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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » "The Hook"

   
Author Topic: "The Hook"
jerich100
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When staring a novel, I've heard endlessly about the concept of a "hook", a device that gets the reader hooked sufficiently to read the subsequent 450 pages.

To me, an artificial hook is distasteful and cheap. For example, what if a novel started with, “Joe didn’t want to get out of bed. It was the day of his execution.”

How pasty is that?

Can the first two pages or so just have excellent writing and no artificially inserted hook?

In my novel the main character doesn’t know what’s about to happen for about two pages. I’d rather not start the story at the point of the “conflict” and then backtrack. That sort of thing is contrived, also.

Must there be a trick and not just plain excellence?

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Denevius
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quote:
Must there be a trick and not just plain excellence?
Well, the blunt answer is 'No', there doesn't need to be a trick/hook. But the brutal truth is that most writing isn't excellent. Particularly non-published, non-professionally edited writing. And even a lot of that which is published and is professionally edited is mediocre at best, awful at worst.

Now, about the hook being artificial. Remember, all art is artifice. There's that idea that a certain amount of monkeys and an infinite amount of time will produce a Shakespearian piece. However, as humans, we don't have infinite time to type randomly until we finally hit literary pay dirt. So we craft and tinker, and that what's produced is artificial. All of it, plot, dialog, setting, and hook. It's all cleverly constructed wordcraft to engage readers.

Ultimately, though, you do what feels best for you. And as long as you're *satisfied* with the reactions you get from your readers, then that's what matters most.

My experience, however, is that most writers are not satisfied with their results. But instead of actually making their writing better, they'd prefer to write how they want to write and have readers come around to their way of thinking.

Which, you know, probably isn't going to happen, unless you want to take that chance of being ignored in your lifetime, but maybe herald as genius after you're dead and gone.

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extrinsic
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Audiences for any number of enticements can be "hooked." I don't use the term though. Too many associations with fishing, like bait, hook, line, and sinker. Besides, hook only goes so far in a shorthand label for describing what engaging readers is all about.

I use the term SPICED instead, for Setting, Plot, Idea, Character, Event, and Discourse, any one of which may be emphasized and engaging, though all must develop over the course of a narrative. A witty bit of stable verbal irony can entice me, like the openings of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and William Thackeray Makepeace's Vanity Fair. Narrator commentary, in other words, narrative voice or an attribute of discourse. A particularly potent bit of prosody could do as well, prose that "cuts the eye" and "dances like it's a knife fight," "A wine dark sea" from Homer's Odyssey and Illiad, "It was the best of times . . ." from Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, or "Call me Ishmael." from Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

No trick, yes, just plain excellence, in discourse, event, character, idea, plot, and setting development. Spiced!

By the way, welcome to the rack for hats that cover heads beside the river workshop, jerich100. An excellent method for engaging the workshop complement is to pose thoughtful questions, as you have done herein this thread.

[ January 03, 2014, 09:18 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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History
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There are literally millions of books that are searching for readers. How do you get them to read yours?

Extrinsic is correct that how you do so is not "trickery", it is mastery--a mastery of enticement

If you are a famous/beloved author, your name on the cover alone may do this.

If not, then it may not initially be your writing at all but an eye-catching cover, followed by the book's title, or an intriguing back-cover blurb.

If you have enticed them to then read your opening lines (and if this is a short story, this and your story title is all you have to initially attract them), these lines need continue to draw them in. It is here that Extrinsic's SPICED occurs--and where you will lose potential readers.

If you focus on character alone, some may respond to this, others not; similarly to setting, voice, etc. And some may respond to style and tone. The more you can include, the more you may entice a reader to keep reading.

I do think voice and event are the most powerful generalized "hook". Thus, I believe you will attract more readers initially with: “Joe didn’t want to get out of bed. It was the day of his execution.” than "the main character (and the reader) doesn’t know what’s about to happen for about two pages." unless your back story blurb is a stronger enticement than your opening or your writing skills are excellent and a joy to read.

Be that as it may, if you cannot keep a curiously browsing reader's eyes upon your words, he/she will put it down and pick up another.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by History:

I do think voice and event are the most powerful generalized "hook". Thus, I believe you will attract more readers initially with: “Joe didn’t want to get out of bed. It was the day of his execution.” than "the main character (and the reader) doesn’t know what’s about to happen for about two pages." unless your back story blurb is a stronger enticement than your opening or your writing skills are excellent and a joy to read.

IMO, it's better to write two pages describing Joe's morning routine with execution being the subtext. The guards treat him differently. All of the prisoners are looking at him. He starts to do something in preparation for the next day, then laughs and stops.

It seems to be a feature of humanity that we'd rather figure out on our own that Joe is going to be executed today rather than be told directly.

In those two pages, bring an interesting voice, set a mood, and give us some reason to care about Joe. Then you're on your way to a compelling story.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
It seems to be a feature of humanity that we'd rather figure out on our own that Joe is going to be executed today rather than be told directly.

In those two pages, bring an interesting voice, set a mood, and give us some reason to care about Joe. Then you're on your way to a compelling story.

Writers imply; readers infer: this is implicature. Yeah, in general, no one likes to be told what to do, think, feel, or how to behave. But we are told, all the time, so we don't like it from our recreational reading. Rhetoric, the overarching aspect of creative writing and the reading thereof, is the social science of persuasion.

However, for the spice that variety is, and for an economy of words when "showing," or mimesis (imitation of an illusion of reality), might be burdensome, direct telling may artfully serve. Jake was a knuckle f'er.

On yet another hand, telling (summary--diegesis and explanatory commentary--exigesis) can be showing (mimesis), as showing can be telling. The challenge, not the trick, though that idiom may also serve, is appreciating when which is which and when which is timely, judicious, and artful.

More often than not, though, seamless writing that tolls as if a ticking countdown (voice and event emphasis) will pull readers in and forward. There, the challenge is to deploy excellence of mechanical style: grammar, punctuation, and such, the artful mechanics thereof. Mechanical style, craft, voice, and audience appeal: these are the four corners of rhetoric's persuasion. Persuasion, then, is the ideal--seduction through implicature; where a "hook" might be coercion through force majeur--akin to compulsion from the fatal end of a gun.

[ January 06, 2014, 03:41 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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One thing that might help is to have language which distinguishes between the *effect* of hooking (engaging the reader) and the various mechanisms by which you might achieve this effect. I think writers get led astray by confusing drawing the reader into the story,which is mandatory, with certain specific tricks. What's more, writers *rely* too much on those tricks, asking them to accomplish things no gimmick can possibly do.

Here's a typical anti-pattern I see in MSs. Put the protagonist in mortal peril on page 1, hoping that this will propel the reader through the ten pages of dense exposition that follows. That's a hopeless task. The emphasis on hooking gimmicks gives short shrift to another important aspect of launching a story: making entry into the story as unconsciously effortless as possible.

Reliance on gimmicks to do the work of engaging th reader is like an arms race. You're trying to stand out from all the other writers doing exactly the same thing. The result is, you *don't* stand out.

When confronting a question like this, what I do is turn to my bookshelf. How do the writers I admire open their stories. On my bookshelf, at least, hooking gimmicks are very, very common, but far, far from universal. What is universal is skillful writing.

One of my favorite openings is to Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME. It's almost like a Zen koan. She opens with "It was a dark and stormy night." Is that a hook? Well, let's call it one, but instead of giving us the full Bulwer-Lytton purple prose treatment, she follows it up with a master class in making vivid scene and character painting seem effortless.

L'Engle employs a hooking gimmick, but doesn't rely on it to do the work of catching her fish for her. What matters is how she plays the fish, not the hook itself.

[ January 03, 2014, 11:52 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Denevius
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Most of the critiquing sites I belong to, you choose the story you're going to read. In a way, this puts you in the seat of the agent or publisher going through the slushpile trying to find the most interesting story to read.

Every week, I am literally faced with dozens upon dozens of stories to choose from, and it's a quick glance at the opening that compels me to read further, or skip them. 99% of them I skip because those first lines aren't interesting. I already have books on Kindle to read for pleasure. Pleasure reading isn't why I'm perusing the stories on these sites.

I just don't think it's much different for a real publisher/agent when dealing with the slushpile, which is where all of our stuff is going. I interned at an agency in New York, and I worked on the literary journal for my university in undergraduate. I really do think they're looking for reasons *not* to read.

The place that I interned at housed several agents, and I guess I was a little surprised, but seriously, these were not nice people. They were cynical New York agents competing against each other. I thought interning there would be a much more intriguing experience, but these were some unkind individuals who got submissions from people desperate to be published. I remember an older woman who would just show up randomly with her material, and it was always this hassle getting her out of the office. It was tragic to watch because you could read that same desperation in the tone of people who sent their writing in.

I remember another guy who sent Starbucks gift cards with his submission hoping to get a longer look at his submission. You know what that got that guy? A good laugh.

Look, maybe the hook is artificial. But if you are trying to go a traditional route for being published, and once you're signed and your story is sold, you can go back and *edit* out the hook and write a more "natural" opening. If the publishers like it, then you're good to go.

What you're writing now is *not* the last draft. Once you're signed, you may have more power to tweak the opening in a more authentic way. But the purpose of it now is to get past the slushpile, and the gatekeepers do not care about you as a person. They don't know you, they don't want to know you. They get hundreds of submissions, they have a business they're trying to run, they have bills they're trying to pay, and the people behind the submissions are unimportant to them. It's the words that matter, and those words need to reel them in as fast as possible in the second or two you *may* have their divided attention.

If you're trying to self-publish, feel free to do whatever you want with your writing, as long as you're satisfied with the goals you've reached. If you want to sell a thousand books a year, and you sell two thousand, then you're doing something right. But if you want to sell a thousand books a year, and you only sell a hundred, then maybe there's something wrong with the writing, not the readers.

And if you want to publish traditionally, and you keep getting rejected, then you might want to try something different with your writing.

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MAP
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I think the best advice is to read books in the same genre as the one you are writing and see what kind of beginning hooks you.

Different readers are hooked by different things. A mystery needs a different beginning than a romance or a Fantasy novel. It is important to write a compelling opening, but also important to make the right promises to the readers.

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wetwilly
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"Here's a typical anti-pattern I see in MSs. Put the protagonist in mortal peril on page 1, hoping that this will propel the reader through the ten pages of dense exposition that follows."

The "oh no, some people you don't know or give a crap about are in danger of dying!" opening. Like MattLeo, I am really not a fan of those. I know they're going for exciting right off the bat, but it turns out being very boring to me, because I don't know who these people are or why they're running around kicking each other, and I don't care.

So what DOES hook you at the beginning of a story? Give me a really arresting visual (an 'eyeball kick' as the cyberpunk writers called it) and a character with an interesting voice, and I am guaranteed to keep reading.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by wetwilly:

So what DOES hook you at the beginning of a story? Give me a really arresting visual (an 'eyeball kick' as the cyberpunk writers called it) and a character with an interesting voice, and I am guaranteed to keep reading.

Except that's no guarantee, either. It immediately makes me think of PARANORMALCY and the other two books in that series. It was the character's voice that propelled me through that first book, even though, frankly, I found the plot to be poorly constructed. The voice failed in the next two books and the plots were even looser. Ultimately I'm not interested in reading anything more by this author. So, selling me just on an interesting premise or visual and a great voice may not be the way to keep me as a reader.

Now, what comes to my mind is the opening of one of Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy novels. Three of them that I can think of immediately start with a character walking down the road (THE CURSE OF CHALION, PALLADIN OF SOULS, and BEGUILEMENT). About as low-action as you can get. But read the first page or two of THE CURSE OF CHALION and you'll see a deftly constructed mystery (a very small one and not even close to the main storyline of the book). The subtle clues that Caz is not what he appears to be are what moved me forward in the beginning of that book. It's the first one of Bujold's I read and I've gone on to read just about everything she's ever written.

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wetwilly
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The visual and the voice are not enough to get me through a whole book, but they'll get me through the first few pages and invite me into the story. Except in the case of Dean Koontz's "Odd Thomas," in which the fun voice got me all the way through like 3 books.
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MAP
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I think this illustrates how different readers are hooked by different things because voice alone would never hook me. Something interesting has to be happening.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:
I think this illustrates how different readers are hooked by different things because voice alone would never hook me. Something interesting has to be happening.

I don't think you can cleanly separate writer's voice from "interesting things happening". Two writers can write an identical scene, and the results may well be dull in one case and interesting in the other.

"Something interesting happening" is an effect that is consciously experienced by the reader. The writer's voice usually operates at a below-conscious level for the reader. There are exceptions of course: writers who beat you over the head with their style, and readers who are uncommonly self-aware. But by in large if you can stick with a whole novel, the writer must be doing something right other than setting up a clever situation. If only it were that simple.

I like to extend the fishing metaphor of "hooking" a reader this way: the design of the hook matters somewhat, but not nearly as much as how the fisherman plays the fish.

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extrinsic
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This fish won't be played, though this fish will play with the hook, and I expect in the end played nonetheless. I can separate my delight in persuasive engagement from persuasive change of mind. William Thackeray Makepeace's narrator for Vanity Fair is a high brow snob who holds to the old school ideal of pretermination over free will. I can enjoy the narrative without becoming a high brow snob.

The implied writer of the novel, likewise, holds a different attitude than mine, than Makepeace's, than the narrator's. Irony wrapped in irony and in all a stable ambiguity extends across the whole. Poetic justice that tangibly says high born nobles are intrinsically good, low born persons are intrinsically bad and, hence, rewarded or punished respectively. Yet the extended irony makes fun of class stratification and struggles, toying with poetic justice.

Yet another layer of extended irony develops the ambiguity that station of birth makes no difference for a person's nobleness or wickedness. Only noble social values, norms, and mores sincerely conducted for a greater, more cooperative good make a difference. Exquisite!

Ironic voice from narrator commentary and mediation, development of ironic dramatic action--events, and a message given ironically--persuasively. Distinguishable but indivisible use of artful SPICED features. Narrator voice as character, for example, as a "natural object," that of a high brow snob apropos of the situation, era, and place, more importantly, the narrative's intent and meaning; characters' voices expressing high brow or low brow snobbery; events that when organized develop plot; settings too as characters dramatically influencing events and characters; idea and theme as characters, that of the intractions of class stations and social climbing and falling. Distinguishing a discrete SPICED feature from others leads down a rabbit hole, but comes out with an appreciation that any one overlaps with others, though one may predominate.

Vanity Fair has fallen from its once upon a time popular acclaim. The novel has taken a beating over the centuries from critics who fail to appreciate its finer distinctions. The voice is the traditional one, one that's largely deprecated today, of an omniscient god-like narrator, passing judgment, accessing any and all thoughts of the moment, place, and situation, lending consciousness to inanimate, nonthinking objects and settings, and anywhere and anywhen. The high brow voice is not to many contemporary readers or writers' sensibilities and tastes; however, as a model of its voice type it is worth studying for how that voice once was popularly and critically acclaimed and how to avoid it for contemporary audiences and for developing a capacity to distinguish narrator voice from character voices, and vice versa, and numerous methods for how to step through transitions between one voice or another, if that voice's methods are desired. Yet, the voice all in all makes fun of itself. Irony of ironies to use irony to make fun of irony!? Therein entertaining in ambiguity lies.

[ January 04, 2014, 04:11 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

The voice is the traditional one, one that's largely deprecated today, of an omniscient god-like narrator, passing judgment, accessing any and all thoughts of the moment, place, and situation, lending consciousness to inanimate, nonthinking objects and settings, and anywhere and anywhen.

I'm currently re-reading TOM SAWYER, which proves that unfashionable narration doesn't necessarily equate to an inaccessible story. Twain freely head hops when it suits his purposes, but it works because of the delightful thrill of recognition we have when we're in Tom or Aunt Polly's head.

This leads me to wonder whether the problem with head hopping is the POV shift per se, or whether it's the lesser writers' clumsy information management skills. The awkward writer puts you in a different character's head, not because that's a rewarding place to be, but he lacks the skills to convey a character's reaction without transcribing his thoughts.

The problem with every "rule of thumb" is that you can find counter-examples where somebody broke the rule and got away with it. It's what makes the game interesting, in my opinion.

So when somebody says, "you have to hook the reader," if they mean you have to produce the *result* of reader engagement, that's always true. If they mean you have to do any particular *thing* into a story opening, that's at best sometimes true.

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MAP
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
quote:
Originally posted by MAP:
I think this illustrates how different readers are hooked by different things because voice alone would never hook me. Something interesting has to be happening.

I don't think you can cleanly separate writer's voice from "interesting things happening". Two writers can write an identical scene, and the results may well be dull in one case and interesting in the other.

"Something interesting happening" is an effect that is consciously experienced by the reader. The writer's voice usually operates at a below-conscious level for the reader. There are exceptions of course: writers who beat you over the head with their style, and readers who are uncommonly self-aware. But by in large if you can stick with a whole novel, the writer must be doing something right other than setting up a clever situation. If only it were that simple.

I like to extend the fishing metaphor of "hooking" a reader this way: the design of the hook matters somewhat, but not nearly as much as how the fisherman plays the fish.

I disagree. I'm talking about what hooks me specifically, not people in general. There are plenty of books that have great voices that I won't make it past a paragraph because what is happening isn't interesting to me. While I really like the voice, the story is moving to slow or in a direction that isn't interesting to me specifically. Also there are books whose voice and style don't appeal to me at all (in fact are jarring at first), but the story is interesting enough that I keep reading anyway. After a while, I get used to the voice, but in the beginning. I hate it.

So yeah, they can be separated, and interesting story trumps voice every time in my book. But this is my personal opinion. Of course not everyone agrees.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
This leads me to wonder whether the problem with head hopping is the POV shift per se, or whether it's the lesser writers' clumsy information management skills. The awkward writer puts you in a different character's head, not because that's a rewarding place to be, but he lacks the skills to convey a character's reaction without transcribing his thoughts.

I think you've touched the gist of the matter: "lesser writers' clumsy information management skills."

I know this as principally a matter of craft, in terms of organization and content, though also a matter overlapping with narrative voice. Other SPICED features are also in play and overlap, setting, for example--narrator mediated or baldly portrayed? She watched the branches sway in a stiff breeze. Or A stiff gust swayed the elm's branches. Or closer narrative distance? The elm's new limbs waved godspeed, so long, goodbye, and thanks for all the squirrel corpses.

In terms of organization, transitions between one voice and another are in my estimation underrealized for struggling writers' craft. Unsettled voice is one of many culprits, mechanical style glitches another, which both the former and latter overlook the delicacies of syntax at clause, sentence, and paragraph tiers. The very elegant and simple paragraph break signaling a voice switch, for example, is underutilized.

Paragraph syntax is a thoroughly covered topic in grammar handbooks. A first principle is if a change takes place, like change in the main idea, change in direction of thought, change of speaker, change of setting's time, place, or situation, etc., a paragraph break is indicated.

Jump transitions, called jump cuts or matching cuts in filmmaking are another example of underutilized potent transition signals. Simply a blank line signals a jump transition. A line marked with a nonce character, like three asterisks, is a stronger transition signal. Section break, subchapter, chapter, book, etc., breaks signal increasingly stronger yet transitions. For that matter, clauses and sentences themselves signal breaks and may be utilized for signaling transitions, right on down to word-level breaks.

And another transition type is a stepped transition into and out of signaling change in circumstances.

Enticing readers may begin with in most writers' estimations engaging readers on one or another or more SPICED feature. Another intervening characteristic comes beforehand: overcoming readers' general, natural resistance to a narrative's artificial reality construction, general resistance to reading in the first place. Willing suspension of disbelief is part of that process on readers' part. Not jeapordizing it is a writer's part. As readers, we code switch in order to involve ourselves into a narrative's illusion of reality. We consciously or nonconsciously ask if this narrative will be worth the effort. When code switching and following through reading is as effortless as practical, most of reader resistance is overcome.

[ January 04, 2014, 10:12 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Pyre Dynasty
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The beginning should accomplish three things.

1. Tell us who the story is about.
2. Tell us where the story is taking place.
and the most important one:
3. Give us a reason to care.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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And that third one is the one that matters to me the most. If I can't find a reason to care, I just won't keep reading, no matter what else there is to attract my interest.

Too many books, so little time.

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InarticulateBabbler
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In the opening of a story, I want a character I can care about, to know an approximation of when the story is taking place, and an idea of what the genre is. I used to worry about getting everything I could into openings, now, I only care about the character, milieu and the language (as it's appropriate to the genre or period). For me, character is number one. A unique voice will carry me for a while, but if I don't feel the presence of conflict within a few pages, I'll get bored. I don't care how someone does dishes or laundry, unless there is tension.
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InarticulateBabbler
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Brandon Sanderson accomplished quite a bit with the first sentence of Chapter One of Elantris:

quote:

Prince Raoden of Aleron awoke early in the morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.


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Denevius
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Sometimes when you criticize something someone likes, they take it as a criticism of themselves, which I don't mean, but...

quote:
Prince Raoden of Aleron awoke early in the morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.
Am I the only one who thinks this is an awful sentence? First, beginning with that name. Yeah, I guess some may say I'm hypocritical with that one, except Raoden of Aleron just sounds like on those bad fantasy names, and my characters are genuine Korean names of actual living people. They just so happen to be foreign.

But let's say there's some Celtic origins to that name, as it sounds a bit Irish (really, a bit Tolkienian). Still, that sentence has that huge adverb in it blinking like a neon sign. 'Completely'. And that adverb perfectly captures the flaw of this first sentence: it conveys so very little to readers.

Damned how? For all eternity? Exactly how long is that? We can only assume that in the world of the story, the narrative doesn't mean that this figure, from this point on until time ends in this universe, is now whatever is meant by 'damned'. That just seems a bit absurd.

But the problem with this sentence is that it's so over-the-top and melodramatic. It sounds like something a teenager full of angst wearing all black listening to The Cure (or whatever depressed teens listen to these days) writing in their diary writes: "I'm damned for all eternity". And they mean every vague word of it because for them, being older than a teen seems forever away, and their limited perspective of the real world means they don't have a proper perspective of what real life suffering is for so many people all over the world.

So they write a sentence that means nothing. They're damned for all eternity. But then if you sit down and ask them why, you quickly realize that 'damned' is because their best friend may have stabbed them in the back, and 'all eternity' is all of six months, as that's as far as they can see ahead.

I think what bothers me most about sentences like this is why? Why was this successful? When an agent or publisher first opened this book and read this first sentence, what captured them? What made them think, "Now this is going to be a good story!"

There doesn't seem to be anything of substance here, and yet it worked.

I looked up on Wikipedia to get a bit of backstory on this, and saw this: (I haven't read this book, so I'm not sure if this is a SPOILER, but if so, stop here) "Raoden, the prince of Arelon, is transformed into an Elantrian at the beginning of the book. Elantrians look different than before the transformation, and cannot die or be killed (except by drastic measures, such as burning or beheading)"

So as we see, it's not even eternity. He can be killed, which means that whatever 'damned' is doesn't fit the definition of forever from that point on.

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RyanB
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http://www.writingexcuses.com/2008/03/02/writing-excuses-episode-4-beginnings/

if you want to hear Brandon talk about that sentence. I can't remember anything he said about it. (There's also a possibility that isn't the right episode.) But I do remember that sentence.

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JBShearer
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I think the problem is that some writers overthink everything. Readers will normally give you a break if there's an awkward sentence or seven.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Pyre Dynasty:
The beginning should accomplish three things.

1. Tell us who the story is about.
2. Tell us where the story is taking place.
and the most important one:
3. Give us a reason to care.

More simply, give us a reason to be interested.

Don't be boring.

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