Reader Question: Does a story hook (1st ten pages) have to be suspenseful?

August 22nd, 2011 by
Open forum question from The_High_Dweller:
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
fast.

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
leather-clad ghost.

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.

TRINITY
Shit.

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.

7 thoughts on “Reader Question: Does a story hook (1st ten pages) have to be suspenseful?

  1. Teddy Pasternak says:

    In the draft of Little Miss Sunshine I read (dated 10/9/03), the inciting incident happens really late, on page 20 to be precise. That's when Olive hears the phone message and learns she has a place in the contest.

    However, the interesting thing is that Arndt hints at it on page 5 with the blinking answering machine, then on page 8, we hear the message but Sheryl (the mom) leaves the room so she doesn't hear it. What follows is the dinner scene with 12 pages of dialogue.

    So in fact, the hook actually happens on page 8.

    So even if you have a soft opening the hook should come in the first 10 pages or so. It would have been a disaster had Arndt waited until page 20 to give us the actual inciting incident. The clever thing he did was to give us that suspense – will Olive hear the message? That way we don't mind reading 20 pages of character development.

  2. Nick West says:

    It's best to try and read your opening while imagining you're a disinterested party—and hook yourself.

    Imagine the guy reading your script is hungover, tired and just had a fight with his girlfriend. Also, he has fifteen other scripts to get through.

    Does your opening interest THAT guy?

  3. James says:

    The irony is you will find just as many readers that hate hard openings as soft openings.

    I'm a big fan of the hard opening. The Matrix opening lures me in. I have a tougher time with the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE openings. It really takes 20 pages for that story to get rolling.

    This has NOTHING to do with good or bad writing.

    You need to know your audience.

    Some people want to be acclimated with their surroundings before things get rolling, others want to be thrust in the mix.

    I do think Scott makes a good point — Genre will generally dictate which to use.

    There are some problems though — If you think about Horror films, they tend to unfold slowly. True horror builds over time, soaking into your bones.

    But they also tend to have a big, shocking fright as their opening sequence.

    The question is how to balance this?

    Action has a similar problem — Generally, the biggest action sequences should be the culmination at the end of Act 2 and the culmination of the film in Act 3.

    But it also tends to have a big splashy action sequence upfront as well.

    Again, how do you balance this?

    Look at TRUE LIES. Big James Bond-esque opening. Big hosing down badguys with the wife culmination of Act 2, kissing infront of a mushroom cloud. And big, save my daughter with a Harrier jet action sequence in Act 3.

    Screenwriting is a balancing act.

    And to answer the original question: Yes. A story hook has to be suspenseful. It doesn't have to be suspenseful in the terms of a SUSPENSE movie. But it needs to have suspense on its own terms. The reader needs wonder what is going to happen next. There needs to be a series of building tension and relieving it throughout the screenplay.

    And I'd argue that not only does the first 10 pages need this type of suspense, but every single page needs to have this.

    In fact, I think it translates to another piece of screenwriting jargon that's thrown around quite a bit — the dramatic question.

    Will Olive become the next Little Miss Sunshine? The setup of her character is what creates the conflict in this film. She's plain. Her family is semi-poor. They might not even make it to the contest to begin with.

    That creates suspense. And that's setup in the first twenty pages and carried throughout the entirety of the film.

  4. CJ says:

    I also kind of like movies that do a slow burn in the beginning because they're confident the rest of the movie is going to blow you away.
    A classic example of this is Die Hard. The first 10-15 pages set the scene and the characters, getting them all in their places and giving us a look at John's relationship with his estranged wife and the things that are important to him.
    I think the power of the soft opening for an action/adventure movie is that, by the end, you really have a feeling that you, as an audience member, have been on a journey, and that the characters and their situation have changed so radically you get a sense that they've been on an epic journey too.

  5. Marc says:

    A question for you Scott, might be a bit off topic, but has deals with the opening 10 pages. Would it be crazy, when sending out a script, to only give agents, managers, etc, the first 10-20 pages? If they're only really going to read the 10-20 pages to see if it's worth their time then why not only send that. And if they're really interested they would have to get in touch with you, allowing you into the 'system'.

  6. Scott says:

    @Teddy: That's an excellent point about the answering machine on P. 8 in LMS. It plants a seed in the minds of the reader throughout the entire lengthy dinner sequence.

    @Nick: That's great advice. Figuratively put yourself in the mindset of an industry script reader, just like you suggest — bad mood, exhausted, already read a bunch of scripts over the weekend, etc. Now go through your script's first 10 pages: Are they entertaining and compelling enough to grab that reader's attention?

    @James: "You need to know your audience." That's the same as some of the earliest advice I received from somebody – I can't remember who – when I first broke into the business. They said one of the first questions a writer should ask themselves about a story: "Who is your audience?" Have a specific understanding of that to help steer creative choices you make.

  7. Scott says:

    @Marc: If you're querying a rep, just send them the logline. If they request the script, send the whole thing. 

    One interesting thing is industry script readers I've talked with have almost to a person told me they start to form an opinion of the script by the end of Page 1, and in many cases before they actually start reading a script. They will check out the title page, turn to the back to see how long the script is, flips through the pages to see how much black ink there is compared to white space. But that first page is critical in sinking the hook in a reader.

    If you nail Page 1, great. Now just do that again with each of the next 100 pages or so!

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