It’s brutal. Allow me to explain a bit before I get to the point.
Anyone reading submissions is to take on the role of the overworked acquisitions editor wading through a slush pile. Contributing writers are to submit no more than 1,000 words. Readers start reading and if something makes them stop, they click that paragraph, describe what made them stop, and move on to the next submission. If it’s a good hook, they’ll make it to the end and say what they liked/why they made it to the end.
On the receiving end, writers can see how long a reader stuck with the story before they bailed. Often, it’s less than a minute and for a variety of reasons: too much description right away, unclear who the main character is, and grammar issues, among many others. Sometimes, there is wide agreement about why readers stopped, and that’s very helpful to the writer – she knows exactly how to fix her hook.
Often, the story starts in the wrong place. I submitted the opening of my YA urban fantasy WIP to the hook queue on two occasions with two different openings because I wasn’t sure of the best place to start it. Whereas many stories start too early (too far away from the inciting incident), mine started too late – I wanted to jump right into the action and that was disorienting.
So what makes a good hook, anyway?
Les Edgerton, the author of Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go, would say to start as close to the inciting incident as possible.
Side note – does anyone else think the term “inciting incident” is stupid? Inciting. Incident. They mean the same thing in different parts of speech.
The point is, if a phone call gets the ball of the story rolling, start with the phone call. Gone are the days when an author can ease the reader in with “a day in the life” of the character.
This struck me when I was watching the newest Star Trek movie with the hubby. If my fellow nerds will recall, the movie begins with Kirk and someone (Bones, I think) on an alien planet, where Spock was waiting inside a volcano with a device that would defuse the volcano. The scene opens with Kirk and Bones literally running for their lives. Action right away. Boom. And Kirk’s behavior on that planet, namely how he saved Spock, is what got that story rolling (Kirk’s side of it, anyway).
In The King’s Speech, the soon-to-be king is delivering (or attempting to deliver) a speech to a large crowd, which of course is difficult and awkward because of his stammer. It’s not exciting, per se, but that’s what gets the story going.
I’ve used movies as examples because they set the standard that we writers have to reach these days. Very bookish people will argue with me, saying we are allowed more leverage by the very nature and beauty of the written word.
Uh, except that we’re not. Not anymore. You may be allowed a little previous background before the phone call, but it had better be as brief as possible. In the case of my YA, I needed a page of setting beforehand because it takes place in a dystopian world. In The Fourth Descendant, I worked around the problem of supplying relevant background by weaving it in after the phone call – in this case, it was a literal phone call. Opening line: The call came from an unfamiliar number.
Before revisions, I think the phone call was on page two. That was too late for a good hook. The opening lines need to raise questions that can only be answered by continuing to read the story, and the background I originally had in front of the call didn’t do that.
What about your stories? How far away is your opening from the inciting incident?