December 30, 2009

Wing Tip #4: Hook Your Reader

Update:  Les Edgerton commented on this!  Thank you Mr. Edgerton.

Want to grab your reader and keep them spellbound?  Here's what Les Edgerton says in Hooked:

...the single biggest reason manuscripts get rejected is because the writer begins in the wrong place.  What's ironic is that manuscripts don't get rejected because the majority of the story is good and only the beginning is flawed--they get rejected because the agent or editor never gets to the good part to begin with.  A story that begins in the wrong place won't be read much past that point.  If the good stuff occurs later on, in all likelihood it will never be reached by the agent or editor.  

Mr. Edgerton knows this because he's been an editor.

What most good hooks have in common is that they have strong inciting incidents that plunge the protagonist immediately into trouble--the trouble that's going to occupy the rest of the story.

The surest way to involve the reader is to begin with an opening scene that changes the protagonist's world profoundly and creates a story-worthy problem.

He goes on to warn against Five Red Flag openings:

Red Flag 1: Opening with a dream
Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character's merely dreaming it all.  Not unless you'd like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses.

Red Flag 2: Opening with an alarm clock buzzing
Don't open with your protagonist waking up to an alarm clock ringing, or to someone shaking her awake, or to a cute little birdie chirping from her bedroom window, or to a blazing sun shining through the window.

Red Flag 3:  Being unintentionally funny
Don't write sentences like: "Was she going to come in or stay out on the porch, he thought to himself."  It's been fairly well verified down through the annals of history that when a human being thinks, he almost always does so to himself.

Red Flag 4:  Too little dialogue
One of the primary red flags for many editors and agents is the absence of dialogue on the first few pages of a manuscript.  All editors--no matter what the material, screenplay or novel or short story--look for lots and lots of nice white space.

Red Flag 5:  Opening with dialogue
This kind of opening was popular at the turn of the last century; it looks musty now.  The problem with beginning a story with dialogue is that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the first character to appear in a story.

I love openings with the promise of great adventure and an underdog.  What hooks you?


  1. Great tips. I guess my alarm waking from a dream opening first line of dialogue is the reason my story sucks. I'm crushed - I thought it was really good. Of course I'm only joking - maybe.

    Actually I have a hard time with dialogue. There is dialogue in my second paragraph, but I struggle with it. I've been stuck in my last chapter because it required so much dialogue and it was so hard for me. I think I need to go back and study my characters personalities better - maybe that will make dialogue easier. Sorry to write all that I was mostly trying to work out my own issues.

  2. I'm sorry that was discouraging for you Mary. I gulped after a few of them myself. As far as dialogue, you ought to check out A Squirrel Amongst Lions posts where she and Diana are talking about that very thing. One is here: and the other here:

  3. Great post!!

    I changed my opening scene make it more exciting...put the reader into an action scene instead. After that the MC reflects on her morning and what led up to the action scene. My editor told me to change it back to what I had originally. I'm interested to see what she thinks now that it's changed. There's no dialogue...only inner dialogue (it's in 1st person).

  4. This is the second post I've read today that mentions this book. I've added to my Craft Books to read in 2010! Can't wait to dive in.

    Thanks for the hooks!

  5. That sounds like a very helpful book! I really struggled with beginnings when I first started writing--now middles are my biggest shortcoming. (Maybe it will shift to endings in a few years!)

  6. Stephanie, yeah it'll be fun to see what she thinks.
    Tamika, that's ironic. It is one of my favorites.
    Natalie, I'm still struggling with beginnings. Well all of it, actually. So if you know a good book about middles or endings, let me know.

  7. What a great list. I keep looking at this book in the bookstores, maybe it is time to purchase it.

  8. Just wanted to thank you for the wonderful props you gave my book, "Hooked." I really appreciate it, Catherine, and am glad it helped you in your own writing. We're the greatest sorority/fraternity in the world--writers--and it always makes my day when a fellow writer is helped a bit by something I've written. I have a huge debt to other writers who've done the same for me with their books and advice. Happy writing for you in 2010! Blue skies-Les Edgerton

  9. I really like these tips. I always write story openings in my head--even if I have no intention of turning them into anything. It's so helpful to compare those ideas to this advice.

    Don't forget to enter the contest by Sunday! :D

  10. Need More Words, it's definitely time. You won't be disappointed.

    Mr. Egderton, I so appreciate your comments. I agree it's wonderful how writers help each other out. Your book REALLY helped me, THANK you for all the work you put into it.

    SaraAnn, story openings are the best! Some of mine were lacking in action so this really helped me change that.

  11. Great tips! I'm such a sucker for dialogue. I LOVE to read and write it. And, though my novel doesn't begin with a line of dialogue I really like stories that do... guess I need to work on my tastes to make them coincide better with the experts!

  12. I usually try and begin my stories with action. But it really depends on the story. As this list of don'ts hints, styles change.

    I can remember when dialogue was considered very low brow. Now evidently they want more of it. Styles come and go. You're better off starting with a beginning that fits your particular story than in trying to slavishly stick to a guideline.

  13. I'd like to correct a misconception that seems to have arisen, if I may. I'm not advocating that stories don't begin with dialog. What I weigh in against is beginning with a line or more of dialog where the speaker and/or the adressee isn't identified, or the context of the dialog doesn't make it clear who's speaking and to whom. That's where the problem is--not that it begins with dialog per se. Beginning with dialog in that manner means the reader has to read further to figure out all that, and then backtrack in her mind to make sense of the dialog she's just read, and that means the fictive dream has been interrupted, a definite no-no. For instance, if a story begins with a snatch of dialog like this: "She may turn left at the next light." then we know nothing about the speaker, who that person's speaking to, or what her sentence is about. That's what I mean by not beginning with dialog. However, if that same sentence is written this way: The perp was getting away. We'd almost lost her. "She may turn right at the next light, Barry," I said. "Be prepared." Then that works. (Admittedly, neither of those represent great beginnings, but I'm writing this on the fly. I just wanted to show the distinction. I'm not against opening with dialog in the least, nor are editors/agents et al--it's opening with dialog that doesn't let the reader know the circumstances and who the speaker is. There are also instances where even though we don't know the speakers, we can get from the context of the dialog what's going on. As in: "I wouldn't mind going to bed with her, Ralph, but then I'd have to touch her." Something like that doesn't necessarily need dialog tags or setup, etc. Make sense? I just want to make sure that folks don't misunderstand and think that I or any agent/editor is against opening with dialog--that's not the case at all. It's dialog which requires the reader to have to backtrack in their mind a bit further on in the read that's a no-no. Hope that helps clarify this! Blue skies--Les Edgerton

  14. good advice! i entered a writing/essay contest and made sure my first paragraph, and in fact, first sentence would get the reader's (judges!) attention! still waiting for the results *crosses fingers*


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