Contrary to what you might suppose, Hooked by Les Edgerton, is not a story about fish…but it could inspire you to write a good story opening about fish! This is a book about writing great story openings…beginnings that will catch not only a general reader’s eye, but also an agent or publisher’s eye. Most book proposals get rejected right off the bat if the first sentence/paragraph/page is boring or obviously amateur.
Now, this is not foolproof. There are exceptions to the rule, and Edgerton goes over those. But you can’t deny when you read all the examples he gives that a more exciting beginning will probably entice others to read the rest of your story. There are a few key ingredients that make up a good beginning:
The inciting incident: Your story should start right in the middle of the trouble, with an event that changes your character’s life. Your reader won’t care as much about a small town captured by your very poetic imagery as they will learning that a definite person is in trouble. It doesn’t have to be a hugely obvious life-changing event, however. Be dramatic, not melodramatic. Edgerton uses the example of Thelma and Louise. The inciting incident is the opening scene where Thelma decides not to tell her husband that she and Louise are going to take a trip. You would think that’s not a life-changing event, but because it causes other problems, it ends up actually changing their lives.
The inciting incident sets up the chain of surface problems: the direct results of the inciting incident. For instance, now that Thelma has decided not to tell her husband, she has to figure out how to get away without him knowing. She gets away successfully, but then she meets Harlan and he tries to rape her. Louise kills him. Thelma avoids getting raped, but now they are on the run from the law.
The inciting incident also sets up the overall story-worthy problem: this is the deep, underlying problem, the thing that drives the characters. In Thelma and Louise, the story-worthy problem is finding freedom from the tyranny of the men in their lives. As the reader tries to solve surface problem after surface problem, the underlying story-worthy problem becomes more clear until it is resolved at the end.
Obviously, this means you have to do some planning before you start writing a story. You have to know what your story-worthy problem is first. Then think of a surface problem. Then find your inciting incident.
As far as the actual writing of the beginning, Edgerton says to trust your reader’s intelligence. Your reader will pick up on small hints about your character’s past. Part of the fun of a story is learning more as it goes along. Don’t put all of the backstory at the beginning because it slows the pace of the story. You need to use an incident that immediately connects the reader to the story emotionally. Backstory is important and necessary, but must be used in the right place. Again, there are a couple of exceptions, but it’s never a good idea to assume you’re the exception to the rule (unless you really are).
Here’s some more words of advice I found insightful:
“If you capture the right beginning, you’ve written a small version of the whole.”
“All good story endings and resolutions should involve both an element of a win and an element of a loss.” (Thelma and Louise is a perfect example of this: the girls achieve freedom, but they end up giving their lives for it.)
“Each scene in a story is a battle, and the story entire is a war.”
“The rule of thumb with adjectives is that with each additional one, the power is halved, not doubled, as many mistakenly think. The secret to good writing is to employ strong, original verbs (avoid forms of to be) and concrete nouns.”
I really enjoyed reading this book. Les Edgerton’s purpose is to inspire writers, and he does it brilliantly. I kept putting the book down so I could go come up with opening lines and paragraphs. If you’re wondering how good your stories’ openings are or just want to find out how to write a good one, I highly suggest this book.