Well, I should really have started off this post, as it has to do with the beginning. It’s about the way the author successfully grabs you and makes you want to read more. In her book What’s Your Story, Marion Dane Bauer says:
The beginning of your story has one primary job: to capture your readers’ attention so they will want to go on reading. A narrative hook will do this for you. It will grab your readers and pull them into your story.(70)
The narrative hook, she says, is simply your story problem. It is the reason you’re writing the book, and the reason that your readers are going to stick with it—they want to see how that problem is solved, especially if they’ve come to like the character and want to see her succeed.
A quick word about “the beginning”. What is that? By when do you need to hook your reader? By the first line? The first paragraph or page? In her book The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb says, “At the most you’ve got two or three pages to hook the reader”. (35)
A couple of days ago I was chatting to a friend who’d just had a manuscript consultation with an editor at Henry Holt. The editor commented that my friend was trying too hard to get the story problem out there in the first few sentences of the story. My friend explained that she was trying to hook the reader. The editor assured her that if the writing is solid, and the story compelling, you have a few pages to do that. The first sentence, while engaging, doesn’t need to be the hook.
That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a riveting first sentence. In Turtle in Paradise, Jennifer Holm succeeds in writing a first sentence that makes you buckle up your seatbelt and strap in tight because you know you’re in for an exciting ride:
Everyone thinks kids are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve only lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it. (3)
I love that! But while it pulls me into the story, is it the narrative hook? Does it tell me Turtle’s problem? Do I read that and know that she is a kid who’s being forced to leave home and take up roots in a strange place with people she doesn’t know? No, but it does give me an inkling that there are kids in her world who cause problems for her and for others, and she’s not very happy about it. The fuller problem is revealed over the course of the first chapter. But what this opening line DOES do is intrigue me and make me want to read more.
Marion Dane Bauer recommends that those first few pages in which you reveal the narrative hook contain what she calls the four Ws. Here is how they play out in Turtle in Paradise:
WHO is the story about?
Within several paragraphs we know who the main character is. She’s a young girl living in the depression era, and times are tough. Within a couple of pages we know her name is Turtle and she’s ten. Referring back to Heather’s recent post about voice—we know Turtle is snarky -– “I’m not sweet,” I said. “I slugged Ronald Caruthers when he tried to throw my cat in the well, and I’d do it again”. (5)
WHERE is it set?
Within several pages we know that Turtle is on her way to Key West to stay with her Aunt Minerva.
WHEN is it taking place?
Page 1 of the novel bears the words, June 1935. But even without those specifics, we know from story details that the story is set in an earlier time. They’re driving in a Ford Model A and travelling on a road that kicks ups dust. The pickup truck in front of them is piled with belongings (an iron bed, a rocking chair) and children who are clearly not wearing seatbelts. The baby in that truck has bloomers tied on her head to keep the sun out of her eyes.
Aside from era, we know the story takes place during summer by Turtle’s description of sticking to the car’s leather seats, the dusty road, the baby with the sun in her eyes.
WHAT is going on?
Within several pages we know what the story is about. We’ve seen the mean kids Turtle has had to deal with. We’ve met slick Archie and vulnerable Mama. We know that on Turtle’s journey she’s going to hit a few bumps in the road—literally and figuratively.
StorySleuths’ Tip #94: Create a story beginning users won’t be able to resist by opening with an intriguing first line, getting your narrative hook out there within a few pages and remembering to reveal Marion Dane Bauer’s Four Ws.
Post #4: Chapter Beginnings
Posted by Allyson Valentine Schrier