Throw me a hook, Ishmael

"The first time I submitted a story," he recalls, "a girl in the class said, 'Don't you think it's kind of cheap to open with a sentence that makes the reader want to keep reading?' I just stared at her and thought, 'Man, Herman Melville would have a tough time here.'" Daniel Woodrell, author, in a Wall Street Journal interview

Like many, I've been reeled into a story by the dry, cool prose of Woodrell in Winter's Bone and his other dark crime novels set in the Ozarks.

But the incident that he recounted to the WSJ interviewer illustrates another classic lesson of the writing life. What played well in your English class or critique group may not be right for readers.

Readers want to be hooked into a story.  That's why Melville's opening line "Call me Ishmael" has been luring them into a philosophical tale of whaling and revenge for a couple of centuries. 

That's why, no matter how wonderful and complex  your fantasy or science fiction world is, you can't start out with a ten pages or even one page of a dry as dust explanation to set up the action that will happen later...after the reader has dropped your book and gone onto something else.

You have to set the hook.  Bait it with something juicy.  Reel them in. Connect with them on a gut level. Don't let your English class or your critique group talk you into being obscure for the sake of artful artifice.

Experiment with your opening lines. Test them out on readers.  Ask if the first sentence makes them want to read the second.

Oh, and if somebody says "Isn't kind of cheap to open with a sentence that makes the reader want to keep reading?" you can answer right back, "No. That's expensive. It takes time, trouble, and much polishing to create a gem like that."



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