1. chacotaco91
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    chacotaco91 Senior Member

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    Must have a Gripping beginning?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by chacotaco91, May 27, 2011.

    Hello everyone, problem.

    Everytime I see a excerpt from someone's work, I'll usually see a line from a critique that goes something like:

    "I really liked your work, but you need to work on the beginning. It didn't really draw me in. I need it to grab my attention immediately."

    Or, when discussing writing an entire book:

    "You need to make sure the first 2 or 3 chapters bring the reader in, or else they'll never finish the book. Any publisher will think its trash before they've read it, so starting strong is the only way to keep them from throwing it away on the spot."

    So my question is, what is this whole concept of "gripping" the reader in the very beginning?

    It came to my attention, as I'm writing a post-collapse/apocalypse novel, that my beginning may seem somewhat slow, or introspective, or maybe lacking action. However, the story just doesn't feel right to me if it doesn't come a little slow for the first few chapters. I kind of wanted to embellish a kind of normal beginning to show how much the character's "normal" life is shattered by the cataclysm.

    What do you think? Is it okay to start an entire first chapter with the main character, his father, and a friend just going out camping?

    Or should I immediately jump out with: "John Smith held a 357. cold hard steel, pressed to the back of a Nazi's head. Man did he love that bang."

    What is a big part of your first impressions when reading a book? What are you looking for in the beginning of a book?

    thanks.
     
  2. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    Gripping =/= action-packed.

    First, what they mean is they don't want it to be boring.

    Second, the meaning of gripping in this context has become so convoluted over probably the past few decades that it has lost its basic, pure meaning. Unfortunately this means that people are going to read something perfectly fine, think, "This isn't gripping enough! I need it to grip me by the balls and TWIST," and then tell you you need to work on it when, to be honest, it's fine.

    It's basically just a problem that you're going to have to deal with. Now, if someone reads your work and says, "Look, I couldn't even read the whole thing. I couldn't get past the beginning," then you've got a problem. If they're reading long enough to get to the meat and actually like it, then there's no problem. If a publisher or agent tells you that the beginning needs work and you want it published, then work on the beginning.

    There are many ways to start a story, and you don't have to make it strong, fast, and action-packed to make it gripping. If you want a slow start, give it tension. Give it mystery.

    Good luck.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that "gripping" doesn't need to mean "explosive action". But on the other hand, I think that it also doesn't mean opening with three paragraphs that describe the ripples in the stream by the campsite, or a list-like description of packing the truck with camping gear and then driving forty miles. IMO, the opening should be quite important to the characters involved, and should involve action, even if it's everyday-life action.

    So, it could be a triumphant moment of the main character catching his first fish or a trophy fish. Or the middle of an argument with his father, as his father continues a lifetime pattern of criticizing his son's decisions, including his choice of a campsite. Ideally, IMO, this opening moment should have some relevance to later, bigger issues, but that relevance doesn't have to be described or foreshadowed.

    ChickenFreak
     
  4. katica
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    katica Senior Member

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    I completely agree. Gripping doesn't mean action packed, it means that people are asking questions while they read your story from the very beginning. What makes people love a story is the fact that it makes them wonder what is going to happen next or how the main characters are going to deal with or get out of a situation. It tortures them and that's why they can't put it down. Your story should be this way all the way through.

    And let me tell you, I've read many action scenes that did not do this to me. They had no mystery or anticipation to them.
     
  5. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    Take out most of the backstory. By "backstory," I mean when we summarize what has happened before the story begins because we think the reader needs to know this in order for the story to make sense. Actually, they don't. Actually, they don't want to know that information yet, they instead want to guess about it. Every writer writes too much backstory in the beginning. Try taking it all out and seeing how well the story stands without it, you'd be surprised.

    Other posters are totally right, you don't need to jump in with action right away, but with something that instantly makes readers thing, "holy crap, what is going on?" You need this from your very first sentence.

    E.g. "I woke up and didn't know the woman who lay next to me." This first sentence makes readers wonder a lot of things. Is the woman a stranger? Did he drink too much last night? Did he wake up in a bed? Is it even his bed? Is it actually his wife, who is now estranged?

    It needs to be something that makes the reader wonder what exactly is going on. They read because they have to know the answers to these questions. The ideal is that you give them the answer, but that answer only makes them ask more questions. It's kind of like a kick-start until your plot is in full-swing, and then your plot can take this role over, making the reader ask a bunch of questions.

    Humans are curious. We need to know answers. If you can make us ask questions, we will read on because we need the answers. And, of course, the more invested we are in your characters, the stronger pull these questions will have on us, because not only do we need to know what will happen next, but we need to know what will happen next to your MC, because we care about them.
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is an issue that has bugged me, too, on this forum. Everyone on this forum has heard various pieces of advice and they all think they're absolute rules that cannot be broken. So we hear things like "all adverbs are bad and should be deleted" and "never provide any background information, because that's an infodump and makes your story stink like a cesspool" and "you absolutely must grip your reader in the first sentence, preferably the first word, because if you don't, they'll think your story is boring and won't read it."

    Not all adverbs are bad. It's ok to tell the readers some info every now and then, when it's appropriate. And readers, generally, will give you more than one sentence to hook them. And you don't have to hook them with action. All you have to do is make them interested. If what you've written is interesting, they'll keep reading. That's all there is. Most people believe, with some justification, that part of being interesting is introducing an interesting character right at the beginning. I certainly think that's a good idea. And give that character a motivation - not necessarily their main motivation in the story, but a motivation that works immediately - very soon. Kurt Vonnegut said that you have to make a character want something right away, even if it's just a glass of water. If the character has no immediate motivation, he's probably not immediately interesting.

    So relax. Forget the absolutes. Just give us an interesting character with a motivation quickly, and most of us will keep reading. But keep being interesting - if we get bored for too long, we won't finish your story and won't pick up your next one.
     
  7. AltonReed
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    AltonReed Active Member

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    Even looking for firewood or making a fire could bring the reader in if you do it well.

    Walking through a creepy forrest alone? Check.

    A couple of small words to describe a fire? Check.

    I started mine off with a helicopter crash, and was told that it wasn't a good opening and some people prefered the sky changing colour briefly. Yup, it can be quite hard to please!

    I'd say walking back to the tent in the rain could be pretty good, if you give the character a moment to reflect.
     
  8. haribol
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    haribol Member

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    I am an avid reader and what draws me in basically is philosophy in a novel. I do not like thrillers these days and all that grip me are their philosophical contents. I do not like to read plain novels. In a shore while it will bore me and I have a dozen of unfinished novels and another dozen of barely started ones and the few that gripped me have something profound with enduring messages
     
  9. MrNomas
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    MrNomas Member

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    I remember being told at one point that you had to have a gripping first line. I still strive for that. I know that I get annoyed with books if they start off with a bunch of backstory. I don't mind reading that later, but at the beginning I'm looking for a reason to keep reading.
     
  10. StrangerWithNoName
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    StrangerWithNoName Longobard duke

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    It seems the "gripping" problem is a common problem today, probably because most of the agents and publishers (and probably most of the common readers as well) read just the first lines and then throw away the manuscript or the novel.

    That's my major concern because my novel opens with a person awakening and get read for her first job day, and there's no action for the first 100 pages.

    Anyway, I like it as it is.
     
  11. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    First 100 pages?? :eek:
    well, now that might be a problem, I guess. at least if nothing is hinting 'danger ahead' that makes the reader curious to find out what is going to happen. I don't think it has to be pure action, but at least some tension or other conflict.
    to Minstrel; if all of them say that it's probably because it's true. While you might be right that many readers would give your book a little more than a few lines to decide if to read it or not, many agents and publishes wouldn't. they systematically throw the ms in the trash if it doesn't get their ful attention right from the start. Now it doesn't have to be 'action' in that sense, but it has to grip the readers attention somehow, maybe even by foreboding stuff that will happen later on. I think it's crucial to grip the readers from the start, then how you do it doesn't matter, important thing is to make the reader wanting to read on.
     
  12. StrangerWithNoName
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    StrangerWithNoName Longobard duke

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    Well, you know, in movies like Alien nothing happens in the first hour, but I find them very interesting, and I'm not the only one!

    The basic idea of the novel is to tell the first day of an active service of a new commissioned officer in wartime, to make it realistic I thought about my first day in that situation (of course, peacetime); basically what happens is that you dress up in your dress uniform, prepare all the paperwork, and go to the report to the new superiors, then you're escorted to meet most of the people you are going to work with. Although unglamourus, that's the way it always work, but I noticed that most military space operas open with an action scene, Starship troopers comes to my mind first, and I suspect that this is reason why. To me, it always felt clichè and unrealistic, but perhaps it's how the industry works and what they demand.
     
  13. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    well, if its a really long novel (it sounds like it might be) maybe those first 100 pages are not more than the beginning, :) Im not saying it can't be interesting though, it depends on how it's written of course. And I understand you wanting to make it less cliche, I wouldn't want that happen to my novel either. If you think that is the best way of writing the story then it is what you should do. Everyone has their own imagine of how the novel will be and how the overall feeling is supposed to be. it all comes down to what we prefer ourtselves when reading, I guess.
     
  14. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    I totally just remembered something. I'll be honest: it's one of the most gripping opening lines I've ever read. It might be THE most gripping line I've ever read (for an opening line, at that!), but it's at least the most memorable.

    Without further ado, the opening line to Stephen King's magnum opus, The Dark Tower: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

    THAT is gripping. Right away the reader has at least three obvious questions. Two of them relate to who the characters are, and the third is why the gunslinger is chasing the man in black.
     
  15. chacotaco91
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    chacotaco91 Senior Member

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    And by "gripping", I don't mean necessarily mean action-packed. I just mean that I don't want to immediately start off my story by saying something that has huge significance. Like:
    "The divorce left John with nothing."
    "The man had hunted, all his life, for those that had burned his city."
    or "It was on this day I decided I'd murder my boss."

    For the first 2 chapters it just describes the character, his opinions, and his introspection with no conflict in the beggining. When it does come, I wanted it to feel sudden, and break a sense of normalcy in the beginning.

    The problem is I feel like everyone keeps saying start with something big; if you can't grip em', don't expect em' to read it.
     
  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    People tend to parrot advice they've heard elsewhere. It is the easiest way to critique. Things like adverbs or the idea that you have to have an amazing first sentence are easy issues to comment on. Of course, without thinking about them in the context of the greater work, the comments are next to useless by way of critique, but there you have it.

    I agree re: the establishment of rules, as well. People tend to mistake their subjective preferences for inviolate rules of writing. The best approach to receiving critiques is to simple read what people have to say, thank them, and then go forward with your story in the way you deem best. If that ends up incorporating some of the comments from critique, then great. But if it doesn't, don't sweat it.
     
  17. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think a story has got to have a gripping beginning, otherwise why would anyone want to read on? But gripping can mean a lot of things, it doesn't necessarily mean a lot of action or a lot of emotion. It's got to the leave the reader questioning things, they've got to be intrigued and interested in what's happening and what will happen. You have to make the reader immediately care for the world and characters you've created.
     
  18. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    The problem with that is it doesn't excite me one iota. :rolleyes: Maybe I'm just a rebel but recently, I've picked up books and looked at their opening lines to see if any gripped me, and you know what? Very few have. Maybe I'm just hard to please. Or maybe the idea of "gripping" is really just something subjective. What grips one person might put another to sleep.

    If publishers really only read the first few lines, it's no wonder the quality of published fiction is lacking today.

    I try to interest the reader early on for the most part, especially ion my crime novels. But I can't be worrying about whether my first line is especially gripping or not. I just gotta trust that my first chapter is gripping enough. Judging by the reactions I've gotten, I think it is.
     
  19. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Consider your audience:

    If you are going to try to get an editor's or an agent's attention, something has to happen or be going on--something has to be at stake or of interest to hook the reader pretty early on. Editors/agents that read slush get a lot of it, and they're not going to read 40 pages into a manuscript to determine if something of interest is going to hook them (or in theory, readers).

    The 'rules' are different for established writers vs. writers trying to break in. They have a following, who know that there will be a payoff.

    You can break the 'rules' but do so understanding the potential consequences. Anything can work, and occasionally a fresh (or rarely traveled) route will stand out positively.

    With short fiction, especially that published online, it seems to be even more important to get to something going on in the first 100-300 words, if not the first paragraph or two. Why? Because readers will simply close and click to something else if they're bored by what's in front of them even faster than they might if they were holding a print novel or anthology.

    Also note, different genres have different 'rules' and being well read in the genre you're writing in is helpful.

    Just my two cents on the topic.
     
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  20. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Katica made an excellent point. Story questions. That's the key. It can be done through an action scene or a retrospective soliloquy, but whatever your opening is it must make the reader ask questions. What will happen next?

    That's what I feel 'gripping' is. It's about curiosity. Ignite the readers curiosity. So starting off with three guys camping could still be gripping, but you need to release the information, dialogue and description in a tantalizing way.
     
  21. Rex
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    Rex Member

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    I get the gist of the concept of "gripping". However, I have a question well actually several questions, which deals with "beginning the story".

    Is it necessary action directly or indirectly to involve the character at the beginning? Is it possible to focus on the character solely? I mean if you are using the character's responses to things happening around them or to them, is that enough to create a gripping beginning?

    I understand the previously mentioned rule of the character needs to want something, glass of water, justice, to leave the room, or save the world. What if, you do not specifically or directly state what the character wants? What if instead you leave it to the reader to infer that action?


    My final question has no doubt been beat to death, but I am relying on the notion that I am new to this forum have not as of yet, read any topics about it thus far.

    What about triteness or cliches? I mean it is my understanding that is a certain kiss of death for any MS. If as a writer we are to follow the rule of writing something "gripping", then do we not also stand a good chance of being found guilty of triteness?

    Isn't it fairly easy to resort to triteness at any point where the author is striving to be "gripping"?
     
  22. JimFlagg
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    JimFlagg Contributing Member

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    I agree with Joker. Give us a compelling piece of the story you are trying to tell and keep giving us those pieces little by little leading us on much like the carrot on the end of a stick. Leave us wanting more; wanting to know what is next.

    Most people think Adjectives = Gripping. Not true, Story = Gripping. This is why they say never start a story out talking about the weather because you are not telling the story you are just putting down a bunch of Adjectives. Don't get me wrong, adjectives are needed to answer the question of how you are going to tell you story but you need a story not a picture is that makes any sense.

    Action could be gripping but some gripping stories start with a kiss. Think about what the main story is you are going to tell and how you would tell the story. Good luck.

    This is just my opinion, every one has different opinion of what gripping is. Take it with 2 grains of salt.
     
  23. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But is there absolutely nothing interesting in that man's normal life? Nothing that interests _him_? Are his job and all of his relationships both unexciting and completely satisfying? Does he have no goals that excite him, but also no sadness at having no goals that excite him? No health worries? No joys, no sorrows, no feelings about the complete lack of joys and sorrows?

    ChickenFreak
     
  24. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    Establishing the whole "normal life" before diving into the story irritates me if it lasts beyond three chapters. Everyone does it and I don't care unless that person has a genuinely interesting and unique lifestyle. If a person doesn't belong in that world/situation then the reader will understand that from the character's body language the style the writer uses to portray the scene.

    I believe a book's opening does need to be gripping. When I decide whether or not to buy a book I read the first page - if nothing makes me want to turn that page and read on then I'll just put it back down. As a reader, I will become instantly bored unless there is something there that makes me want to keep reading.

    It doesn't need to be dramatic or full of action, but it needs to somehow grasp my attention. Using a book I read recently -- My Name Is Sei Shōnagon by Jan Blensdorf -- as an example: the novel opened with the narrator in a coma, thinking about rain: how it's written 「雨」 (ame) and how, in French, "âme" means "soul". It caught my attention because this character was intellectual about something I'm also interested in (languages and the links between them) and I also wanted to find out how she ended up in her current situation.
     
  25. katica
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    katica Senior Member

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    All those ideas can work if done right for a beginning. And not telling the reader what is happening (as long as you don't confuse them) can add to the mystery and make them immediately intrigued and question what is happening.

    And no, its not cliche or trite. It's like how you can't have a plot without having some kind of conflict or problem that the main character is struggling against. There's so many different ways of doing this that it's not cliche just because every single story in every single genre has this in it. No one would view you as at all refreshing if you have no conflict or problem. You'd just be boring. And its the exact same way with not having a gripping beginning. There's so many different ways of doing it and if you don't you aren't refreshing because of it. You're just boring.
     

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