Beyond hooking the reader

I'm judging a couple of contests and thought I'd give all you aspiring writers a bit of advice. Too many contest entries show that writer worked really hard at creating a hook beginning. Unfortunately, the same amount of effort didn't go toward the part of the manuscript beyond the beginning.

You create a dynamite hook sentence for your novel which leads into a hookable first chapter. Right. Then what? Well, if this is the usual contest entry, the first chapter is all I generally see, but a synopsis of the whole book is, most times, also submitted. That's where the story really falls apart for a lot of beginning writers. Somehow the more they write, the less magic they create. I imagine that happens when they come to the muddle of the book. That's the middle for all you who haven't got that far yet.

Suddenly, Chance, your hero, is fighting for his life against an armed assailant. Oh my gosh! It's Surely, his psychotic twin brother who left town a decade ago. Chance reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out - a Glock 9 mm. and blows Lance to kingdom come!

Hold it! Hold it! Just a darn minute!

Where did that evil twin brother come from? You never mentioned in the beginning of the book that Chance had any kind of brother. You never indicated that your hero carried a gun, much less a Glock! And why on earth is he fighting for his life? Aren't you writing a romance novel?

What happened to your book? How did you go from a great hook to unbelievable contrivance? Your novel skidded from Great Beginning to Muddled Middle in less time than it takes an editor to slap a form rejection on a slush pile manuscript. What happened is that you didn't pay attention to your beginning.

The beginning of a book is the critically important first fourth of your manuscript. From the hook sentence to the first plot point which concludes that first fourth of the book, you must set everything up. If you don't, then you constantly will be going from the scene in the middle of the book which you are writing back to the beginning, making notes (and later revisions) to insert in that beginning to account for characters, motivations, and actions that have occurred later in the book. As you do this, your taut beginning can start to bloat, even to sag.

In the campy sample above, you must let the reader know that the hero has an evil twin before the man appears out of the blue. If the hero draws a gun, then by golly, the reader needs to know in the beginning that he carries a gun and what kind - and that he is the kind of guy who would use a gun - or not use one.

If the story is going to have the hero fighting for his life, then the mood from the beginning should indicate to the reader that this might be a possibility.

In the crucial first fourth of the book, a writer must do this for her reader:

* hook the reader (apparently, everyone knows this)
* show the setting (evocative description to make it real to the reader and allow her/him to suspend disbelief
* introduce all the important characters (never introduce a major player after this part of the book)
* create a sense of immediacy that glues the reader to the page (you want the reader concerned about what is going to happen next)
* present the conflict that keeps your characters from getting what they want (a book without adequate conflict is an unpublished book)
* create suspense (will she get her man, will he win his lady fair, will they catch the terrorists before a bomb is planted)
* show the characters' motivations for doing what they do (unmotivated characters are unbelievable characters)
* show a decision that must be made (what to do, oh, dear, what to do, and of course the decision brings disastrous results)
* show the dominant emotion that colors the book (is it a happy book, a sad book, a hopeful book, pessimistic)
* set the tone for the book (is it a comedy, a horror, a romantic suspense
* introduce all the plots of the book (small books may have only a main plot line such as boy meets girl but big books can have the main plot line, a secondary plot, and an information plot; whatever the scope of your book be sure to introduce all the different plot lines during the beginning)
* end the beginning with a plot point that will propel the story into complications (an action or event that spins the story around, sending it perhaps in a different direction, but definitely propelling it into complications, the dreaded middle of the book).

Once you have successfully reached this point, your middle should not turn into a muddle because you know where your story is going, and you should have developed and presented enough conflict for your motivated characters that they will act and react and interact, leaving you just to record what happens. Right?

Ha! If it were only that easy!

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