Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How To Start A Story So As To Hook The Reader

Today I welcome Mel Menzies, who shares five tips to show an aspiring author how to start a story so as to hook the reader.


I recently sent the first chapter of my new novel to a friend, who is a professional editor, and received the following feedback: 'The first paragraph is a fantastic hook: two strangers walk into your life and turn out to be related, and your own identity is brought into question. It certainly made me want to read on.'


Okay, there was a lot more to it than that!  But this morning I want to write about how to start a story and hook the reader.  Because if you haven’t grabbed your readers by the throat on page one, they’re not going to read pages two, three, four or more.  And what goes for the book-buying public applies, also, to agents and publishers.

So how do you start a story that hooks the reader?


This is paramount.  Here, in this blog, I’m deliberately using a colloquial style of writing, which is in keeping with the sort of chatty repartee that makes for a good interchange with fellow-bloggers.  However, were my readers to be a literary lot (no aspersions intended) I might have to choose a less idiomatic mode of language and grammar - or risk turning them away.  The point is: you need to write for your readers.

An example of this was when I was writing for a church readership and one of my characters was so inarticulate that he swore every other word.  Nervous of using the word ‘bloody’, I substituted ‘ruddy’.  However, far from pleasing my readers, I received a very amusing rant from Canon Michael Saward who, in his review of my book, berated me for my lack of courage.  Clearly, you can’t please all of your readers all of the time.


The need to identify which of your characters is going to advance the plot of your story is crucial.   I’ve previously written a series of articles which covers this, in which I’ve shown that characters are not merely travellers on the journey through plot, but are the drivers.  The series is available through the Creative Writing link on my Home page, but the important thing to understand here is that the characters who start your story on page one of your book, must appeal to the readers for whom you’re writing.

I know!  It sounds obvious, but even when you’ve had years of experience - as have most of the members of the local ACW writers’ group I Chair - it’s amazing how often, when we read aloud, someone will pick up on an unappealing nuance of characterisation that was unintended by the author.  If that appeared on page one of your book, you be unlikely to hook your reader.


A good hook provides just enough information for your reader to have a sense of the What, Why, When, How, Where and Who of your story - and no more.  In no particular order, when starting a story, you need to engage your reader by providing a sense of What conflict the main character is facing; Why the conflict has been triggered; When it is all happening; How she is planning to deal with it; Where it is all happening; and Who she is.  Avoid lengthy descriptions of character, place, or weather at this stage (ideally, at any stage).  To be successful, a lightness of touch is required.  A journalist friend once cited the essentials in opening a story - any story - thus:

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I know);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.


Story structure is made up of scenes and sequels.  Scenes are active, whereas sequels are more reflective.  I’ve written about this in an article titled 'What Makes A Story A Plot?' and elsewhere.  The answer to the question raised, is that a story is little more than a report, while a plot requires the combination of conflict, cause and consequence.

My husband and I moved house a fortnight ago.  That piece of information is neither a story nor a plot.  Happily, we moved from choice and love our new home.  However, if I were to tell you that we’d downsized because we’d fallen on hard times, both conflict and cause would be introduced.  Were we then to find the pressure of living in such reduced circumstances too much for our relationship and split up, you would have, also, the concept of consequence.

Starting a story that will hook the reader requires that you introduce - or at least allude to - the conflict and cause early on, in the first scene.  Readers need to be engaged in the full horror of your character’s conflict, or they’re not going to be interested in the fight to resolve it.


One of the great mistakes made by aspiring authors is that they rush to tell their readers the entire back story relating to each character, as in: I was born at an early age to a mother and a father and in due course I became an adult...  Yawn!

This is a big turn off to would-be readers: for one thing it comes into the category of My husband and I moved house last week - it is neither story nor plot because it lacks conflict, cause and consequence; and secondly, because you’re Telling your reader the back story.

Leave the back story until later, and it’s so much easier to make it part of a 'Show rather than Tell'.  Hence, having Shown your readers, in the first scene, the conflict of having to downsize and the rows that ensued, you can then use your sequel to Show the anguish that this has caused your character, with particular reference to the nature of her birth and upbringing.

I could go on, but please forgive me if I finish here.  I need to be unpacking removal boxes - oh, and admiring the sea view from my lovely new home.

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller, Merrilyn is also an experienced Speaker and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+ in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows.  She has recently become Chairman of the Association of Christian Writers, and leads a local group of ACW, as well as a Book Club.  Her latest book is available from Amazon or her website.


And with that, I bid you adieu and I shall see you on Friday.


DRC said...

Sounds spot on. There's some good advice here...

Martin Willoughby said...

DRC: Very good advice.

Kelley Lynn said...

The 'leave the backstory until later' is a huge one! One I still struggle with. In my collab we had to delete the first four chapters...

Dana said...

As a former journalist, I liked the advice about providing just enough information--but no more.

So much great advice here!