Monday, June 17, 2013

TTYU Retro: "Hook the reader with your opening," they say - but precisely whom are you hooking?

We all know that choosing the right entry point to a story can be difficult. Where to start? How can we begin in a place that is so compelling that readers won't be able to put the story down until they're into it?

No doubt you've heard people tell you about starting with tension, starting with action (but not necessarily physical action), picking an event that leads directly or indirectly into the main conflict (I've written about this myself!).

Today I'd like to suggest that you think about something else: your audience.

If you think about it, there are a lot of possible hooks you could use. A lot of jumping-in points where you might be able to balance the back-story against the front-story. You'll want to pick a place that appeals to the audience you have in mind. By this I mean specifically the audience appropriate for your genre.

It's a question of setting your reader's expectations. As your reader takes on the opening of your book, you want her, or him, to be given a good sense of what kind of book she or he will be reading. Are you writing a fantasy book that has magic in it? Then including that magic somewhere in your opening is going to be valuable. Are you writing a book that has science fictional technology or exploration going on in it? Include that, or at least reference it. Is it an erotica book? You might want to make sure people get that idea.

When I write it out like this, it seems terribly straightforward, but really it's something to look out for. Think about it this way: one of the most important things that editors will be trying to decide about a book they're considering is which market they'll be trying to sell it to. If they can't decide, that makes it much less likely that they'll decide to purchase the book. If they start the book expecting one thing, and then discover another, that can't help.

What if your protagonist gets caught having sex with someone they're not supposed to, and that ends up a primary basis for character motivation - but your story is not primarily about sex or sexual issues? In that case, you probably shouldn't open with the single instance of in flagrante, because readers will expect the sex focus to continue, and will do one of two things: either put the book down (bad), or read on and be disappointed (also bad). Keeping the character's shame more of a mystery to be discovered by the reader will allow you as an author to keep the focus where it needs to be (on the opening of the main conflict) and keep people curious, but not mislead them as to the kind of story they will be reading.

Of course, I don't intend to say that a book will not be able to appeal to people across genres. That's not the point. I'm talking about the question of core audience, and about not misleading your readers. It was brought to my attention while I was revising For Love, For Power that the opening might - might! - feel a little like YA. The book is not YA, however. As I went through critique and revisions, I kept on the lookout for cues that might indicate the book is YA. Things like the age of the protagonist (17) are unavoidable. But were other things I could do to refine my focus at the start and set expectations most appropriately.

Who do you imagine will read your book? What do you think would appeal to them the most? What kind of opening would hook them - and hook them in a way that will successfully transition them into the full story you have in mind?

It's something to think about.


1 comment:

  1. Of all the many things which are important, considering your audience (after it isn't just you any more) is THE most important thing.

    After all, you know it's not YA - regardless of how you start it.

    But audiences are going to have to take a lot of things on faith (I know how to write, I'm taking you on a facinating trip, this will be worth your time and your money, I know how the story ends and the pieces I'm feeding you are all going to connect up in the end...) just from picking up your book and spending some of their life making mental pictures with your words on the page/screen. So you can guide them to seeing 'the story' your way, but they are entitled to having SOMEONE driving the bus to SOMEWHERE.

    So maybe it's not quite your audience that you have to consider, but instead what is written on your marquee: this is the show you're going to see.

    And that marquee is: the cover, the title, your name (if the pseudonym writes YA), front and back matter, blurbs, and especially the sample that will show up electronically if they care to look - the first line, paragraph, scene, chapter, ...

    I won't say audience, quite, or even 'target demographic', because I have been quite startled to get a wonderful beta reader who is nowhere near the reader I had in my mind when I moved from 'just me' to 'audience of readers.'

    So don't sell yourself short, but DO sell yourself right - you do your part to describe the story, and the readers will be able to choose.

    I'm trying to do that consciously.