Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Beginning....that All-Important Hook

The characters are real and vivid in your mind, perhaps not yet fully-fleshed, bones protrude in uncomfortable places and they do not yet breath as they should (they need to inhabit and engage their fictional landscape) but the tantalizing suggestions of them are there. I find that my characters are less knowable before the book is written - no matter how many detailed pages I write concerning their backgrounds, attitudes, behaviors and history, often they do not really come alive for me until I have them engaged within the plot. Dialogue and character actions often suggest themselves to me in mid-chapter, as if I do not truly know what that particular individual will do until I place him or her within the multidimensional framework of the written novel. Regardless, your characters are set, plot development is defined and you ready yourself to begin. The First Chapter. There are a multitude of options: to begin before the beginning with an intriguing prologue that sets the mood and precipitates the action, or right at the beginning catapulting the reader immediately into the action, or after the beginning when the primary event has already occurred and the ball is already well in motion. In addition to plot and timing, there are the characters to consider: do you thrust the main character front and forward, or do you introduce them through the perspectives of others?

 However your novel begins, you have to think about creating an opening scene that possesses the reader, promising intrigue or excitement. We need to hook our readers, be they bookshop browsers, agents retrieving our manuscripts from the slush pile, or editors perusing at the request of an agent. That being the case, we need to begin our stories in such a way that keep the reader reading. The hook might be the opening sentence, the first paragraph, the first scene, or the first chapter; it serves the dual purpose of stimulating interest in the forthcoming story and establishing mood and atmosphere. Edgar Allen Poe's opening sentence of 'The Cask of Amontillado' is a masterpiece: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." In these few words, Poe provides us with two characters: Fortunato and the narrator; he illustrates the narrator's state of mind through his use of language: "when he ventured upon insult"; and finally he reveals his plot: revenge. Dickens, in the Tale of Two Cities, declares: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,"and  sets the mood for the novel in an evocative duality that inevitably leaves the readers intrigued. Being a Shakespeare devotee in a most impassioned way (I began a project last year to read all of Shakespeare's plays from the very first all the way through to the very last - declaiming aloud of course, as all Shakespeare should be - I reached Titus Andronicus before other tasks of life intruded, but have fervent intentions of renewing that project to completion - perhaps a blog topic?) I also adore the opening lines to Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this Sun of York." Shakespeare has established two characters - Richard the speaker as well as his brother whom he refers to as the 'sun' of York in a play on the word son - as well as Richard's attitude toward Edward. I have great respect for writers who manage to convey the sense of a time and place with very specific details that create authenticity without the weight of cumbersome description: Robert McCammon in 'Speaks the Nightbird' describes trees 'bearded by moss and blotched by brown fungus the size of a blacksmith's fist.' This highly atmospheric introduction utilizes the metaphor of a blacksmith's fist to set the time indirectly and to magnificent visual effect. Similarly, a moldy jack-o-lantern might place the action just after Halloween far more effectively than stating it directly.

I always feel a great deal of pressure insofar as the first chapter is concerned. It is absolutely critical to get it right, to ensure that the reader is immediately engaged and committed to seeing the book through to the end. I find many literary examples of this hook done with succinct perfection ("Call me Ishmael") and continue my ongoing quest for perpetual self-improvement, to craft that perfect opening sentence that lures one on.

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