Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Follow-up: Setting the Hook

I'm going to continue with the analysis I started in my previous post, using the same two books to explore how the hook evolves into the opening of the story--the first page or so--and what gets accomplished in the first chunk of the book.

Though I didn't really think about it at the time I selected them, Swordspoint and God's War have some superficial similarities: both have main characters who are basically paid killers, both of them are first novels. The differences, however, are enormous, as we saw in their opening paragraphs, and each continues as it began.

God's War is divided into parts. Part 1: Bel Dame covers roughly the first 50 pages of the novel, so we'll use that length as our comparative point. A bel dame in the book's vernacular is the higher echelon of killers, distinguished from mere bounty hunters; they do important work, hunting down traitors and those who have returned from the war carrying dangerous contagions. The first few paragraphs after the hook set up the events of Part 1.

The first part of God's War consists of background and setting material interwoven with present-time information about Nyx working, using Jaks to track down a target. At the same time, she is trying to evade some old associates and enemies, who consider her as having violated the bel dame rules. Nyx gets her target, but she also gets caught, goes to prison, gets out, and forms a bounty hunter team--accepting this lower-status work as all she can get, turning some of her own hunters into members of her team. Seven years pass.

The passage of so much time with no detail at all makes me wonder why the story didn't start with Part 2. With the sole exception of a very brief, glancing contact with some Mysterious People, nothing that has happened so far seems to have major significance. Nyx is tough as nails; she has a sister (not close), a dead partner (de rigeur for hard-bitten types) and no scruples, ideals, or goals beyond staying alive. The other POV we've met, Rhys, is a foreigner from the enemy country, a former dancer, an indifferently talented magician willing to work for Nyx, and religious. His backstory provides potential conflicts that could be interesting, but so far they have not materialized.

After 50 pages, these characters have not become people, and I am only continuing to read this book for my own education.

Let's turn to our other paid killer, Richard St. Vier (names can say a lot, whether they have a real-world derivation or are based in a fictional language, whether they have surnames--it's a great way to imply without stating your setting). Swordspoint has several POV characters; the plot turns on conspiracy and betrayal, so the multiple voices have a role in making events comprehensible. Let's take a look at the rest of the opening.

Honestly? It gives me goosebumps. It could be argued that this lyrical opening is too slow, that it seeks to make a character of the landscape when it should be showing us the actual characters. As a reader, I'm inclined to let people get away with beauty for its own sake; others may be more strict.

This doesn't outline events; it gives a feel. 50 pages farther into Swordspoint, St. Vier has fought two duels. Like the Jaks business, these are non-plot events that serve to introduce Richard, his lover, the setting, and the entire cast of noble characters whose schemes against one another set the plot and subplots in motion (for such a short book, there are plenty of threads).

By contrast with God's War, after those fifty pages you have a sense of what each of these people wants. Whether it's power, challenge, sex, a hiding place, everyone is after something, and everyone faces obstacles to their desires. This, along with the variety in their goals, goes a long way toward making them realistic. The backgrounding takes a while, partly due to the size of the cast, but there are no extraneous players; the plot rises organically out of contact between people whose wants are in conflict.

A long-distant version of my first novel started with the birth of one of the main characters. For both of the MCs, I included childhoods and formative events, not quite grasping at the time that I was thereby writing a biography, not a plot, that the character's story was not The Story. Many painful revisions later, the first chapter of the book contains the first events in the actual plot.

God's War starts with a bang, then appears to lose its way in a maze of past perfect background and current events that seem insignificant. Swordspoint starts slowly, like a gardener sowing a varied handful of seeds to see what comes of them.

Where do you start your story? Where does the plot start? Do you find yourself having to backtrack a lot in time to lay background? Is that background playing a part in the plot, or just in your character's background?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Act I, Scene 1 - On Hooks

Last week I started writing a rant on the topic of writing advice I consider worse than useless: the do and don't lists on how to start your novel. This list from the Guardian went around the Twitter aspiring-author community like wildfire last year, and to some extent it still haunts the mental landscape.

Given the weekend to cool off, I no longer feel quite so ranty. (Never internet while angry.) I do feel like this is a topic that needs more attention and thought that can be provided by a series of checklists. I don't know if I'm the person to provide that, but I may as well give it a shot.

I am a technical writer by trade, and I am going to try looking at the First Paragraph from a functional perspective. Art is dynamic; it needs to do something in interaction with the audience (otherwise you may as well stare at the wall). The First Paragraph in a work of fiction has one overriding purpose: to make the reader read the second paragraph. One way to do this is by stimulating the reader's curiosity, and one way of doing that is with a "hook." As far as I can tell, a hook is a simple sentence that contains something startling.

I am not sure that the hook is essential. There are other ways to excite curiosity. I find myself wondering if, given all the crap they must have to wade through, agents and publishers don't end up putting an almost unnatural weight on that opening sentence, that opening paragraph. Speaking as a reader, I've read the jacket copy; I am prepared to believe that this book I am holding contains an interesting story. It does not actually need to grab me by the lapels and fling me into an action scene in order for me to believe that, any more than every movie has to start with a James Bond sequence. I am generally willing to give a book at least a few pages before I get impatient.

Which brings us back to function. Your first paragraph does something--an infinite number of somethings--to provide the reader entree to the story, to pique their curiosity. It can also serve to identify its intended audience and the story's overall tone. To illustrate, I am going to quote the first paragraph of one of my favorite books of all time, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint.

By way of contrast, the book I am currently carrying around with me is Kameron Hurley's God's War.

These are very different openings. Is one approach good and the other bad?

I think we can all agree that God's War has quite a hook--it formally declares itself as such by setting the first sentence off in its own paragraph. More than inciting curiosity, however, it also sets a tone. This is going to be a book that treats its characters and its readers roughly. The language is bald and challenging. The place names along with the desert provide a hint as to the setting's roots. This is effective, compact use of language.

As for Swordspoint... Oh. My. God. Weather! And nothing is happening. It has no identifiable hook, and current wisdom, it seems, suggests that no reader would ever get past that paragraph. However--there is more going on in it than "it's winter." Description piles up (like the snow) in a series of contrasts to create tension that can only be eased by reading on:  feather-puffs/ruined, jagged/rounded, cozily/shattered. It builds a picture in your mind, promises more but makes you wait for it. The language tells you what kind of story this is going to be, that it is literary, romantic, indirect.

I think there is room in this universe for more than one approach to the opening paragraph. What do you think?