Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hook Readers With an Opening Question

Writers are told time and again to start their stories with a bang. Open in the middle of a murder, a high-speed car chase, or heist-in-progress, and readers will be instantly hooked, right? How is it, then, that Margaret Atwood dares open her hefty contemporary novel The Robber Bride with a main character’s morning routine: waking up, getting dressed, taking out the garbage, making breakfast. This chapter is hardly the stuff of tabloid headlines. In fact, this is exactly what young writers are told not to do. At first glance, it might seem that Atwood only gets away with this because she’s the Canadian grande dame of fiction, with a dozen bestsellers already under her belt.


However, a second look shows that the only reason Atwood “gets away” with it is because she’s a master storyteller who knows exactly what she’s doing. The very first thing she does in opening her story is to raise a question. In a few poetic paragraphs, she introduces a character, known to the three main characters, and then drops the bombshell: this character has reappeared on the scene years after her own funeral. How can readers not keep reading?


This superb hook gives Atwood immediate leeway in slowing down to introduce characters and develop their personalities. Even still, hauling us through one woman’s morning routine could easily test our patience. Who cares what time the clock reads when the character wakes up, or if the garbage needs taken out? Get to the point already! But Atwood gives us a character so unique and interesting that even her most mundane morning rituals become insights into her personality and windows to the answer to the question that originally hooked us. It takes a skillful author to make a reader care about all this minutiae, especially at the beginning of a novel. But in The Robber Bride, Atwood shows us how to deliver the one-two punch—a killer hook and fascinating characterization—that makes her writing so unforgettable.
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11 comments:

  1. Clever. That catches /my/ attention!

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  2. Thats cool but I still prefer to open my novels with action. Sometime in my writing career I want to attempt to start the novel at the end

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  3. It's all in the execution, something novice writer don't automatically know. I'm getting the sense of what hook works and what doesn't. A lot of the stories I've written have weak openings, and should I decide to publish one, I will have to rewrite it with a killer hook.

    ~ VT

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  4. @Phy: It's a great hook, isn't it?

    @Lorna: It's not a perfect book, but it does enough things right that I definitely recommend it as worth studying.

    @Cameron: I've always liked the technique (when well done) of opening the book somewhere deep in the story, then going back to explain how the characters got there.

    @Victor: Definitely. In the hands of a less accomplished author, Atwood's opener could easily have splatted.

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  5. Well analysed - and you've definitely made me want to read The Robber Bride! I'm off to tweet.

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  6. It's the best Atwood I've read yet. Thanks for the RT!

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  7. I agree with dirtywhitecandy - I want to read this book now!

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  8. Now, that just goes to show the power of a good hook. Even without the supporting context of a strong opening chapter, you still want to find out what happens!

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  9. Ah, Atwood, the grande dame of Canadian fiction. Never heard her called that before. But she is worthy of the title. She gave me the strength to call my writing 'fiction' rather than be forced to pigeon-hole it, which many people have wanted me to do. But the 'opening question' is definitely something I struggle with. I have written first-chapters like Margaret has; I just hope I've gotten away with it. Wouldn't want to be called 'a less accomplished author', though, truth be known, I am if I try to compare myself with the grande dame. ;)

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  10. What gets me is the author's voice, but I still need a story question by the end of the second page at the very latest.

    I'm involved in several online critique groups/services, and many of the submissions start with an action scene before the reader has a chance to care about the character. For me, situation isn't enough, and I don't think it's enough for most readers.

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