Monday, February 21, 2011

Unhooked. Writing an Inviting Novel Opening.

Marian! You are the winner of a signed, and personalized copy of Talking to the Dead! Please contact me at our email (click the "contact us" button above) with your mailing address - and who you would like me to make it out to, and I'll get your book to you right away!

It’s simple semantics. But it’s not just semantics. I’m referring to my reluctance to use the term ‘hook’ when discussion the opening lines of a novel. I’ve no quibble with the concept of the need to offer the reader something grand off the top that keeps them reading. But ‘hook’? If I recall, it ends badly for the fish.

I prefer ‘invite’.

Semantics, right? Perhaps. But may I suggest there’s more at work here? Come read over my shoulder, and I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Scattered on my desk you’ll notice heaps of papers. Some from my computer printer, others bound in a book and given a nice cover with the author’s name on it. Let’s start with the computer paper. Contest entries, writers asking for my thoughts on their work, novels I’ve read for various reasons that have not found their way to publication. They represent hours of work and a great deal of soul searching. I approach them with respect. They weigh as much as a human heart. Still, look here how the writers try to ‘hook’ me with their opening lines.

One has decided to drop the reader into the middle of an ongoing argument between two characters. Yelling, tears, accusations – throwing of various objects. Dramatic stuff, to be sure. But does it belong at the beginning of a novel? 99% of the time, no (there are always exceptions to prove the rule). The problem with starting with an argument is the reader has no idea who the characters are. Even if every other logistical aspect of the scene can be dealt with, explained, and presented with a red ribbon – the heart of the problem with this hook beginning is the reader has no emotional connection with the characters. What would you do if you walked into someone’s house and found the couple that lives there arguing? Yay. Me too.

Here’s another manuscript that attempts to hook the reader. This time the author chooses to drop the reader into a character’s dream (or nightmare). Some interesting things happen and then an alarm clock rings and the reader needs to start all over again getting the feel of the REAL story, and the REAL character, and the REAL story world. Annoying. But the biggest problem with starting with a dream or nightmare is that it is very difficult to ground the reader in the setting, plot, and characters of the story. Vague. Symbolic. Perhaps interesting. But not at the front of the novel.

Here’s a novel that begins with a terrible car accident. Lots of twisted metal and shattering glass. Messy. This opening works fine if this novel falls into the mystery genre – a well-written car crash could be just the thing to get mystery readers off and running. But this isn’t a mystery novel (and this isn’t a blog about mystery novels), and that makes the choice to open with an accident risky. I’d say an 85% chance of not being able to make this work. If I pick up a novel and read of glass cutting into people’s skulls, and blood everywhere, I’m going to recheck the back cover to see if I’m reading the literary effort I thought I was reading. There IS a chance you could make this work if you back up the story to the hours, or even minutes before the accident happens and give us a fantastic intro to character and storyworld.

These are three examples of writing that attempts the letter of the law of ‘hook’, but misses the spirit. There are other examples we could look at, but lets move over to some of these books I have here and peek into a few of these.

As we read these, keep in mind those two words mentioned above: character and storyworld.

Here’s some favorites of mine:

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.” (Opening lines of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.)

The exquisite beginning is a wonder of character (an old man and a young child), their relationship (isn’t it interesting that Marilynne Robinson choose to reveal the emotional relationship between the characters before she revealed their biological relationship?), and the story world – the pages of the old man’s journal which comprise the entire novel. Simple, deep. Perfect.

“Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Other’s figured it might be the perfect city joke – stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like wating for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag.” (Opening lines to Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin)

McCann’s opening is the textbook of creating storyworld in the first words. There’s no doubt where we are – Where but New York? And even though we don’t know exactly what is happening, we find ourselves on West Street looking upward into the New York sky and thinking, Yeah, I see it too. He doesn’t just hook us – he places us in the middle of what is happening. He turns us all into New Yorkers. Spot on.

“Afterward I lived in Paris, in the same apartment where I had painted the Brooklyn Crucifixion. I married Devorah, and we moved to the Rue des Rosiers. Some years later, Devorah gave birth to a girl, and we named her Rochel, after Devorah’s mother, of blessed memory, who was taken away in the July 1942 roundup of French Jews. We called her Rocheleh, beloved little Rochel.” (Opening lines of Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev)

Chaim Potok has a way of wringing every drop of significance out of ordinary words. Here he simply speaks to the reader (in a manner of fashion), saying, “Look there’s a book before this one – you might know it. If not, we can simply catch up a bit now. We’re all in this together. We’re friends. Or we will be.” Straightforward, yes. But when he tells us of Devorah’s mother and the name Rocheleh we are pulled into a family of love and terrible loss – even if the author doesn’t say so.

“The mark burns upon him all the time now. Its hurt is open and shameful like a scab picked until it bleeds. In years past he could find ways to forget it or at least misplace his awareness for a while; it was never easy but he managed. These days he cannot. There is nothing to fill Cain’s time so the mark does this for him.” (Opening lines to David Maine’s Fallen)

Tell me you’re not sitting there picturing the mark. I am. What shape? An image? He’s old, something very few people on earth had experienced at that time. What does one do when one ages, anyway? Anyone familiar with the biblical story of creation (hello Western Hemisphere), is drawn into the myth, the theology, the story of Cain. But not the expected. Here he's not the passionate youth who took his brother’s life. Old. Useless. At ends. A whole new way of looking at Cain – and a wholly effective way of inviting the reader into character and storyworld.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using the work hook to describe the author’s intent for the opening of a novel. But I’ll continue to use the word ‘invite’ when thinking about how to open my novels. My hope is to invite the reader into the storyworld and into the community of character.

How about you? Do you hook ‘em? Invite them? Set the scene? How do you talk about the opening of a novel? Any favs you’d like to share?


Sandra Stiles said...

I struggle with the so called "hook". In the book I am finishing up I realized having my character wake where I was describing the day was not enough even though it set the atmosphere for the day. Since it is a 9/11 book I had to take a step back and make the terrorist who flew one of the planes seem as if he was a normal businessman as everyone picture him before the act. It was what made that day unbelievable the fact that someone like us did something so terrible. We'll soon find out if it worked out for me.

BK said...

You know, the first thing that struck me when reading this post is that in the first 3 examples you gave, those writers were writing EXACTLY the way writers are taught by virtually every blog post and writing authority in the business---start in the middle of the action.

So it is absolutely no surprise to me they chose to open their stories that way. The general advice given about writing a novel seems to be framed around "RUSH!" Hurry and deliver the dead body! Hurry and deliver the trauma! EGADS there's no time to waste! The reader can't pay attention for more than 2 seconds!!!!

It feels we are asked to write in an inattentive way, to cater to inattentive readers. As a consequence, the "getting to know you" is lost.

Please don't get me wrong--I am so very thankful for the TONS of things I have learned by studying the craft online and in craft books. And ultimately, the writer has to craft the story that works. But listening to writing authorities comes with an odd backlash too. Sooner or later those rules start to sound like legal demands, and the writer's own good instincts are drowned out by demands to heed the commandments of writing.

I'm simply saying it is no wonder that writers start off like the examples given.

Dina Sleiman said...

Here's my favorite that I always reread before starting my novels. It's from The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds:

"I've spent a lot of time weaving, but you'd never know it by my hands. With threads, hair, and twisted fabric, I weave in fragments of myself, bits of other people. I weave in lies, and I weave in love, and in the end, it's hard to know if one keep me warmer than the other."

I just have to say this blog brings me much comfort. Everytime I try to go with an evocative, poetic opening like the ones you've given here, I've gotten a mix of ecstatic and completely confused reactions.

At this point, my strategy is to start with something poetic and beautiful in a brief prologue, then open the story in chapter 1 with something that will place the reader right in the head of the main character and introduce their inner conflict.

Would loooovvve to read your book. dinasleiman at gmail dot com.

Ruth Carter said...

Good things to consider there! I tend to go for the dramatic, which often ends up more melodramatic, so it's a good check. Here are a few first lines I've culled:

I seemed to be standing in a bus queue by the side of a long, mean street.
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage.
Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

It was a pleasure to burn.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstory

Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity— Good.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

It was a dark and stormy night.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

On May 7, 1931, New York City witnessed the most sensational man-hunt the old town had ever known.
How to Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

“Carmen won’t last more than a couple of days.”
The White Silence by Jack London

Don't bother considering me for the prize, though. I've already got an autographed copy of your book, and it was a good read. It gives what you write here more depth and authority. Thanks, Bonnie. Now to the word verification!

Joyce E. Rempel said...

I have no desire to write a novel, but I also have little desire to read them. So, I read your post with interest, asking what it was about the novels I have opened and shut again, after reading the opening paragraph, what was it that made me put them down.

I am searching for beauty. Even if it is the tragic end of beauty, like the first chapter of The Horse Whisperer: "There was death at its beginning as there would be death again at its end." With that ominous warning, he continues to develop a most interesting identification between the reader and the young girl so that you are completely traumatized by the time the accident happens.

Yet I saw the beauty of both the girl, her friendship and her horse which compelled me to read on past the ominous first line, into the character and through the trauma and to the end of the book because I had to know how it turned out.

I'd like to experience your invitation and have the privilege of reading your book. I don't read many novels, so this is a high compliment from me to you.

Marian said...

I come to this blog to learn and I learned a lot today. Thanks Bonnie for showing me my dead fish.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post, Bonnie! Where to begin, where to begin? That's a difficult question to answer. Your examples of where not to begin and why are very helpful. And your examples of how beginnings are done right, are beautiful. BTW, Chaim Potok has been one of my favorite authors since a friend introduced me to My Name is Asher Lev 25 years ago.

BK,a "writer's own good instinct" is one of the most valuable tools he or she has. You're right, the "rules" can seem like demands, and they can also be conflicting. So the writer's own good instincts can't be underrated.

You're also right that there's a fear that if a reader isn't "hooked" or "invited in" within the first 2 paragraphs then we have no chance of holding them. But I, for one, love to step into a storyworld, look around and get my bearings, then take a seat and turn my attention to the narrator. I don't mind him lulling me for just a little while if it takes me deper into the story world. Then, once the action begins, I feel I have a stake in the story. That's how I like stories to begin.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

You know, when a novelist read my novel she said "there's no hook here". But that isn't all that helpful. Show don't tell. Show me why it isn't a good invitation to the reader!

Thank you for showing me better options for inviting my readers to enter my novel. Seriously, right now there are about 1 million ideas swimming in my head.

Steinbeck's opening to The Grapes of Wrath are music to me...

"To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."


Also, John Irving's A Pray For Owen Meany...

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

Long sentence, but packed with foreshadowing and wonder and invitation.

Suzanne S. said...

I've been a technical editor and writer for more than 20 years; however, I really can't say I'm qualified to comment on your article. But I will anyway. Melville's "Call me Ishmael" is my favorite "hook," or should I say, "catch" line. Ouch! Toni Morrison's "Paradise" comes in second with, "They shoot the white girl first." And if Dickens had left it at, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," this hook would have been my all-time favorite. Thanks for the article. Call me Suzanne.

Bonnie Grove said...

Sandra: That start and stop process of writing a book's beginning is truly art meeting skill, isn't it? I'm always happy to hear that I'm not the only one who has to make several stabs at the opening paragraphs before I reach something that works. Thanks for your comment! you're entered to win a copy of Talking to the Dead.

BK: I had no idea that these examples were what is being taught "out there", but it makes sense that it is what's being taught - given how much of it I've seen. Maybe I'm crazy, out to lunch, utterly mistaken.
I understand what you mean when you say ". . . listening to writing authorities comes with an odd backlash . . . sooner or later those rules start to sound like legal demands. . ."
The "How to write" industry has really taken off in the past number of years, and there is all kinds of seemingly contradictory advice out there. The advice you read on Novel Matters almost exclusively is for non-genre writers - those writing in the literary world, and in that sweet spot (as Amy Einhorn calls it) between commercial and literary. If someone is writing action thrillers - they may enjoy the company around Novel Matters, but they will learn more about how to structure their work by reading a blog that writes about action thriller novels.
There is overlap between genre and non-genre writing, to be certain, but there is enough differences that the student of writing needs to ensure he or she pays closest attention to the writers who write similar types of novels as he does.

Bonnie Grove said...

Dina: Thank you for sharing those opening lines fromThe Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds. It's a great example of invitation - a first person POV opening on something as intimate as the shape of one's own hands. Lovely.
As for the prologue idea you have, it could work very well - but keep in mind that prologue has a specific literary purpose and function that has to do with stretched time lines, or information critical to the novel but that can in no way be included in the novel's structure or time line.
All the best to you with your novel! You're also entered in the draw.

Oh, I forgot to say in my last response: BK, your name is in the draw!

Ruth: Thank you for all those opening lines! And for your very kind words. You've blessed my day.

Joyce: Thank you for sharing the opening to The Horse Whisperer. I haven't read it, but I'm sure you've stirred many of us here to pick up a copy. Well done. You're entered into the draw. I'm highly complimented and honored, Joyce. Thank you.

Bonnie Grove said...

Marian: I'm honored that you've learned something from me. You're entered into the draw!

Susie: I'm happy to hear you're inspired to make some changes to the opening of you novel. It's why I like the work invite, rather than hook. Because the opening lines of a novel are really a "come closer, and I'll explain my strangeness and you will come to see how we are alike in our strangeness"
You've also listed two favs of mine. Nice. Very nice. ;)
Your name is in the draw.

Suzanne: Great example. Toni Morrison's opening line to Paradise is a stunner. You're mention here will have many of us running to grab a copy, I'm certain. Thanks for sharing those wonderful examples!
You are entered in the draw.

Bonnie Grove said...

It occurs, that I might have included the opening lines from Talking to the Dead - I am, after all giving the book away. Shouldn't I try to hook you? ;)

Here is how the novel begins: "Kevin was dead, and the people in my house wouldn't go home."

Mush of our conversation on the blog today resonates with an email conversation I had recently with one of our readers who wrote with a writing question. She wasn't asking about opening lines, but my advice to her about her issue fits well here.

I said ". . . don't run with what people tell you is fashionable or not. Run with your story. Run with your gut. Your story will tell you how it needs to be told. Trust your art. Trust God. Be reckless in your faith.
And when people tell you the rules, smile, nod, and offer to get them more punch."

Even if it's me who is offering you advice. You're free to smile and nod and offer to get me more punch. It's your work of art - be reckless in your faith.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Bonnie, I am so excited to invite others to understand my strangeness!

BK is absolutely a whole bunch of writing books they recommend that you begin in the middle. And I think that's awfully difficult. But now I'm excited that I can start differently. In fact, I think it will be far better.

Marti Pieper said...

I think part of the problem comes with the attempt to turn an art (fiction writing) into a science (how to write fiction). What works for one author/voice/story does not mean one size fits all. But it's easy to think it does.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I fell into the uber-dramatic "start in the middle" trap not long ago. My critique group told me it left them lost. And therefore, I suppose, unhooked. Or should that be disinvited?

Thanks, Bonnie, for the kind of thought-provoking discussion that draws me back here often.

Heather Marsten said...

Push by Sapphire: "I was left back when I was twelve becaue I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 2983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She's retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too when I was seven, 'cause I couldn't read (and i still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf' grade so I can gone 'n graduate. But I'm not. I'm in the ninfe grade."

This pulls me in and makes me care to find out what happened to Sapphire. I have been reading memoir after memoir to figure out the best place to begin mine.

What also matters is that the action brought forth from the strong opening is carried through, and doesn't dissipate. And it has to proceed logically from where you begin. Not an easy task. I started mine with the first incident of incest, which is the theme of my book.

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie I laughed when I read the opening sentences of your post. I've been wanting to read your book for some time, and bought a copy on Kindle two days ago!

I'm currently at the 66% mark, and...and I'm getting it. I've caught the "hum" of the book, and not only that, I feel like I'm understanding God's purpose for the CBA for the first time. Feels like a book that walks a fine line of risk, too (I'm saying this from a writer's perspective more than a reader's)...a balancing act that teeters yet doesn't fall.

I'm not sure if that makes sense - trying to say what I think without giving away anything to people who haven't read it.

Anyway. In short it is a very, very good book. And I'd love to win a real-pages copy so I can lend it to people down here too.

Anonymous said...

Well, no wonder my work-in-progress has THREE prologues, lol. Yes. I need to back up a bit and let the reader begin to care rather than start in the middle of the action. I love BK's comment... of course the reader can pay attention for more than 2 seconds. Or two minutes. Thanks for helping me rethink my beginning!

Bonnie Grove said...

Marti: Great point. Talking about how to create art is always going to lead to frustration. Art is intuitive - more caught than taught. So glad you added your thoughts to the discussion today! You're in the draw!

Heather: I haven't read PUSH - but I can certainly see why it caught the attention of millions. Isn't it amazing how the most shocking bits of her story (which hit us like mud from a speeding car) are so underplayed in this passage? The focus is school, grades, age, and the fact that she is a victim of terrible acts is so underplayed that it literally rises up inside of us and makes US cry out for HER. Brilliant. All Christian writers should study this.
You're also in the draw.

Megan: How funny is that?? I'm so glad you are enjoying the novel. Your words honor me - I can't express how lifting they are for me.
You're in the draw!

Vonilda: I'm glad this post might have been a bit of help on your writing journey. Writing, after all, is a great deal like dancing - all sorts of movement, and having your toes stepped on.
You are in the draw!

Steve G said...


Star Wars is a genre, like going out to watch a movie, escaping reality for an hour and a half or two. It's fun, but pretty one-sided and you don't talk with the friend you went with much.

Non-genre literary is like sitting down with a friend for an afternoon and chatting away the hours, until the next time you get to sit with your friend again and talk of life, and laugh and cry.

I think I get it now, and it all begins with the invite! I need to sit down with more friends.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

It occurs to me that I won't be able to write a sincere invitation to my story until I have written at least some of the end and lots of the middle.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Henrietta, that is wise! I'm glad you shared that! It's gotten me thinking!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yes, Bonnie, you are subverting all the writing advice we have ever been given - but in SUCH a good way! I totally agree. I can open a book to a scene of conflict and mayhem, give a yawn, and close it before the end of page one. Vivid characters and lyrical writing are much more likely to pull me in than pages of hack drama.

Tweeting this!

Bonnie Grove said...

Henrietta: That might be exactly what you need to do. Every writer must feel around and make decisions about how best to proceed with a story. And each story is different - there's no way of knowing what will work until you try, and try again. Thanks for your thoughts.

Karen:Thanks for your great thoughts - and for spreading the word. I very much appreciate both!