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Posts Tagged ‘hooks’

Tricia Sutton wrote an interesting post about opening hooks a few days ago. She wrote down the first sentence out of 10 books, and asked which ones interested her blog readers enough to want to read more of the story. Only 1 caught my interest.

Since my own novel’s opening is causing me problems, I thought I’d copy Tricia’s idea and take a look at some of the first sentences in the genre I’m working in—suspense. I randomly chose 6 of the suspense novels I own, and looked at the first sentence. Here they are:

“I told you this was a great place.” First sentence of the prologue of Killer Dreams, by Iris Johansen

“Embraced by stone, steeped in silence, I sat at the high window as the third day of the week surrendered to the fourth.” First sentence of Chapter 1 of Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz

“The one called the Gavel waited patiently.” First sentence of the prologue of In Silence, by Erica Spindler

“Ten-year-old Liza was dreaming her favorite dream, the one about the day when she was six years old, and she and Daddy were at the beach, in New Jersey, at Spring Lake.” First sentence of the prologue of No Place Like Home, by Mary Higgins Clark

“The cutting edge of a winter storm made the old house sigh and moan as if someone was dying.” First sentence of the prologue of Always Time to Die, by Elizabeth Lowell

“It began when Mary and Brad Johnstone went to the psychic fair and happened upon the tent offering readings.” First sentence of the prologue of Deadly Harvest, by Heather Graham

What I found interesting wasn’t so much the first sentences as the fact that 5 out of 6 used prologues, which I’ve frequently read are not popular. Each of these books was published within the last 5 years, so I don’t think it’s a matter of being outdated. Perhaps prologues just fit the suspense genre better than others.

Getting back to the original topic of opening hooks, I have to admit these didn’t really affect my decision to buy the books. These are authors I’m familiar with already, so a quick perusal of the back cover or jacket flap to see what the story is about would have been enough motivation for me to plunk down my money. I’m more likely to read a few paragraphs before buying a book by an unknown author, but I still wouldn’t judge one by the first sentence.

The point of what I’m saying here is that I think many of us worry too much about our novel opening. What appeals to one person won’t necessarily seem like a great hook to everyone else, and there are other factors that affect someone’s decision to read a book. A great opening line is helpful, but it isn’t going to be enough to keep anyone reading if the rest of the story stinks.

The important thing, in my opinion, is to write the best story we can, with an opening that suggests what’s ahead, followed by sentences that each flow naturally into the next one. Hooking the reader with every sentence will work better than counting on one sentence or paragraph to do the job.

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Do you read the first sentence, the first paragraph, or several paragraphs when deciding whether or not to read a book? If the opening pages of a book you start reading don’t interest you, how likely are you to finish reading the rest of the book? Do books in the genre you read most usually have a prologue? Do you buy books by certain authors without bothering to see what the story is about?

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For those of you who may not have read Agent Nathan Bransford’s blog this week, he’s conducting a First Paragraph Challenge. Anyone can post the first paragraph of their story in the comments section until Thursday, October 15, at 4pm Pacific time. He’ll select the finalists, and readers will vote on the winner. There are 990 entries as of the last time I checked.

I’m not entering as I know he doesn’t represent the type of novel I’m writing. However, reading the entries is an opportunity to see what an agent deals with on a regular basis. It also hit home the importance of a great opening sentence. I started out reading the entire paragraphs, but due to the volume and how repetitious some of the stories sounded, I ended up just reading the first line. If it sounded good, I read further, otherwise I just moved on to the next entry.

In a book store, I love to browse through books, reading the opening, the jacket cover, maybe even random pages. After looking at a few, I pick one and go home. Agents gets so many queries they don’t have the luxury of taking their time and browsing. They make quick decisions based on a few words. As writers, we need to focus on the opening sentence, the first paragraph, and each one after that to keep the agent, and eventually our readers, turning the page.

I’ve posted on the importance of an opening hook before. You may want to look at my post and the links I included for more information on hooks: https://thewritingplace.wordpress.com/2009/05/02/writing-an-opening-hook/

 

Did you post your first paragraph in the Challenge?

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Back in May I wrote about the importance of opening a story with a strong hook .  Today I received a book to review for the Thomas Nelson program that hooked me in the very first sentence of Chapter 1 by grabbing hold of my imagination and refusing to let go. Because the hook was so effective, I’m breezing through this post so I can go read the book: Faces in the Fire, by T. L. Hines.

Here’s the sentence that I found irresistible:  The dead man’s shoes spoke to Kurt long before he wore them.

It may take me a few days to get through the whole book, but you will see my full review within my Book Reviews pages soon. In the meantime, I’ve posted the link to the first chapter in my sidebar. Got to go read now…

 EDIT August 16, 2009: I finished the book and posted my review. (It lived up to the first line, in my opinion.) I’m in the process of getting my kids ready to go back to college, but hope to be back to blogging regularly soon.

What are some of your favorite first lines? Do you ever choose to read a story because the first line caught your interest, or does it take more than that to hook you?

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I’ve seen several posts on forums warning against using prologues. Personally, I don’t mind them as long as they serve a purpose. Since many of the suspense novels I’ve read include them, I decided to analyze what makes a prologue a useful tool rather than a useless appendage.

A good prologue provides information that can’t be included elsewhere as effectively. It shouldn’t turn into an information dump, but it can give essential facts regarding something that occurred in the past. (For more help on back story, click here.) It can even be written in the future, by a character that relates past events in the following chapters.

It can be useful in fantasy or science fiction where the setting is too complex to introduce gradually. Readers might get confused or bored if all the world building occurs within the first few chapters, leaving them wondering what the actual story is about. A short prologue, showing some occurrence that illustrates the setting, society, or other essential element, can clarify what type of world the main story takes place in.

Prologues give the author the chance to start a story at two different points. There may be an event that is separate, but critical to the reader’s understanding of the plot. For example, a murder may have taken place when the main character was a child, but the story itself is about that person as an adult. Or, the prologue may be written from a secondary character’s point of view, with the following chapters told from the protagonist’s viewpoint. Sometimes this is useful to show a villain planning something that will occur later; the characters don’t know about it, but the reader can anticipate what is going to happen and recognize clues throughout the book.

When a prologue is essential to the story, make sure it has a hook of its own and is clearly distinct from the first chapter. Keep it short and interesting. You can leave it open-ended, but it has to have any loose ends tied up somewhere in the novel. If the plot is understandable without a prologue, one should not be used.

Can you think of other times a prologue might be useful? Do you read them, or skip them?

Edit October 22, 2009: I found an interesting post by Agent Nathan Bransford on when to use prologues. Click here for his advice.

Edit February 4, 2010: Agent Kristin Nelson posted about why she doesn’t like prologues today on her blog. Click here to read.

Edit March 23, 2010: Agent Scott Eagan posted today about prologues, especially in romantic suspense (my genre). Definitely not including one in my novel. Click here to read.

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I’m revising the opening chapter of my novel and struggling with whether to begin with a scene that jumps right into the action, or one that gives insights into the plot and the personalities of two of the main characters. I’ve repeatedly read that we have to hook a reader with the opening sentence or paragraph. While I agree with that sentiment, I’m not sure how to apply it to my story.

Readers have different tastes, and though they may like the same genre, they may not be hooked by the same things. I’ve been researching hooks to help me resolve this dilemma and I found some useful tips.

For a hook to be effective, it should do at least one of the following:

1. appeal to the readers’ emotions

2. raise questions about what will happen

3. reveal something that isn’t anticipated

4. indicate that something is about to change

How do we accomplish this? Perhaps by starting the story at the point where a change is taking place. Maybe the main character is facing a major crisis, an unexpected encounter, or a difficult decision. Reveal enough about the situation to make readers curious, and withhold enough to make them read on for the answer to the questions the hook raises.

People want to read about interesting characters doing something interesting, not wade through a boring description or explanation of the back story. If the opening introduces something unique happening, or about to happen, chances are you have an appealing hook. Then you just have to worry about keeping them hooked through the rest of the story…

Here are a couple of sites that offer useful tips on hooks:

http://www.sandrakischuk.com/toolbox/hook.html

http://www.ehow.com/how_4556500_write-hook-fiction.html

 Edit October 25, 2009: Here’s another excellent site I found which explains the importance of an opening hook, and how it must be supported by what happens later in the story: http://www.fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue27/writinghooks.htm

 Edit September 23, 2010: I like the explanation of the difference between using a “cold opening” and “in media res” that I found at http://beingabetterwriter.blogspot.com/2010/09/post-19-building-better-opening.html

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Do you generally like to start a story in the middle of the action, or prefer to get to know the characters a little before jumping into the main conflict?

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