1. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Style Beginning a story... Why does it feel like a catch 22?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Alesia, Apr 3, 2014.

    Beginning a story always feels like a monumental catch 22 to me. There are those that say you need a "hook" -- an event of important significance to pique the readers interest. So, you write a first chapter with a major event happening and guess what? Those same people snap back with "so what if X, Y, and Z is happening? I don't know these characters, why should I care what happens to them?" Back to the drawing board. Start anew with a mundane scene taking place sometime before the big hook--something to help the reader get to know the characters... Same people yet again, only this time it's "this is boring... I'm not hooked... I don't want a history lesson... blah, blah, blah." Honestly, where are you supposed to start a story if both options are somehow "wrong"? Maybe I just need a new critique group... :rolleyes:
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I feel your pain.

    You want both, it's not a Catch 22.
     
  3. Bartleby9
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    Bartleby9 Member

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    It depends on the genre. If you're writing literary fiction then just ignore the people who say they are bored by the writing or it didn't hook them. Some genres aren't for readers with attention spans of five year olds.

    If you're writing young adult fiction for the twitter generation then, yeah, you're going to need to hook the reader. This means less exposition, and more stuff(plot, action, story). Same goes for crime fiction and thrillers. This genre has a tried and tested template. You need to hook the reader right away into the story.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    The "hook", as I see it, doesn't need to be important to the overall plot, it just needs to be interesting. Ideally, interesting in a way that helps you to get to know the characters.

    _An Episode of Sparrows_, which for some reason I keep using as an example, starts with a meeting of the garden committee to discuss some stolen dirt.

    The Garden Committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terretrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square.

    That's weird enough to make the reader say "what?" and go on, and then we get relationships--the pushy woman who runs the committee, and who won't let the other high-ranked members of the committee have the flowers that they want. Everyone's afraid of her and no one likes her. We get all that in a paragraph and a half.

    ...Angela was not a big or little gun; she was the gun, she ran the committee, she ran the Gardens. 'And she won't let us have wallflowers, says they're common. I like wallflowers,' said the Admiral, but behind Angela's back; when she was present he deferred to her, as did Mr. Donaldson; Lucas looked only at her; it was like a court round the queen, thought Olivia...

    So we've got the "huh?" and then we've got relationships of power and lack of power and resentment. We know those relationships; they grab us, emotionally. And we're pulled in. No arrests, no exploding helicoptors, just an oddity and some human interaction.

    Then there's _The Voyage of the Dawn Treader_'s classic opening:

    There was a boy called Eustance Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it...

    And we get two paragraphs of backstory about Eustace, but the backstory is almost an event-with-conflict, because Eustace and his parents annoy us, merely by being described. And the third paragraph hurtles us into the fact that Eustace's cousins are visiting, and we know that conflict (on the page) is coming.

    Next we've got _Dark Places_ by Gillian Flynn:

    I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. I was never a good little girl and I got worse after the murders.

    It's backstory, but you certainly can't call it mundane.

    A story that ends with the chosen one saving the world could start with her having a mundane fight with her mother, a fight that gets us all in the gut because we've had those feelings.

    A story that's about a man breaking a lifetime of honesty and robbing a bank could start with the man's shame when his credit card is declined.

    Robert Barnard's _Death of a Mystery Writer_ starts with self-important chat at a pub, people that we've met and been annoyed by and fervantly hope that we've never been, and moves on to a rant by a man about his father--the father that will be murdered a chapter or three later.

    So I would say that the most common successful strategy is to start with something interesting, something that grabs the emotions, that ends up being relevant to the story in at least a sideways sort of way, and that highlights important characters, but not a core event of the story.
     
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  5. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Well, let me see what you guys think of my opening (synopsis):

    We open on the MC and his spouse lying in bed. It's around 4:30 in the morning. MC hits the alarm button, rises without waking their spouse. He gets ready for work -- a typical morning routine. However, he are acting very strangely, almost ancey, like there's something weighing on his mind.

    He sits at the kitchen table, writes a short note, then picks up a small, golden ring and drops it in an envelope along with the note. (we don't know what the note says yet.) He walks back to the bedroom, gently kisses his wife on the forehead, then leaves the note on the nightstand. He walks out the door, leaving for work apparently.

    End scene.

    As the next scene begins, that is when the shit hits the fan--when his spouse reads the note.
     
  6. Bartleby9
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    Bartleby9 Member

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    Alesia,

    what's the genre? Also, is this a short story or a novel?
     
  7. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Short story, genre general fiction. Basically a story about a man who abandons his family for reasons that are found out at the ultimate end.
     
  8. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    You always have such good comments, @ChickenFreak. I think it should be important, but it doesn't need to be the magic-bullet-key to the whole story. It may only be a hint at something to come, or a reason we care about a character and a reason to be interested in what happens to them.
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" [Glenn Campbell for the forum pedants ;)] comes to mind.

    Sounds like a hook to me and there's plenty of opportunity to tell show us more about these characters. Why the kiss, what is he feeling, that kind of thing.
     
  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Why do the whole morning routine? I mean, I'd probably write the whole thing, but in editing I'd take out everything up to the point where he writes the note. "Typical morning routine" has kind of become a cliche. Some readers will simply skip it, I think.

    If something is indeed weighing on his mind, you should make that clear very early.

    Is this going to be first person?
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm inclined to think that the above is the opening scene.

    If not, then I think that this is--kiss, mysterious envelope, out the door. We find out what's in the envelope when the wife opens it.
     
  12. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    @minstrel The morning routine here serves a purpose in the way of leading the reader in a different direction to what's actually happening. I want it to look like he's just getting ready for work on a normal day, but with his mind heavy. At this point, the note could say "Take this ring to the jewelry repair, love X." After he goes out the door, we don't see him again. We swap back to the wife opening the note and beginning to go into hysterics.
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    the problem is that you know why you're boring the readers with a 'routine' opening, but they don't!... so they'll be inclined to stop reading before they get to the note bit...
     
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  14. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    As mammamaia said, what you are proposing negates the concept of the "hook". The idea is to quickly throw something out that will catch the reader's attention like - "He looked down as he brushed the hair out of his eyes and realised that he really and truly hated this bed." Then have him continue his routine as if nothing had happened.

    It doesn't have to be a major event or revelation. Just something to make the reader go WTF? for a second. A verbal tease that lures them into reading more.
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that if you're going to do the morning routine, it's going to have to have a direction and a velocity that makes the reader feel like he's moving with a story, rather than napping and waiting for a story to begin.

    For example, you could quietly use the theme of his memories of his life with his wife, not telling us that it's about to end, but letting us start to feel a sense of both fondness and foreboding:

    James shifted a little, studying the ceiling. Blue, to ground the too-tall white walls. Jane had been against the color, grumbled during all the hours of taping and rolling, but at the end she had agreed that it was just the right thing. Every year or two she would look up and tell him, again, "You were right and I was wrong. Who'd have thought?" With that grin.

    He climbed out of bed carefully, managing not to jostle Jane as she snored on. She always denied the snoring, dismayed at the idea, and was barely consoled when he started to call it "purring" instead.

    He tucked his feet into his embroidered slippers, the product of one of her handcrafting moods. They were growing shabby now; she'd asked if he wanted another pair, but he didn't like replacements. "We've bonded," he always insisted, and so she'd go and embroider something else.

    Like the bathroom towels--the towel bars were always like an art display. Brushing his teeth, he noted that today the theme was Christmas, which in June always meant that the laundry was behind. He enjoyed the out-of-season...


    etcetera. (Sorry for the length; I have trouble explaining without specific examples.) As the memories pile up and pile up, and if they're sufficiently emotionally engaging (mine may not be), you might pull the reader in to be interested in the couple and keep them with you until you get to your event, and also to get a little nervous as he wonders why this guy is focusing on these memories.

    There are any number of other themes that you could apply to his morning routine, but I think that it does need a fairly strong theme tying it together.
     
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