As an author and a publisher, I have seen some bad openings to novels and short stories alike. Most new authors seem to think that they must tell you every detail of background that pertains to the story at the beginning. When an author dares to start his/her story with backstory the reader yawns and thinks to himself, Do I have to read all this? When will the story start? Most of the time they never get past those first five or six pages.
When (in 2001) my co-author, R.R. Draude and I had trouble getting anyone to take our first book seriously, we fell into an opportunity of having a book doctor, William Greenleaf, evaluate our work. His first comment, after complimenting out story and character development, was to tell us to throw away the first three chapters of our book because they were all backstory.
After I picked myself up off the floor, he handed us a twenty-eight page evaluation of the book. We told him there were key plot points in those first chapters. He said that we should go through the chapters and underline all the portions that were necessary for the plot of the story. We should then incorporate those plot points into the story throughout the book. We went away with his suggestions and rewrote our book.
Through this experience and through talking with agents and other publishers at writer’s conferences over the years I came up with the following handout – Evaluating My Hook.
Jo A. Wilkins, CEO and Director of Acquisitions at Mystic Publishers, Inc.
Evaluating My Hook
Does your story start in the right place? Do you hook the reader for the genre you write?
If you contrive an opening meant to grab the reader, but it does not stay true to the genre of your story, you must start again. Avoid backstory at the opening of your book; it brings a yawn, not curiosity, to the readers mind.
The correct hook for any story must fulfill the following requirements:
- Openings must grab the reader and draw them into your story.
- Start at a life-changing moment for your main character.
- A detective in a mystery may stumble on the body of his client in a mystery.
- A woman may throw a vase of Roses from the wrong man across the room in a love story.
- It must introduce the main character as someone the reader will like, sympathize with, and/or care about.
- Set your story from a fixed POV character.
- A frightened young woman walking up to a castle and her new job as a governess.
- Who is she?
- How does she feel about this new job?
- Why has she taken this job?
- A man, running for his life from his killer or the person who wants to take his family from him.
- Who is he?
- Why is the antagonist chasing him?
- What will he do about it?
- You must let the reader feel the mood of the chapter.
- Every opening chapter must set a mood for the rest of the story.
- The opening battle in space that starts Star Wars.
- The creepy house rising from the fog in Fall of the House of Ushers.
iii. A confused young boy pretending to be asleep, listening to his mother discuss his situation with her mentor in Dune.
- This is the time for the author to set his voice for the reader.
- Be true to the story you want to tell, and how you want to tell it.
- Your opening must set the place where your story takes place.
- Help your readers envision the surroundings.
- Remember that your setting should be equal in importance to your characters.
- What would Gone With The Wind be without Tata or Atlanta?
- Stay true to your genre.
- Don’t start a science fiction story with a love scene.
- Introduce the story with the appropriate action that defines the type of story the readers will find surrounding your plot.
- Satisfy your readers.
- Your ending is just as important as your beginning.
- Know your ending before you begin.
- You can’t hit a target if you can’t see it.
iii. Are you planning a linear or circular ending?
Writing a novel is not much different that journalism. Remember to set-up for the reader the Who of your story, the What he is doing, the When it takes place, the Where it takes place, the Why it happened and Why they should care. It all has an impact. If you forget any one of these key ingredients, your reader may not go past the first page of your story.