Friday, September 1, 2017

Narrative Hook by Susan Oleksiw

Every writer learns the importance of the “narrative hook” as soon as she begins writing. “You can’t begin a story without a strong first line,” is the standard advice. I’ve heard writers say that until they have the opening line, they can’t write the story or essay. The narrative hook is what opens the door to whatever is supposed to come next, and nothing flows without it. I feel that way sometimes too.

A 1940s guide to creative writing described the narrative hook as “anything that would, on a public highway, cause a crowd to gather.” The sentence had been underlined in pencil, and the pages forgotten, until recently unearthed in an abandoned box of papers. I haven’t heard the opening line described in such terms, and I wouldn’t use that sentence today. Nor am I convinced that starting with a bang, as crime novels often do today, is the only way to write the opening. Lately I’ve read a number of excellent opening lines on First Line Monday, a FB page where readers post the first lines of the books or stories they’re reading. You’re guaranteed to find variety here.

The best first lines, in my view, are those that pull us into the character and his or her world. This can be simple, quiet, but nevertheless compelling. I collected a number of first lines from different genres to illustrate what I think is the key to a solid opening line, a dip into another person’s life that holds us.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle opens A Study in Scarlet (1887) with this famous line: “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.” The narrator has a tone of confidence but also lack of pretention, and the reader trusts him.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman opens “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) with this: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” The narrator’s contrast with herself as ordinary and their summer residence as an ancestral hall hints at the conflict to come and the risk to herself.

The short story “Araby” by James Joyce (1914) begins with “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.” At once we hear the quiet shattered by dozens of boys running and screaming into the street, free of constrictions of the Catholic school.

Edith Wharton gives us a classic opening in “Roman Fever” (1936). “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” The vanity of class is captured perfectly as the two American women acknowledge their complicity in their attitudes as they look down on the scene below.

“Did You Ever Dream Lucky” by Ralph Ellison (1954) opens with a vivid scene: “After the hurried good-bys the door had closed and they sat at the table with the tragic wreck of the Thanksgiving turkey before them, their heads turned regretfully toward the young folks’ laughter in the hall.” Ellison’s scene isn’t merely the aftermath of a traditional holiday dinner; we are in the midst of a tragic wreck and the folks remaining are regretful. Now we have to know what has happened, and what comes after.

Joyce Carol Oates captures the vulnerable teenager in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (1970). “Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Oates takes the normal teenage vanity and turns it into deep insecurity and foreboding.

In my most recent Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder (2016), I open with this. “In his last will and testament, Commodore Charles Jeremiah Winslow, one of the greatest yachting enthusiasts in the history of Mellingham Yacht Club, asked to be wrapped in a mainsail and cremated, with his ashes left to sink into Mellingham Bay.” With this opening, the reader finds herself inside the rarefied world of people who can obsess about sailing and other sports, and the high cost of that life.

Each opening works because the lines are spare entrances into the life of another person. There is no bombast, no crash, no physical violence, only the promise of knowing intimately another world and its residents.

To read some of my opening lines, go here:


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Susan,

It's been suggested that the opening sentence or narrative hook should be written after the novel or short story is fairly complete. I personally do write and rewrite the opening of my short stories and novels many times. The opening line of my last Five Star/Cengage novel, a Western entitled THE KILLING LAND, was only decided on after numerous drafts had been written. It goes like this: "For the right price we'll kill just about anyone." That sets the tone for the novel which is fraught with peril.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, I find that I have to have a relatively satisfactory first line before I can begin, perhaps because I write straight through to the end, not writing scenes out of sequence. But I still have to rewrite that opening line numerous times before it feels right or seems effective. I like your opening line very much. I hope the book does well.

Alice Duncan said...

Interesting! I'm trying to think of my favorite first lines, and (naturally) can't. I have a couple of favorite opening paragraphs. However, after reading your blog, I'm contemplating changing the first line of my next book. In fact, I think I will. I mean, instead of talking about the weather, it would be more fun to begin with, "This is stupid." Thanks, Susan!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Alice, I'd love to know what comes next, after "This is stupid." It's possible to open with the weather, but only if it plays a role in the story. Usually what comes after the description of the weather is the real opening. Thanks for commenting.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great post Susan!
Thanks for sharing
Good luck and God's blessings

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for coming by, Pam.

Unknown said...

That sets the tone for the novel which is fraught with peril.


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