Friday, April 11, 2014

Opening Hooks

Grabbing the reader’s attention in the first few lines of a book is essential. Below are two examples of openers from my writing manual. Which of the two do you like better? Why? How would you open this scene?

Scene 1:
Stretching long pink fingers across the horizon, the sun scurried away from ominous thunderheads that rolled across the sky. Sharp winds charged the air with chilling expectation. Dusk yielded too
early to the dark.

Maria sat on the window seat and shuddered as jagged bolts dissected the air. Putting her hands over her ears, she tried to shut out the thunderous roars that followed.

The storm matched her mood, her life. Hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, she knew them all. They defined her existence.


Scene 2:
Streaking across the black sky, lightning dazzled the dark room with eerie brightness. Thunder answered in earsplitting claps.

Maria stared out the window. Where was Hannah? Her daughter had promised to come home before the storm hit. Maria punched the redial button on her cell phone. No service.

Another flash chased a gust of angry wind. Grotesque shadows skittered across the limb-littered yard. Dangling in haphazard fashion over the bare branches of several trees, a broken power line shot sparks toward the rushing stream that, moments before, had been the street.

“Mommy! Mommy!” The rain beat so hard against the window she almost missed her son’s words. “Where are you, Mommy?”

“I’m here, Danny, on the window seat.” She stretched her arms toward him as another flash brightened the room. “Is Devon with you?”

“He’s under the bed. I’m scared.” His voice quivered.

“Come over here and sit on my lap. I’ll keep you safe.”

“I have to go be with Devon. He’s scared, too.” Danny bolted from the room.

She jumped up and hurried after him.


Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at www.denvereditor.com.

19 comments :

  1. They are both well-written, with lovely imagery - but I prefer the second because it launches into action and dialogue that really pulls the reader into the story. The first is more abstract and distant.

    Nice example, Linda.

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    1. Opening with a brief but vivid description of the weather gives it control over the scene and sets the mood that permeates the house. I do agree that the second example hooks the reader with the emotions of its residents, while the first paints a word picture that largely lacks the connection that brings a reader in...unless that reader's a storm chaser. These examples are intended inspire a writer to use imagery in setting a scene rather than to be used "as is" to begin a story.

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  2. Time and again, we're told NEVER to start a story with the weather. It's impersonal and lacks the power to make a reader empathise. My suggestion here would be as follows:

    Maria shuddered on the window seat, as jagged bolts dissected the air. Putting her hands over her ears, she tried to shut out the thunderous roars that followed.

    The storm matched her mood, her life. Hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, she knew them all. They defined her existence.

    This way, we know more about Maria than about the weather, which is, after all, only the setting and not one of the characters. The reader is immediately introduced to the character and given clues to her state of mind, hooked by her concerns.

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    1. Your point is well taken, Stuart. These examples fall "outside the box" of traditional thinking on appropriate openings and might well be better rearranged to introduce Maria first. As you noted, the story is about her, not the weather. Great comment.

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  3. I prefer 2 because it hints at a problem: missing person. It's hard to care about the weather or the landscape if you don't know the characters yet. And telling us her life is chaotic is weaker than showing.

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    1. I agree, Diana. Showing almost always trumps telling. One of the purposes of this exercise for writing students is to demonstrate the value showing rather than telling.

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  4. The night was moist ... and occasionally bright ... and sometimes loud ... but mostly moist.

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    1. Definitely moist, Christopher. Wet, in fact, and with sound effects. :-)

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  5. The other day I read an interesting post at Writer Unboxed that talked about the importance of "place" in a story. I thought of that when reading your first example, Linda. It was quite nice and did set a mood for what was to come. That said, I did like the second example as it had more of a sense of urgency and I connected with the character on a deeper level than just the mood of the piece. I hope the liknk to the essay at Writer Unboxed works. I've never tried to put a link in a comment before. http://writerunboxed.com/2014/04/09/where-am-i-and-why-does-it-matter-part-i/

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    1. Place, mood, characterization — they all play vital roles in hooking the reader and keeping those pages turning. I'm going to try that link right now...I think it will be a copy/paste. I'll let you know if it works.

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    2. Yes, it works as a copy/paste. Nice article, Maryann. I saved it to my "favorites." Thank you for sharing. :-)

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  6. I like scene 2 better. It gives more of a sense of character and brings you into the scene further.

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    1. We seem to have a consensus on scene 2. Not only does it give us some insight into Maria's situation, we also learn a bit about her sons' personalities and that her daughter may have disobediently ignored her mother's instructions to come home before the storm started.

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  7. I agree that the second scenario is more gripping, and thus brings me into the story quicker. As someone who lives in a situation where weather is primary to how I live my life (I live on a boat in Alaska), I don't find the opening paragraph impersonal. Instead, it helps to sets up a level of anxiety and uncertainty right from the first line. Rules are important. Like a compass, they guide the way. However, flexibility is vital to the successful navigation of life and to the successful creation of a story whether via writing, music, choreography, theatre, or the visual arts.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. One of the coolest aspects of creativity is the flexibility we have to stay within accepted parameters, think outside that clichéd box, or discard the box altogether. The route we choose is dictated to a large extent by our intended audience, as well as by the way we choose to publish/present/market our creative wares.

      As an editor, I cringe when a writer ignores grammar and punctuation rules because my job suddenly becomes much greater and more difficult. For example, dialogue that doesn't follow accepted rules will likely confuse the reader and make the book less marketable.

      Opening hooks, on the other hand, may come in a variety of presentations, yet the intent of each is the same—make the reader want to read more. In other words, we can make a valid argument for many opening hooks as long as they keep the reader reading. Again, the cool thing is that we have options.

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  8. I like the second one because it is more immediate, grabs me quicker. Also, I couldn't really picture a sun scurrying at any speed, so that through me in the first one. Love the second!
    Deb@ http://debioneille.blogspot.com

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    1. You make a good point here, Debi. The visual of the sun "scurrying" might be troublesome for a number of readers. That particular verb choice represents both hyperbole and personification—hyperbole because it is an extreme exaggeration and personification because the sun follows a prescribed and very exact time pattern; it neither scurries nor lingers, which are human or animal qualities. While intended to create a visual of the storm clouds blotting out the sun's light, that mental picture might be better stated another way.

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  9. Here's a post I did on first and last lines: http://dianahurwitz.blogspot.com/2013/04/opening-and-closing-lines.html

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    1. Diana, I went to your blog and read the article on openings and closings. The fabulous examples you've included really underscore how crucial it is to do this right—and emphasize that doing it wrong may downgrade a potentially great story into a mediocre read that fails to capture much of its intended audience. Thank you for sharing this informative link. :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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