“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” ~Gene Fowler
Well, there are certainly days when writing feels that way, doesn’t it? Writers struggle with the first page of a manuscript—often with the opening paragraph. What to write, how to say it, how to hook the reader.
A general rule of thumb for fiction is to start in the middle of a conversation, conflict, or with a revelation. Whatever you do, don’t start with backstory. This is true with fiction and non-fiction. For the purpose of my example, I’ll use all three hooks.
“You said you wanted to be a father,” Katie wailed.
“But not like this. Not now.” Steve shifted from one foot to another, twisting the brim of his hat between his hands.
“If not now, when?”
His eyes narrowed. “After we bury your husband.”
She sniffed. “But he isn’t dead…yet.”
Okay, you want to know what will happen next, right? All sorts of scenarios ran through your mind as you read the example. I’ve not told you much about the characters, but already you’re imaging a tawdry affair of some sort. Read on:
Katie touched Steve’s arm. “You promised to take care of me.”
“Fatherhood wasn’t part of the deal.”
“I’ll be a widow by the end of the week.” Her hand tightened around his arm. “Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
So it doesn’t appear anything indecent has transpired. Steve is either a relative or close friend of Katie’s dying husband. And he’s promised to take care of Katie. The fact that Katie needs taking care of, Steve has promised to do so, and he wears a hat points to this being an historical fiction. Maybe even a western.
I’ve not gone to any great lengths—or any length at all—to give you information about either character. And I don’t have to. Your mind fills in the blanks. The important thing is hook your reader from the first line and then don’t let them go. Gently drop in details about their lives as the story unfolds.
Scene and setting details can be added on revision, as well. Describing the kitchen curtains, what Katie’s wearing, Steve’s biceps bulging, the beef stew cooking on the stove, and so on, isn’t necessary on the first draft. Some of it isn’t necessary at all. The important thing is to get the opening sentences written, and the rest will flow easier.
When writing memoirs or other non-fiction centered on a person’s life, start in the middle of a conflict, crisis, dark moment, or revelation in the subject’s life, and then backtrack to tell their life story. Unless their (or your) birth happened on the morning of December 7, 1941, in Hawaii, (or has some other great significance), a reader is not going to trudge through the beginning to discover the purpose of the book.
Take a few moments to review the opening of your WIP, and imagine a reader (or an editor) trying to decide whether or not to purchase it. Good writing isn’t good enough in today’s market. Revise until the hook is apparent.
Please leave a comment and let me know how your writing is progressing since you’ve started following Writers’ Corner each week. I’d love to hear from you.