Monday, January 18, 2021

Starting with a Bang (and Why That's Bull)

 I've start up a new writers' group that includes some writers who are newer to the craft. This has been wonderful for me, because I personally find it useful to my own process and to my own understanding to have to articulate how writing works. 

One of my colleagues was complaining that his other writers group always harps on him to have a strong hook. They keep telling him "You have to start with a BANG." The problem is the story he wants to tell isn't a high octane shoot 'em up, it a quiet, reflective piece about grief and a small, personal mystery. So, he was talking about how frustrating it is to have to artificially wrench his story into a form where it starts with some kind of huge dramatic moment

I stopped him and said, "It's a lie. What your colleagues are telling you is a lie."

A hook can be an actual gunshot, but what a BANG is, is simply the easiest way to get a reader's attention. It is not--absolutely not--the only way to get it.

You don't actually have to start with a bang at all. What you have to start with is a "hook," and that is very, very, VERY different than a bang. What a hook is, is something that compels a reader to want to go on. It's a sense of tension, an anxiousness to know more, it is a question that the reader desperately wants answered, or a quiet sense of building dread... or something else that has the reader saying 'OOoooooOOO, I want more of THIS.' 

It doesn't have to be BIG, it just has to be compelling.

It has been drilled into to new writers that the opening has to be exciting... and it does. It's just that it doesn't have to be "exciting" in a conventional way. 

I would go so far as to say that, if you do it right, almost anything could be a hook. A really strong sense of place could be enough for a reader to settle in an say to themselves, "Yes, this place seems super interesting, I want more." A strong, quirky narrative voice might be enough for a reader to say, "WHO is this person?? I must find out!" 

My friend and fellow Wyrdsmith, Adam Stemple once told me that an opening has to leave the reader with the impression that they are "in the hands of a master." And, he's right. Part of what you are establishing with your hook is a sense that you can be trusted to tell a good story. One of the ways you can gain that trust is believing that what you have to say is enough. Don't feel like you have to artificially contort your story so that you start in some conventionally "exciting" way. Just give your readers that nugget, the one that hints to them that what is promised is totally worth it. 

It still takes work to do it right, but don't waste that work thinking you have to go big or go home. You have to be interesting and compelling. That's hard enough! 

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