In regard to hooking the reader in first 10 pages… Would you say that a “hook” consists of something shocking, mesmerizing, tantalizing, OR can a hook also be something that simply sets the stage for things to come in an interesting manner?
In other words, does a hook have to be suspenseful? And if you choose to go another route, are you essentially dooming yourself with certain pro readers?
It sounds like you’re referring to either a ‘hard’ opening — something with a lot of eye-popping action, thrills, spills to grab the reader’s attention — or a ‘soft’ opening — something quieter and more character-oriented. Let’s consider an example of each type.
Two days ago in addressing the Open Forum question “What are the keys to a great opening scene,” I referenced the beginning sequence in The Matrix. Here’s an excerpt:
INT. CHASE HOTEL
The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a
bead. They've done this a hundred times, they know
they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs
and Trinity moves --
It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly
The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and his nose
explodes, blood erupting. Her leg kicks with the force of
a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty
pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop
farthest from her.
Trinity moves again, BULLETS RAKING the WALLS, flashlights
sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a
A GUN still in the cop's hand is snatched, twisted and
FIRED. There is a final violent exchange of GUNFIRE and
when it's over, Trinity is the only one standing.
A flashlight rocks slowly to a stop.
That is a good example of a ‘hard’ opening. And since the movie is an action / sci-fi story, it fits. Two days ago, we also considered the opening to Little Miss Sunshine which consists of:
* Starting with Olive as she watches and re-watches a videotape of a beauty pageant.
* Richard Hoover leading a self-help seminar to, as it turns out, a handful of people.
* Dwayne works out in his room, then marks off another date on his wall calendar.
* Grandpa snorts heroin in the bathroom.
* A rattled Sheryl talks with Richard on the phone, denying she’s smoking.
* At the hospital, Sheryl picks up her brother Frank, who had attempted suicide.
That’s an example of a ‘soft’ opening: No firebombs, no explosions, no car chases, just characters doing something that reflects some core aspect of who they are. And since Little Miss Sunshine is a character-oriented comedy-drama, that opening also fits.
So the first part of my answer to your question is that you can do either a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ opening. But whatever you write for an opening sequence must be a reflection of the genre and tone of your overall story. Yes, you want to be entertaining, but not in a way that doesn’t fit with your story (e.g., a hard action opening for a softer character-oriented drama, drama-comedy, etc).
The second part of the answer is that if you have a ‘soft’ opening, you must incorporate some compelling narrative elements that connect with a reader. In Little Miss Sunshine, we get a glimpse of something that is important to each primary character. And with the introduction of each character, the movie raises some interesting questions: How are these people related to each other? What is their connection? And if they are connected, how in the world do they function together?
Now I’ll grant you it’s probably easier to grab a reader by writing something “shocking, mesmerizing, tantalizing,” than “something that simply sets the stage for things to come in an interesting manner.” But if the latter is what fits the genre and tone of your story, so be it — that’s the type of opening you will almost assuredly need to write.
If so, then embrace that fact. As Little Miss Sunshine proves, it’s possible to write a ‘soft’ opening that grabs one’s attention. So, too, Juno and Sideways. How about the wonderfully comic misdirection in Parenthood which was the focus of a Great Scene post here?
‘Soft’ openings can work, just like ‘hard’ openings. Rely on your characters to help you find the right opening for your story.
How about it, GITS readers? What are your favorite examples of a great ‘soft’ opening sequence?
[Originally posted December 1, 2009.