Writers: How to Open With a Bang!

by Joel Friedlander on October 5, 2011 · 12 comments

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Today I’m pleased to have an article by Victoria Mixon (@VictoriaMixon), an editor, writer, and the blogger behind A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, one of WritetoDone.com’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers. Here, in an excerpt from her new book, The Art & Craft of Story, 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, she talks about how writers can make an impact.


What the authors of vintage pulp knew that literary artists were assumed not to know is that readers read for thrills. They want to see the characters dynamited, they want to see it big, and they want to see it now.

Although there was a period in literary history in which great artists could assemble their fuses, explosives, and igniting sparks at their leisure, these days the necessity for a quick bang! is taken as a given by almost everyone in the publishing industry. That’s what agents look for in manuscripts, it’s what publishers’ acquisitions editors look for, it’s what the marketers and bookseller reps who sit in on publishers’ acquisitions meetings look for.

Thrills.

Occasionally we’ll hear someone who doesn’t understand the industry very well bewailing this situation. “All you slummers want is sensationalist low-brow genre!” Or the other side of the coin, “All you stuffed shirts want is dry, high-brow literary gobbledygook!”

The Art and Craft of StoryBut thrill is what readers of all types of fiction have always wanted, as Edward Anderson showed us at the beginning of his beautiful Dustbowl novel Thieves Like Us, a romance, when Bowie, his insides twisting, watches a car come bumping slowly down the old dirt road toward him where he waits in his convict’s clothing under the shadow of a prison wall.

Anyone who’s ever watched a movie that begins with a release from prison (and they are legion) knows they don’t release you in your convict’s clothing. And so we understand this is a story about an escaped con—about thieves, we are told, like us. And this does indeed turn out at the Climax to be exactly what this story is about.

Dickens, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte. All canonical literary artists, they all began with a bang!

The Hook scene, although not the most important moment in our novel, is the most important moment in the career of our novel.

Especially in today’s publishing climate, when tens of thousands of newly-hatched aspiring writers are being urged and exhorted every day to query agents and publishers’ acquisitions editors with the first-draft fruits of their uncoordinated infant efforts at fiction, nobody in the industry has more than a few seconds to glance at any particular manuscript and decide then-&-there whether or not they want to see the rest.

“Am I intrigued? Am I thrilled?”

First scene. Character, plot, and prose must all combine in a primeval quark of almost unimaginable mass right there on the first page. We must ignite that fuse, make it short, dynamite our reader out of their chair.

We’ll have time later to pick up all the pieces and assemble the puzzle.

A. Victoria MixonVictoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator of A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. She spends a lot of time horsing around on Google+ and Twitter.

Fireworks photo by shinythings

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    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    Hazel October 6, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Thank you for this. You have me re-thinking the opening of the novel I’m working on. I’m only 10,000 words in so maybe it’s too soon to panic! There is still time to rearrange the puzzle pieces.

    Reply

    Victoria Mixon October 6, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Oh, Hazel, there’s always time to rearrange the puzzle pieces. Hemingway wrote one opening chapter fifty times.

    That’s the beauty of our craft—nobody can tell how many times we erase! :)

    Reply

    rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy October 5, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Curiosity. And making readers care about what’s going to happen next, so that they don’t want to go away. And then you have to keep reeling them in all the way to the end. And telling it all lusciously, like you have here, Victoria. I’ve read this book and it’s a treat for story-lovers.

    Reply

    Victoria Mixon October 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Lovely to see you here, Roz. Yes—curiosity is the driving force behind fiction. When the reader no longer wonders what’s going to happen, they close the book. The End.

    But as long as you’ve got them wondering. . .ah! You’ve got their undivided attention.

    Thank you for the very kind recommendation!

    Reply

    Stuart Wakefield October 5, 2011 at 10:42 am

    I think that an interruption often works well as an opener – say a phone ringing in the night or a police officer knocking on a door. Interruptions to the normal routine can be very effective :)

    Reply

    Victoria Mixon October 5, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Yes, Stuart. You’re talking about inspiring curiosity in the reader. What’s going on? Who’s trying to contact whom? What just happened that I should know about?

    The other day I did an experiment—I looked up the hooks of some random books by the one blockbuster author whose writing skills I know I respect: Stephen King. Read the first page of The Stand. Now, that’s curiosity!

    The goal of all hook is to make the reader curious so they’ll turn the page. And the next. And the next. And the next. Up to three hundred times. . .

    Reply

    Olene Quinn October 5, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Great post! I’ve always maintained that a big bang or a hook does not necessarily mean a car exploding. It can be as simple as Netherfield Park being let at last. It’s that idea, which you’ve explained so well here, that always lands me arguing with people who say modern fiction just wants flashy, unintelligent thrills.

    Reply

    Victoria Mixon October 5, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Thank you, Olene! No, hooking is not about violence unless your entire story is about violence and your climax—whatever it is—is about some nightmare rooted in the threat of violence.

    Hooking is about capturing the reader’s imagination. I love Austen because not only is the Hook of Pride and Prejudice about Netherfield Park being let at last, but the hook sentence is a single, witty line encapsulating the driving force of the entire novel: these young women must marry well-to-do men if they want homes to live in after their father dies. So naturally their outlook, as focused through the lens of their mother’s histrionics, is forced to revolve around this ‘universal truth.’

    They’re trapped! Not by violence, but by the very real circumstances of their lives. And trapped by life is one fabulous thing for your protagonists to be.

    Reply

    Jodi October 5, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Great post. I think “Am I intrigued?” is key to having a book that hooks a reader. But the best hook is present throughout the entire novel, constantly keeping the reader wanting to know what happens next.

    I also like to leave the reader intrigued at the end, too. I love that on tv show episodes and movies, and I wish more books ended with a bang.

    Jodi

    Reply

    Victoria Mixon October 5, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Thank you, Jodi! Yes, the right hook is the hook that starts the protagonist on their inevitable path toward their climax. Inevitable!

    And the reason I capitalize Hook is that, just as a story has a Hook that leads into the next big problem, which ends in the first Plot Point, that Hook itself has a hook, which is typically the first scene. And that hook has its own hook, which is the very first sentence.

    It’s like those Russian nested dolls. I call it holographic structure.

    Reply

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