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Writing your story - how do you hook a reader from the start?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Where should your story start? Few stories start at the beginning. Most stories start in the middle. All stories - whether it’s a novel, short story, children's story, picture book, magazine article or screenplay - start with something happening. We call this the inciting incident. You HAVE to start with a Big Bang. In a novel you design it. In a non fiction you find it from your own life. Let's unpack this a bit.

Where should your story start? Few stories start at the beginning. Most stories start in the middle. All stories - whether it’s a novel, short story, children's story, picture book, magazine article or screenplay - start with something happening. We call this the inciting incident. You HAVE to start with a Big Bang. In a novel you design it. In a non fiction you find it from your own life. Let's unpack this a bit. Ø In a crime novel the inciting incident is almost always the actual murder, or the discovery of a body. Ø In an action novel the book starts with a terrifying act, a murder, or a sense of foreboding about an approaching disaster. Ø In a romance you would start with the heroine meeting the hero. This inciting incident is indispensable because it is the HOOK. Your opening chapter needs to hook your reader and draw them into your story. It needs to make them want to keep reading. The inciting incident — the Hook — is the spark that ignites your book. In a memoir or non-fiction you have to find that event from your own life or your subject’s life. You are looking for a dramatic moment to start your story. In non-fiction equally, your first scene often needs to be personal, dramatic, and engaging. It starts the inquiry (story) or argument that your book will explore over the next few thousand words. This scene also needs to set up your book. It needs to pose a problem and lots of questions, and the promise to answer them all. Writers often ask me Ø Why do we even have inciting incidents? Ø Who says there even has to be something dramatic at the start? Ø Can’t I just plunge in and start the story when I was a child? Ø Doesn’t the story start all by itself? The truth is that readers (you included) give a book a very limited time to prove itself. You pick it up, read the first chapter, and if the book doesn’t really grab you – well then you put it down. So as a writer you do want to find the most compelling place to start your book. You need to understand that the start of your book is a SET UP. It could be: Ø The lowest point of your story Ø The start of it all Ø A client encounter Ø The time of your biggest questioning Ø A hilarious encounter Ø A dramatic event or moment Ø The moment that alters your life forever Ø The day you get your diagnosis/news/retrenchment Brandon Bays’ The Journey starts with her walking into a doctor’s office with a basketball-sized tumor. Anita Moorjani’s Dying to be Me starts with the chapter: The Day I Died” Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love starts with the protagonist (Liz herself as it's a memoir) lying awake, knowing she does not want to have a child after all, and is actually going to leave her husband the next day. Anthony Robbins’ Notes from a Friend starts with a story of young boy in a dirt poor family with no food for Thanksgiving. That boy was him he uses that small story to craft the opener to a book and give readers some insight into how he learned these lessons he is about to share. WRITING TASK Ask yourself: Ø What is an exciting way to start THIS story? Ø What moment in time can draw the reader in?

  1. Is it specific?

  2. Is it personal?

  3. Does the way I start this book set up or tease my reader into my bigger story? CONSIDER - Ending it in a long series of questions. This may feel stupid. However, you need to spell out the issues you are grappling with in a straightforward way so both you, and your reader, are clear about the journey. How could this happen to me? How did I lose my business? How could I not have noticed his betrayal? How can I change this?

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THIS IS AN EXTRACT FROM THE HANDBOOK: WRITE YOUR BOOK IN 100 DAYS Buy as Amazon e-book (on KINDLE) Buy as Amazon Paperback (paperback version delivered to you) Do the online version - details here

 
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