Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grabbing Attention


Consider this line from the March/April 2012 issue of

Writer’s Digest, in a wonderful article titled “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make” by Steven James: “Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on with a scene that’s clearly been contrived just for that purpose. . .” This stuck to me like fly paper (and if you’ve ever dealt with fly paper, you know what that means). I’ve read more than one manuscript that included a big event at the beginning that felt sort of contrived and not in keeping with the body of the story. And yes, these have been my own first drafts, but never mind that.

The beginning of a novel sets up readers for what is to come, so it must be true to the whole of the story. Makes sense, right? At the same time, though, it's important to hook readers. The big, dramatic opener can be tempting for writers. Exciting scenes give immediate pay off and lure readers into a plot. An explosion (for example) can be exciting and riddled with tension and intrigue. It will probably snag readers attention and make them turn pages. However, if a novel begins with a bang, readers will expect the following pages to have lots to do with this boom. Even the tone and the pace of the novel may seem set. So, if the story turns out to be a quiet romance, there’s going to be some serious head-scratching going on. Maybe even reader disappointment and frustration at the realization that the explosion had been contrived. Sure, some sort of romance could bloom between those involved in the explosion, but the writer may have to do all kinds of construction to build the bridge between the explosion and the quiet romance. And readers may still be left disappointed. Sooner or later, a contrived scene is going to stick out.


For readers: Have you ever read a story with a contrived beginning scene? How did that work for you?


For writers: Have you ever written or been tempted to write in a big event at the beginning of a story to pull readers into it, even if the fit was awkward? Were you able to make the contrived scene compatible with the main thrust of the story?

53 comments:

  1. I'm sure you're right about the contrived beginning, but I'm blank right now. We are taught to hook with that exciting event. I do try to keep the action going, but what if it does disappoint. This is some food for thought!

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  2. I can't think of any contrived beginnings either. As for my own writing, I sometimes wonder if my beginnings are action packed enough. But then... it wouldn't be the story I want, not really. It would be contrived.

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    1. I think you hit it, Bish. We want our beginnings to be powerful, but are they always in keeping with the story? Yet another balancing act.

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  3. Yes, I have. I always tend to look for something in the beginning to have a play in what happens later on.

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  4. Oh, Cynthia. I do enjoy your posts. You always make me think!

    Yes, I have been tempted to reel in the reader with a scene that doesn't pertain to the plot or characters. But as a reader who has been deceived in that way (and is still sore about it!) I will not. Nowadays, writer's can't waste the word count. :)

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    1. Thanks, Emily! It is so disappointing when we're deceived by a novel.

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  5. This is a great thinkers post, Cynthia.

    I am writing a story with a big event at the beginning. I think the event is important to the entire story - still working on it, so we'll see how it goes. So far, so good.

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    1. Ah, Loree, that's perfect! To have the big event AND have it be integral to the story? Wonderful! Happy writing!

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  6. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had a most excellent prologue - grabbed my attention asap only to sorely test my patience come chapter 1 - because chapter one had absolutely nothing to do nor alluded to the prologue and it was seriously all tell, tell, tell! Aaaargh! But it's a big best seller so what do I know! LOL! Take care
    x

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    1. Oh, Kitty, I know what you're talking about here. Everybody keeps telling me Dragon Tattoo is amazing, but after the first 100 pages. That after an attention grabbing prologue? Ugh! I'd never make it. : )

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  7. I love this post, Cynthia. You've really got me thinking. I usually don't know where a story is going to take me when I sit down to write it. It kind of naturally evolves without any real plan. This kind of writing probably is not as prone to contrived beginnings because it kind of follows the natural cause and effect of events. But I'll definitely be on the look out for this type of thing now. Thanks =)

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    1. You make such a good point! Stories that naturally evolve are probably less likely to have any contrived elements.

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  8. Excellent food for thought. I tend to write the beginning first (even if I jump around with the rest of the story) but sometimes the book takes a different turn from that original beginning and even if it is an attention grabber, it no longer works.

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    1. Oh, that can be frustrating, Alissa. Been there, done that. : )

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  9. I'm sort of weird because as a reader, I don't tend to like those "big bang" beginnings. I want to get to know that character first.

    As a writer, I struggle with finding ways to give my novel beginnings a hook without it being SO obvious you know?

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    1. It is hard, Karen. How to pull readers in without banging them over their heads.

      Also, I agree about the perks of getting to know characters before a dramatic event. As readers, we're more invested in the big event if we care about those involved.

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  10. Hah hah, yes and it left me wondering throughout the rest of the book, what exactly was the point of that opening scene? This is so tempting to do as a writer but I think ultimately your book is so much better if you avoid the exciting but pointless scene at the beginning. I've seen Karin Slaughter do it right though--her novels always start with the event the novel turns on and it's usually an exciting one. But it is the very thing that sets the story off so it's okay.

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    1. Interesting, Lisa. It sounds like Karin Slaughter has it down.

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  11. I'm writing a big beginning event, but I have made it necesaary to the plot and the development of the characters, the inciting event that thrusts the MC on her journey. Dragon Tattoo is a great example of what you were talking about, Cynthia.

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    1. Perfect, Adrienne!

      Old Kitty mentioned Dragon Tattoo, also. I haven't read that novel and I doubt that I will.

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  12. I've heard feedback several times now, where the editors/agents want us to slow it down in the start. Kind of contrary to what we kept hearing, but the truth is an attention getting opening doesn't have to include bombs and shark tanks. ;D Getting to know the character is imperative if you want the reader to care about what's happening to him.

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    1. Absolutely, Lisa. I should have included that in the post--getting to know the character is imperative. Otherwise, why should the reader care?

      LOL at "shark tanks," by the way. : )

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  13. You've hit on such an important issue--grab the reader's attention, but do it honestly without gimmicks! Takes some thought, that's for sure. I often write my first chapter last.

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    1. Honesty without gimmicks is the perfect way to describe how to handle that first chapter, I think

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    2. I think it might be easy for writers of YA to confuse attention grabbing with exciting. To me the story has to start where the reader can get a grasp on the character and that character's situation--what s/he wants or needs. It may not be exciting, but it has to be intriguing. IMHO

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  14. Good post, Cynthia. I do start with something significant, but it does relate to the main body of the story. As a reader, I'd be peeved if there's no follow-through on a big opening.

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  15. I've written novels where my first scene was like that--purposefully attention grabbing, and they didn't work. They always were better when I started at the natural beginning of the story.

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    1. Yup, me, too Lydia. Those attention grabbing scenes can be fun to write, but pretty much useless if they don't suit the story.

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  16. Great advice--thanks for mentioning this! I did that with my WIP to some extent. Grabby, catchy beginning but I didn't tie that event to the rest of the chapter/s enough. With my SECOND revision I finally addressed that (thanks to some honest CPs)!

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    1. And that's the beauty of second revisions and honest CPs, right? : )

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  17. I think we're all tempted to do that. That's why we have critique partners :)

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  18. Not just tempted, Carol. I often have to write the contrived scene just to get it out of my system. : )

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  19. 'However, if a novel begins with a bang, readers will expect the following pages to have lots to do with this boom.'

    Very well-stated!

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  20. I've read contrived scenes, but they do make sense with the plot. That said though, there's nothing worse than a scene where the result you can see coming as mile away. There's nothing better though, than a scene that leads you along so you think you see what will happen, and instead it takes you in an unexpected direction!

    Angela

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    1. That is so true, Angela. I love a good twist or surprise ending.

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  21. Yep contrived beginnings is an easy trap to fall into especially when we are told to hook the readers early on.

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    1. So many things we're supposed to do and yet, maybe not always. : )

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  22. I have read a few contrived with crit partnes.
    I'm redly bad at beginnings though ... So I shouldnt comment.. X

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    1. Beginnings are tough, Michelle. I work on my opening chapters more than on any other parts of the novels.

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  23. I've never written a huge event for the beginning chapter. I dislike that when I'm reading, especially if the beginning throws me into a huge action scene. Sometimes it's confusing. I wonder who's fighting or shooting at whom. It turns me off rather than hooks me.

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    1. If I'm confused after reading the first chapter, there's a chance I won't keep reading. I hate being confused when I'm reading. Thanks, Medeia!

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  24. I've read many novels with overwrought or overly shocking, outrageous, etc., beginning SENTENCES. I really wish the emphasis on the first sentence would quit, already. Yes, the first sentence should be good, and if it's a legitimate bombshell, great. But I've just seen too many that are trying too hard.

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    1. "Trying too hard" is the perfect way to state it, Marcia. And most often, it seems, trying too hard is the kiss of death.

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  25. Great question, Cynthia. In the WIP I am currently working on, I have tried too hard to start with a bang. The earlier begining was a bit quiet, this new opening scene looks contrived to me.

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    1. Uh-oh, Rachna. : ) But it's great that you recognize this. Hurray for revising.

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  26. I'm not sure about books that open with a contrived scene, but I've definitely read books that open with a "big" scene from later in the book, and that always bugs me.

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    1. Meaning the scene is repeated twice? Ugh, I wouldn't like that, either.

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  27. I think the opening scene, for that matter the whole opening chapter, is the hardest part of a novel.

    Most of the novels that I don't like the beginning of feature a prologue.

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  28. I agree, Shannon. Opening scenes and chapters are tough to write.

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