection. If the book turns out to be something else, it’s a disappointment. So, writers, be careful to open with the right tone. 
The beginning of your story should do at least three things: get your story going and set the tone; introduce and characterize the protagonist; and above all, engage the reader's interest!

The opening scene can also create mood, introduce the narrator or narrative voice, introduce other characters (one or two, possibly even three, but too many is just confusing and dilutes interest in the main characters), the setting, time, and so on.

For example, volcanic openings—those with high drama—promise that the rest of the story will leave you breathless too.  It’s difficult to deliver on a promise like that.  Think about it. You may want to be a little more subtle in the opening, make a little less noise at the outset.  If it leads to melodrama later on, so be it.

Jennifer Crusie promises wit, romance, and a fun read in Fast Women.  It’s all there in the opening, and she keeps it going until the very end.
The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.

Gwen Hunter opens Delayed Diagnosis with an ominous tone, and she delivered!
I had never been a coward, but it took all the courage I ever had to walk in to Marisa’s room. She was just sitting there, slightly slumped, her face and form in silhouette, framed by the window and rising sun. Unmoving. A mannequin in shadow.

I thought both of these books opened with a terrific hook and a promise. I’m sure you have examples of your own openings or other books with good openings. Share some! We all learn from seeing them.


Peg Brantley said...

If the author is unknown to me, I'll check out the cover. Covers begin the promise, I think. Lime green and pink cartoon drawings are not going to give me a taut suspense novel.

If the cover is what I'm looking for, I'll check out the plot from the blurb on the back. Is it intriguing? Well written? Are there any blurbs from authors I've read?

But the final test is the opening paragraph.

One of my favorites (not a suspense) is A MAN IN FULL by Tom Wolfe:

"Charlie Croker, astride his favorite Tennesse walking horse, pulled his shoulders back to make sure he was erect in the saddle and took a deep breath . . . Ahhh, that was the ticket . . . He loved the way his mighty chest rose and fell beneath his khaki shirt and imagined that everyone in the hunting party noticed how powerfully built he was."

From A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART by Timothy Hallinan:

"For the thousandth time in twelve weeks, the blue of the tsunami rises up—now safely contained behind the glass screen—and breaks to pieces on the trunks of the palms. At this point, as everyone in the world who has a television knows, the horizon tilts to a forty-five-degree angle."

Promises? You bet. Promises beyond either the covers or the titles or the flap copy.

E. B. Davis said...

That's the very issue I'm pondering now. My book has mutliple voices and one must speak. I know which character has to speak because of the chronology of the action. Is he representative? He's only one third of the equation. Setting the tone is harder. The trick is to establish voice, at least for that one character, and set up an intriguing situation that captures the reader's interest.

VR Barkowski said...

I don't care for action opens, which are the current trend. I prefer mood and character. Three of my favorites:

"I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it." - DARK PLACES, Gillian Flynn.

"There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them." - A FIELD OF DARKNESS, Cornelia Read.

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." -LOLITA, Vladimir Nabokov.

Ellis Vidler said...

I look at the same things. The cover does suggest the tone, and one hopes the back blurb is reasonably accurate (not always though--I think sometimes the marketing department writes them with a somewhat different goal in mind). I love those openings. I have A Nail through the Heart now. Thanks for the recommendation, Peg.

Finding/showing your voice that quickly is tough, Elaine. Mine is (I prefer to think) subtle. I go back to my openings and rewrite them at least 100 times.

I like to see something happening, something that indicates change or a problem, but not necessarily a big dramatic event or a murder. Lolita is one of the best, no matter what. It shows tone, problem--everything. What a promise! It's unforgettable. Wish I could do that!


Peg Brantley said...

WOW, I totally love those openings, VR Barkowski! Making note of those books and authors, although I think I tried to find Gillian Flynn before without success . . .

And, the 'barker' part of Barkowski is too cute.

Peg Brantley said...

WOW, I totally love those openings, VR Barkowski! Making note of those books and authors, although I think I tried to find Gillian Flynn before without success . . .

And, the 'barker' part of Barkowski is too cute.

Polly said...

I'm with Ellis. I rewrite my openings a hundred times. I don't like openings that try too hard. I can see the writer is trying to come up with a killer opening line, and that doesn't work for me. One of Viva's hits me that way. I won't say which one. :-)