Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Hook

John here.

I’m about 50,000 words into my 2015 Peyton Cote (single mom/border patrol agent) novel, and as is often the case, I have picked up a fellow crime writer’s novel (Massacre Pond, by Paul Doiron) got swept away by chapter one, and am now doubting my own opening scene.

Am I a neurotic writer? Of course.

A perfectionist? I strive to be one.

I’m also the guy you seen in the mystery section of the (whenever possible independent) bookstore, reading the first paragraph, frowning, sliding the book back onto the shelf, and picking up the next to see if this one grabs me. I’ll give you a lot of leeway with your conclusion. (I read a lot of endings I don’t like, but I finish the novel.) But you need to write an intro that grabs me.
What do I look for in an opening paragraph, my own or yours? Questions. Lots of them. And questions that I assume will be relevant and (eventually) answered.

These are the opening paragraphs of Massacre Pond:

The first time I laid eyes on Billy Cronk, I thought he was the biggest badass in the Maine woods: six-five, braided blond hair, a tangled mess of a beard. He had arms that could have snapped a two-by-four over his knee for kindling. The night I arrested him for hunting on posted property, I kept my hand close to my pistol wondering if this blue-eyed bruiser would be the death of me.

As a game warden, I’d met my share of roadhouse brawlers and diehard deer poachers, and I understood that most violent men are cowards. Billy Cronk was different. He never doubted his physical prowess and had no need to prove himself against lesser men. He accepted the summons I wrote without forcing me to wrestle him into handcuffs. In fact, he thanked me for it, lowering his eyes out of embarrassment. The more I learned about the man, the more he surprised me.

The questions posed are obvious. But what answers can we anticipate? Billy Cronk will be a big part of the book. And there’s something about him I want to know more about. Why is Cronk “lowering his eyes out of embarrassment”? And we know a lot about our protagonist already: He appears to be Cronk’s antithesis. Also, a backstory is taking shape.

How about these opening lines from the Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway?
  • “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
  • The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight.
  • At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.
  • In the old days Hortons Bay was a lumbering town.
  • The rain stopped as Nick turned into the road that went up through the orchard.
  • Nick stood up. He was tall. He looked up the tracks at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around the curve.
  • One hot evening in Padua they carried him onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.
Opening lines are vital to setting up a book or story and keeping your reader engaged. I’d love to hear what others think on this topic.


Rick Blechta said...

Is your character's name pronounced using the original French ("Cot-tay") or like "coat"? Just wondering...

John R. Corrigan said...


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