When I’m teaching our Writers Write course, I’ve found that students seldom want to know how to write a perfect beginning. They think they already have that one in the bag.
Generally, they have decided that it will be a prologue, usually a flashback that will show the reader something he or she needs to know in the future. Then they start at the beginning with backstory. They must because, ‘the reader won’t understand the story if I don’t show who the character is and where he comes from.’
Sound familiar? Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all start writing that way. We were taught exposition at school. We had to set up the story before we could begin. As a fiction writer you need to un-learn everything you were taught about story-telling as a child.
Adults want to read a book that begins with a bang. They want to land in the middle of the action, identify with the protagonist, and take a thrilling vicarious ride to a resolution.
We can learn how to do this. We don’t need to hang on to bad writing habits that bore readers. The backstory belongs in your character profiles, your timelines, and your first draft. After that, we have to get rid of most of it, and start where things change.
So what are the elements of a good hook?
- Change is always a result of CONFLICT. Something happens that causes your protagonist to react. He or she is presented with a situation that can’t be ignored. You hook the reader with action and reaction. Leave out how you got there. You want to get the reader interested. You want to get the reader oriented. Where are we, what’s going on, who’s involved? Readers who feel confused go somewhere that’s more comfortable.
- Begin in a moment of CRISIS, THREAT, or OPPORTUNITY. This creates a situation that has to be dealt with. It is exciting, stimulating, and absorbing – especially if it’s vicarious. This critical moment could be real or imagined, internal or external, negative or positive. However, it is easier for first time writers, if it is real, external, and negative. This gives your protagonist purpose, motivation, opposition, and a goal. It forces change.
As always, I believe that if you are a brilliant, gifted writer, you can write anything without help, but those writers wouldn’t even be reading this. That writer could get away with a prologue, or a flashback, or backstory as a beginning for a novel. If you’re the writer who wants to learn the craft, the first option is a better choice. You could also try a combination, such as an imagined negative threat.
Five Examples of Inciting Moments that Hook Readers
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel, who is dying of cancer, is sent to a support group by her mother because she believes Hazel is depressed. Hazel’s life changes because of the boy she meets there.
- In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Sylvie has a stillborn baby, and we go back to moments before the birth, again and again, until Ursula is born alive.
- In Night Film by Marisha Pessl, Scott McGrath is forced to confront his old obsession with the reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, when the director’s daughter, Ashley, who seems to have been stalking him, commits suicide – or did she?
- In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Theo Decker’s mother is killed in a bomb explosion in a museum. Everything changes for the worse in a moment.
- In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne disappears from her home. Her husband, Nick’s life is turned upside down.
Please note that I deliberately chose examples from recent novels. It does not help you to base the beginning of your book on a novel that was written 30 or 50 years ago. I would love it if you would add examples of your favourite inciting moments in the comments section below.
Look out for The Two Types Of Inciting Moments
© Amanda Patterson
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