Taking the NaNoWriMo Plunge

Nothing, I find, motivates writing more than a deadline.

Sometime earlier this month, the pitch began:

“You know, NaNoWriMo1 is just around the corner.”

My spouse has long thought I should give this writing event a whirl. I, on the other hand, am less enthused. And not just in the usual introvert-not-interested-in-joining-groups way.

As you may know already, NaNoWriMo challenges it participants to start writing a novel over the course of a month. The goal, of course, isn’t to produce a polished novel, but a first draft—or at least 50,000 words into that draft. Therefore, writers should aim to write at least 1667 words every day of November. While approximately 2000 words seems a reasonable amount to write in a day, I worry about whether I can do so every day.2 Like most writers I know, I squeeze my writing in whenever I can. Committing to a daily word count in practice sounds fine but sustaining that effort for weeks despite other obligations seems intimidating. As far as months to devote oneself to writing go, November is hardly ideal for me.3 But my ability to maintain this writing pace aside, I’m more concerned about, well, writing a novel. Until now, I’ve only written short stories and poetry. While I think my current story is a much longer one, I’m worried that I might not have enough material for a novel.

Despite my concerns, however, I am taking the NaNoWriMo plunge this year. Nothing, I find, motivates writing more than a deadline. As a potential side benefit, I’m hoping that the pressure to meet this goal will inspire me to discover opportunities for writing alongside other commitments. I wouldn’t mind walking away from NaNoWriMo with a better writing schedule. With my writing buddies to cheer me along this month (thereby keeping me accountable), I think I’ll be more likely to keep at the keyboard. But the final push for committing to NaNoWriMo, however, stemmed from my decision to prioritize my writing more and worry less about whether it fit a certain category. Regardless of my story’s final word count, I’m just going to write it. If it proves to be much shorter than I hoped, I’ll start another one. And, as I’ve been delighted to learn, many others look at NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to work on writing short fiction or poetry, while others use this time to edit their work. Although it may not be the official way to participate in this event, it achieves a larger objective: to get out there and get writing. And that is certainly a goal worth accomplishing.

Good luck, fellow Wrimos!

NOTES


  1. National Novel Writing Month, for anyone who doesn’t know. 
  2. My favorite advice for keeping pace with the NaNoWriMo writing goals involves the JUST WRITE mantra, meaning that one should skip both revising and editing, with it being suggested that one should ignore both spelling and grammar errors as well as typos. Ignoring the latter alone would make my draft illegible. (Never mind what the  professional editor in me thinks about leaving even glaring errors unchallenged.) 
  3. Every Saturday (and one Sunday) is already booked. In addition to two family birthdays (one of which is mine) and American Thanksgiving, I also will be attending a few family events that involve travel. 

Igniting Conflict: How the Inciting Incident Sets Stories in Motion

Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.

For me, storytelling fundamentally begins with an interruption. At one point in a story, something occurs to interrupt the flow of the main character’s everyday life. This moment is often described as the inciting incident or inciting event of the story. The inciting incident represents a decision, action, or event that introduces the story’s main problem/conflict, thus triggering the rising action of the story. When it comes to writing a story’s inciting event, however, the process isn’t always as straightforward as its definition suggests. Whether a writer diligently plots their story before writing or discovers it as they write,1 creating an interesting inciting incident and inserting it at the right moment can be difficult. Since stories hinge upon their conflict, it’s critical that writers understand how the inciting incident operates in stories (for my purposes, fiction). To this end, I’m going to review some of the general guidelines for writing an inciting incident (with examples of what they look like in practice) as well point out a few tips to identifying whether a story’s inciting incident works well.

Placement: In the Beginning…Somewhere

When formulating a short story or novel’s inciting incident, there are two guiding principles that should be kept in mind. The first is that the inciting incident must occur somewhere in the story’s opening. This point is nonnegotiable. If the inciting incident doesn’t occur in the early portion of the story, there isn’t a conflict to generate the rest of the story. The actual placement, however, is debatable. Some advice places the inciting event roughly halfway between the narrative hook and its first plot point (around the 12% mark of the story). While the placement proffered here seems about right (particularly for writers using a three-act structure to plot their tale), there are stories where the inciting event occurs close to the story’s first plot point (the end of the story’s open) or even much earlier. An excellent example of the latter case is the first lines from Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein):

“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me….Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

Here, Ferrante uses Mario’s desertion as both her novel’s inciting event and narrative hook.2 While this instance demonstrates how writers can be flexible about where they place the inciting incident in the novel’s opening act, most stories will require some exposition to explain why this inciting incident creates conflict for the main character. For example, the narrative hook in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) appears as the first line of the novel, whereas the inciting event (Maxim de Winter’s rather rushed and unromantic marriage proposal) occurs in chapter 6. This pacing makes sense, partly because the narrator needs to shift from present to past (most of the novel is a flashback) and partly because the characters need to meet and become acquainted before an engagement can occur.

Igniting Conflict: How the Inciting Incident Sets Stories in Motion. Text by Rita E. Gould
Gustav’s Freytag’s “pyramid”, which represents his theory of dramatic structure. [Illustration.] Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure#/media/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg.
 

Impact: Reacting to Life-Altering Change

The second general principle of the inciting incident involves its impact on the main character/protagonist. As I noted above, stories begin with interruption but not just any interruption will do. The inciting incident must have a significant impact on the protagonist’s life, one that forces them to react (in some cases, eventually react when the stakes are raised) to their new circumstances.3 In Days of Abandonment, Mario’s decision to end his marriage with Olga has obvious, life-altering consequences for her. In addition to dealing with this unexpected and unexplained dissolution of her relationship, Olga is also left to care for the couple’s children and home on her own. She essentially transforms from stay-at-home parent and wife of 15 years to single mother. Regardless of how she chooses to react to this situation (in the novel, initially with disbelief), her life is now headed in a new, uncertain direction.

Tips for Assessing Inciting Incidents

Identifying an inciting incident in a published work is one thing. Creating an effective one in our own work, however, is a different matter. Although I can’t claim to have an exhaustive list of strategies that provides specific suggestions for creating the perfect inciting incident (placement of this moment, for example, depends on the story), asking these questions while plotting/writing a tale can help determine whether its inciting incident hits the mark.4

  • Is my inciting incident in the story’s opening?
  • Does the inciting incident divide the story into before (backstory) and after?
  • How does the inciting incident transform the protagonist’s life?

While the first of these questions is more of a checklist item, the others give some guidance on how to interrogate a work-in-progress’s inciting incident. Since one of the hallmarks of the inciting incident is that it cleaves the story into before (backstory) and after (events that occur in response to the inciting incident), we should be able to distinguish them. And the story should be divisible, as the last question indicates, because the inciting incident upsets the protagonist’s status quo.

Backstory events are, of course, necessary for developing the story (the narrator and Maxim de Winter from Rebecca clearly wouldn’t have wed without having first met in Monte Carlo), but they materially change little for the protagonist (following this first encounter, the pair part and go about their usual business). Similarly, the inciting event causes the remaining events in the story (the narrator and Maxim wed but only because he first proposes). Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.5 If it’s unclear where the division between before and after occurs in a story, the inciting incident is likely weak or absent. When a work-in-progress’s inciting incident fails to alter the main character’s life in some meaningful way (sadly, a problem I discovered in a short story I’m revising), then that incident needs revision. Alternatively, if there are two or more events that could alter the status quo for the protagonist, then the writer needs to choose which option best suits the story and revise accordingly.

Summary

When working with fictional stories, there are numerous moving parts to get in order to before a story is sound. Getting a story underway is challenging though necessary, as the opening gets the readers invested in the tale. And the inciting incident is critical for kicking off conflict in a story. With a firm grasp on how the inciting incident works and a few tactics for detecting whether these story elements work or become wayward, writers should find it easier to get their stories on course.

NOTES:


  1. Better known as a pantster, that is one who writes by said seat of. I’m a bit of hybrid, personally. If you’re curious about where you might fit on that spectrum, have a look at Helen Taylor’s article on plotters vs. pantsters
  2. On occasion, online writing advice conflates the narrative hook with the inciting incident, which is perhaps understandable since both occur early in the story and need to be compelling. And, as the Ferrante’s novel shows, they can be one and the same. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the narrative hook presents an intriguing scenario that baits the reader into reading further by making them wonder what occurs next; inclusion of the story’s inciting incident is optional but not required. 
  3. Reaction seems to be the main character/protagonist’s fate when it comes to the inciting incident, a point discussed well here
  4. This method works also well for identifying an inciting incident in other writers’ works, too. 
  5. Maxim’s hasty proposal changes the narrator from a lady’s companion to the fiancée of a wealthy man (placing her on the same level as Rebecca, his deceased first wife). Given that Maxim neglects to declare his love for the narrator when he proposes, her envy of Rebecca (she wishes she could have the intimacies she assumes Maxim’s first wife share with him but believes a relationship with him is impossible) to jealousy, since she fears that he only wishes to wed her so that he’s not alone with the grief for his first wife. 

On Reading Women in Translation

And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language.

On Reading Women in Translation. Text by Rita E. GouldI think the first translated book I consciously chose to buy, a book I knew beforehand was translated, was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen). It was by no means the first text (either prose or poetry) I’d read in translation, of course. As a young child, I read Pippi Longstocking, likely unaware that Astrid Lindgren wrote it in Swedish.1 As a tween (or thereabouts), I understood the classic tales I read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were written in Greek or Latin originally, though I didn’t appreciate what translation entailed. Through my studies, my awareness of translated works grew and I gained insight into how translation might affect a text’s meaning and the reliability of interpreting it.2 And of course, that also meant I bought many translated works as a student. What differentiated Esquivel’s novel from these other works, however, was that it was (then) a contemporary novel I selected for leisure reading. It had not been assigned reading, as both Wislawa Symborzka’s poems and a heavily abridged version of Les Misérables initially had been. It was not yet a “classic” work that significantly influenced/shaped literature or even a book that a sibling discarded.3 And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language. It’s this latter distinction that strikes me as important.

I’ve made a point to include translated novels in my reading recently, because (as I observed last year) I realized that I typically overlooked such books in the past. Expanding my reading horizons remains important to me, but I’d be mistaken in not acknowledging that most translated novels generally tend to be well written. For publishers to undertake the risk associated with printing a translated novel, that novel must achieve a certain level of acclaim or popularity for people to champion its translation. My experience of attending a twitter chat focused on reading women in translation was enlightening: so many people passionately recommended novels they’d read, attesting to how great, insightful, or thought provoking these books were.4 And I think it’s this promise of remarkable writing that compelled me to read more women’s writing in translation. Two (very different) favorites emerged from those recommendations: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus). While I can’t claim to deeply love every translated work I’ve read since (personal tastes vary, after all), I generally found reading them all rewarding.

But there is one remaining thought that haunts me when I consider reading women in translation, works that one day may be hailed as classics. As I’ve selected books to read or discuss during Women in Translation Month, I found myself thinking about what my intellectual life would be without the many translated works I’ve read. Losing The Odyssey alone would leave a huge literary crater: Neither The Aeneid nor The Penelopiad would exist without it. Translated works shape how we think and how we in turn write just as much as works written in our native language(s) do. I cannot help but wonder what deeper insights we might be missing when we bypass these works. And given how infrequently women’s writing is translated, I suspect that difference here could be significant. It’s among the reasons I intend to continue reading women in translation year-round as well as rate, recommend, and (when I can) review translated works written by women so that I can help publishers and fellow readers see what they’re missing. And the more often we all do so, the more available these excellent works will become to everyone.

NOTES:


  1. At that rather young age, I treated title pages, the locations where both authors and translators get mentioned, as filler to be skipped past quickly. 
  2. Pun intended. 
  3. One of the advantages of older siblings is that their discarded books become your books years before anyone would think to hand you a copy. Mythology was over my head in some places, but I love and appreciate it more and more every time I read it. 
  4. In this case, the 2016 Women Writers Network twitter chat for #witmonth. 

Summertime and the Writing Isn’t Easy

Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing.

Summertime and the Writing Isn't Easy. Text by Rita E. Gould

Summer starts for me mid-June, when my child’s school year ends and the promise of long days beckons. We spend more time on adventures and work on projects instead of rushing to school and completing homework.1 There are trips to the pool and beach, with an occasional pajama day celebrated. For us, summertime always seems to be a bit more. More social invites, ranging from weddings (the bride was lovely, of course) to vacations. Several family and friend birthdays are also sprinkled through the summer, providing yet another reason to get together at a barbecue and at poolside.

Summertime and the Writing Isn't Easy. Text and photo (this particular one) by Rita E. Gould
Summer project 2018: tie-dye shirts that (hopefully) will be easier on the eyes than the cheap plastic tablecloth is.

But all this more does tend to mean we seem to spend much of our time on the go (particularly weekends), punctuated with the rare, lazy pj day that has a way disappearing with little accomplished. As for those pool and beach days, they also tend to consume an entire day, leaving one exhausted and, perhaps, a bit sunburned). Throw in the odd head cold/seasonal allergies, and it seems that summer evaporates with very little writing done. Whatever happened to summer’s more-ishness?

Summer did. Distractions abound through the year, but beautiful days coupled with the prospect of visiting friends, summer activities such as sports and music lessons,2 as well as road trips makes it easier to slip away from a keyboard. There is also the slipperiness of time itself. Freedom from a fixed schedule, while it promises more opportunity to play as well as to write, curiously unmoors my sense of passing time. Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing. Rather unfairly, having more unscheduled time seems to leave more pages blank than when I barely have a moment between activities.

I suppose there’s nothing like the pressure of deadlines and multiple tasks looming to motivate one’s writing. There’s something unpalatable, however, about the notion that one could only really write under some (but not too much) pressure. Surely, one can relax a bit and still write? After, some many say that writers should be in the habit of writing. Perhaps, it’s habit that helps us overcome distraction, lacking motivation, and the notion of “I’ll do it in a bit”. What this summer might need (however close its end may be) is a writing schedule.

Once I get back from my weekend at the shore.

NOTES:


  1. Homework becomes a group effort, when you’re obliged to check it. 
  2. I’m pleased to announce that my child now plays the trumpet instead of the recorder. My ears are endlessly relieved—and our canine guests are marginally less dismayed. (Recorder music strikes terror in the heart of arthritic terriers, causing them to—unprecedentedly—leap, run, and hide.) 

Three Ways Travel Subtly Shapes Fiction

Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations.

If reading is akin to journeying into the perspectives of others, then it’s little wonder that some of those vantages will include actual voyages. Travel1 in writing fascinates, because of its seemingly endless vistas, encounters with fascinating folk, and potential for adventure, adversity, and the unexpected. For fiction writing (our focus here), only the writer’s imagination serves as the limit: travel can acquire fantastic elements (ie, time travel, interstellar exploration) or mirror the more mundane to remarkable expeditions currently within the realm of possibility. However, travel’s role in fiction isn’t limited to bringing characters in contact with new places, people, and experiences. Travel also quietly influences some of the less overt areas of storytelling. Here’s three ways in which travel more subtly shapes a story.

Hooked on Travel

Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse opens with the Ramsay family discussing a possible expedition to said lighthouse, the train in “The Story-Teller” by Saki (more formally, H. H. Munro) is already en route to its next destination as the story of a bachelor and three bored children starts, and Yosiko Uchida’s “Tears of Autumn” introduces us to Hana Omiya as her long trip across the sea concludes. Countless stories ranging from the classics (The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer) to children’s literature (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett) mention travel in their story hooks for a good reason: travel intrigues readers, because it evokes notions of discovery, exploration, and escape. When people travel, they alter their routine, and readers become curious as to why. Consider Uchida’s character, Hana, who watches the American coastline approach in the beginning of “Tears of Autumn”. Whether readers accurately assume that she’s an immigrant or guess that she’s a visitor, they likely will ask why she chose to venture so far from home, where she is headed, and what she expects to do when she arrives. And that’s what hooks are meant to do: present scenarios that intrigue readers and leave them with questions that will motivate them to read more.

In the Mood to Meander

Travel’s most discernible effect on storytelling occurs in the setting. Setting, of course, depicts where the story occurs, and travel obviously allows writers to use multiple settings.2 As Courtney’s Carpenter’s article reminds us, setting also conveys critical background information about (to name a few) a story’s timeline, its climate, and, importantly, its mood. Mood is the oddball of setting. While most other features of setting provide concrete details that establish an impression of a specific place and time, the mood instead evokes feelings about that place within the reader. Fortunately, travel creates natural opportunities3 for writers to describe their setting and its associated mood as characters survey their surroundings. In “Tears of Autumn”, Uchida describes Hana arriving on a “small ship that shuddered toward America in a turbulent November sea. She shivered as she pulled the folds of her silk kimono close to her throat and tightened the wool shawl about her shoulders….” In addition to leaving clues that suggest Hana’s homeland (Japan), her approximate location (ship approaching west coast of North America), the weather, and an idea of when she sailed (probably before the 1940s4), this excerpt gives readers a feel for this place. Uchida’s wording here—“turbulent…sea” and the small boat’s shudder echoed by Hana’s shivers—suggests a cold, unsettled environment. The combination hints at apprehension, thus neatly prefiguring Hana’s worries about her new homeland and husband. Whether the mood concurs with the viewpoint character’s feelings (as occurs here) or counters it, travel lets writers move their characters while setting up the story’s emotional undertones, thus giving readers a sense of the story’s upcoming conflicts.

Three Subtle Ways Travel Shapes Fiction
Travel provides writers with a natural opportunity to depict the setting and its mood, neatly underscoring the emotional backdrop of the tale that often presages conflicts over the horizon.

 

Motivation: The Why Behind the Wander

Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations. Behind these journeys, however, exists some goal or desire. Falling under the umbrella of character motivation, such goals provide rationale that explains why characters exit their familiar environs. Within this context, the underlying motives for travel can profoundly affect the story regardless of whether (a) travel is central to the narrative and (b) is the character’s primary motivation/goal in the story. And fictional characters, much like real people, roam for myriad reasons. While such motivations can be straightforward, some tales obscure character’s true motives. In Rebecca, author Daphne du Maurier introduces Max de Winter and the narrator, the future Mrs. de Winter, while they’re traveling. The narrator’s reason for being in Monte Carlo is transparent: she works as a paid companion. However, most people assume that Max travels to distance himself from his grief, an assumption that appears to be confirmed when states he want to forget his past. Although it’s true he wants to escape his memories, it has nothing to do with sorrow.5 Lacking this insight, the narrator misconstrues Max’s behavior throughout the novel and becomes convinced he wed her solely to avoid being alone.

Three Ways Travel Subtly Shapes Fiction
When writers give characters such as Max de Winter (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier) hidden motivations for traveling, they use misdirection to surprise both readers and viewpoint characters, often allowing a dramatic transformation of the plot.

Neither misdirection nor complication, however, are uncommon when dealing with characters’ motivation. Writers frequently compel their characters to undertake journeys for several, nuanced, or even complex reasons. Hana Omika’s ostensible reason for sailing to the United States is to get married. Of course, one needn’t cross an ocean to wed. Clearly, this independent-minded young woman seeks more than matrimony, namely greater freedom than her family and village would otherwise allow had she remained in Japan. Finally, it’s important to remember that, since travel can be transformative, character motivation may alter in response to events occurring on a trip. This effect is most clearly observed when adventures take disastrous turns. In such tales, characters’ former reasons for travel are swept away as their goal becomes survival (eg, the shipwreck in Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch). Even in less dramatic instances (eg, when Macon Leary’s bad back inadvertently leads to him confronting his lifelong inaction in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist), the results are the same: the character’s desires change. No matter where the will to wander leads characters or how circumstances change its direction, characters reasons for setting forth helps shape how the story’s conflicts and plot unfold.

Writing Wanderers

Travel allows writers a broader landscape in which they set their characters afield. But in the subtler aspects of storytelling, they also can incorporate details that captures readers’ interest, direct their feelings, or show them the desires that launches these journeys. As these example show, stories gain depth and direction when writers focus their efforts on both evident and understated features of their travel stories.

NOTES:


  1. While we tend to think of travel in terms of vacations, travel technically encompasses many types of journeys of varying lengths and import. Travelers can be sailors, refugees, holiday makers, pilgrims, explorers, commuters, soldiers, pilots/air stewards, business people, etc. 
  2. In fairness, these locations may only be mentioned in passing or implied (in the sense that a traveler had to come from somewhere). 
  3. Traveling excels at making people observe the surrounding when they are on the move or when they arrive somewhere. In fiction, therefore, nothing seems more natural than when a narrator or a viewpoint character takes a moment to comment on the scenery as they pass by. 
  4. Since Hana arrives by boat, there’s a strong likelihood her flight occurred before the 1960s when flying started to become more accessible. Her travel, however, likely occurred before the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II (1941). As it happens, the United States and Canada both severely limited Japanese immigrants in 1907/8 under the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan. In the United States, “picture brides” such as Hana were permitted to immigrate up to 1924, after which all Japanese immigration was banned until 1965. 
  5. Max likely wants to escape a bit more than his bad memories. Since most believe he and Rebecca were happily wed, he has no reason to dispel the notion that he mourns her. He’s the sort who would choose to keep his marital distress private in any case, but he certainly has additional cause to maintain appearances. 

Writing Nevers

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal.

During grad school, I enrolled in a course that focused on writing personal essays. While I regularly sought out opportunities to improve my writing, my interest in this course partially stemmed from my inexperience with the genre. I’d been in many writing classes and workshops since my teenaged years, but I mostly wrote poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I didn’t (and don’t) keep a journal.1 Discounting those personal statements for college applications, I’d written very little from my perspective.2 Clearly, I missed a stop on my writing journey.

As with all new to new-ish ventures, it took me some time to acclimatize to writing personal essays: I initially found it challenging to unpack my own experiences and turn them into writing material for the weekly theme. I eventually found my pace, and some of my anecdotes made a point well or earned an intended chuckle. But I could see I still had some way to go before I reached real proficiency. And however much I enjoyed the course (reading my classmates’ essays often was inspiring), it seemed unlikely that I’d revisit the personal essay. I never felt quite at home writing about myself.

After writing about a year’s worth of blog posts, I’d like to concede that I may have been mistaken.3

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal. Any time spent writing or learning about writing isn’t wasted for a writer,4 because more writing makes us write better. And what blogging taught me this year was that I didn’t need to make any grand decisions about future writing. As it happens, I discovered that writing from my viewpoint became easier once I recognized the direction it would take: discussing my writing and reading experiences. I don’t doubt that there are stories that are not mine to tell or genres that I will not master, but the only thing saying never did was limit the paths my writing could take. And frankly, that’s a terrible way to end a tale.

NOTES:


  1. For the record, kudos to everyone who keeps a journal and can, whenever they so desire, peruse a record of events, thoughts, impressions, etc. At present, my attempts still tend to produce writing that has grating “dear diary” tone that kinda bores me. 
  2. Unless we’re counting the occasional insertion of inappropriate humor and slightly knowing/know-it-all tone, in which case yes, that would be me. 
  3. Before this descends into a not-so-humble brag, I’ve still think I’ve ways to go before I hit the summit for amazing writing. 
  4. As it happens, I left that class with a greater appreciation of the personal essay format, which helped me become a more critical reader of them. 

Hook, Line, and the Writer

Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.

While writing my last post on books that linger on the to-read pile, I briefly mentioned the narrative hook, as it helped explain what I meant by being hooked into a story. At the time, I recalled several great openings to stories, ones that I subsequently read and enjoyed. But looking at these lines from a writer’s perspective now, I wondered what specifically makes such lines so intriguing that a reader simply must read the rest of the story. Any quick survey of novels and stories shows that authors use various approaches to create a hook: compelling/quirky characters, dramatic situations, unusual settings, weather, memories, recounting advice, humor, and so forth. But regardless of the tactic used, these storytelling hooks pique the readers’ interest by presenting them with a scenario that raises questions, the kind that can only be answered by reading further. In the following, I’ve provided three examples of stories that illustrate how writers use their opening lines to land their reader’s attention.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. Gould

Beloved

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”—Beloved, Toni Morrison

Morrison elects to drop us straight into the middle of Beloved’s events to ensure that readers, much like Paul D, don’t know why 124 happens to be such an unhappy place when they first encounter it. The sequence of story events has a role in constructing the hook, because the story’s impact hinges on how the reader gains information. In a novel like this one, beginning in media res allows readers to experience Paul D’s shock of discovery as well as introduces uncertainty about how events will unfold once this truth is divulged. Therefore, this hook needs to hint at the terrible disclosure to come without revealing much about it or its consequences, a tactic that also generates a mystery. Morrison’s uses a surprising metaphor (ie, surprising insofar as we normally don’t think of homes as spiteful or babies as being venomous) to signal the lingering malevolence of the as-yet undisclosed past, which suggests the house is haunted—perhaps literally—by the deceased child, Beloved.1 These lines, therefore, raise questions about what created this discord (Why is 124 spiteful? What happened there?) as well as build anticipation for that discovery.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. GouldThe Lovely Bones

“Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf….The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, “Don’t worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.”

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”—The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones is a curious case when it comes to the narrative hook, because the first lines of the novel aren’t in the first chapter: they occur in the prefatory paragraph preceding this chapter. While the goal of the preface is to provide readers with readers background material that somehow informs the story and is technically not part of the story’s action, it’s the text that the reader sees first, meaning that preface also needs to capture the reader’s attention. However, I’d argue that the first chapter also needs a hook, because that’s where the story begins—a critical consideration since readers may overlook or skip the preface.2 For this reason, I’ll discuss how both The Lovely Bones’ preface and first lines from chapter one work as hooks.

Sebold’s preface, which recounts a memory, represents an instance in which the entire paragraph serves as the hook. While this memory initially appears to focus on an ordinary father—daughter bonding moment, its true significance emerges when Susie interrupts their play to express her concern for the penguin in the globe. Her father comforts her, but in doing so he describes the penguin’s “nice life” as a trap. It’s subtle, but the association of perfection with a trap is unexpected and unpleasant (traps aren’t reassuring), one that makes readers wonder how this idea will affect these characters going forward.3 Here, the reader asks: How can a perfect world act as a trap? How does this apply to these characters?

In contrast to Beloved’s opening lines that intrigue readers by hinting at a tragedy, The Lovely Bones’s first chapter begins by revealing its traumatic inciting event.4 An older Susie introduces herself directly to the reader and then stuns them with her dramatic announcement. The name-based joke juxtaposed with her murder defies conversational norms and unsettles the reader. Naturally, the reader asks has questions: Why was she murdered? Who killed her? It’s the question of what will happen next that matters most to The Lovely Bones, as it focuses on the aftermath of Susie’s murder for her family and herself in “her heaven”.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. Gould

Rebecca

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”—Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

What makes the opening line of Rebecca so interesting is how much it accomplishes in a brief sentence. In a few words, the reader knows this place holds powerful associations for the unidentified narrator and suggests a possible loss—the narrator only dreams of going there. And we already have questions: what kind of place is Manderley? Why is it so important to the narrator? Why does this person recurrently dream about it? du Maurier’s first chapter, utilizing the combination of a mysterious setting and dream sequence, builds on this first line to suggest a tragedy. Since Rebecca begins in the aftermath of some unknown, ominous event, it’s important that the hook (as was the case with Beloved) suggest more than it reveals—particularly since the remainder of the novel (starting midway through chapter two) reveals, via extended flashback, the events that led to this calamity.

SUMMARY

Building a good hook often involves introducing the element of surprise. Writers need to catch the reader off guard by presenting a situation that somehow doesn’t behave normally, whether it’s a spiteful house or the penguin “trapped in the world”, there should be something (or someone) that sidesteps ordinary expectations. Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.

NOTES:


  1. Beloved, we discover late in the novel once had a proper name, but it’s neither used nor revealed in the novel. 
  2. Using a preface, therefore, provides a writer with two opportunities to hook or lose the reader’s attention. 
  3. Initially, I wondered if Jack, Susie’s father, felt trapped him by his own lovely life but that specific desperation proved to be another character’s problem, which means the preface also introduces some narrative misdirection to keep the reader guessing. 
  4. Inciting events represent actions or decision that sets the story in motion (here, Susie’s murder). The sequence of events may be linear or flashback to how events led to inciting incident, as is the case here. Susie’s murder also represents the uses of an external force as the initial driver of the plot.