Monday, 2 December 2013

THE CRAFT OF WRITING: Bait and switch (plus a book giveaway)

by Anne Hamilton 

The ads are everywhere: cut down on 1 kg of belly fat each week with this 1 weird diet tip. 

It sounds too good to be true. And it is. It’s a con. A lure to pull you into the world of health supplements and diet foods, vitamin regimes and alternative weight loss programmes. Now personally I have nothing against any of those things. However, I object to the advertising methodology: bait the customer with a simple tantalising message and, once you’ve got them hooked, switch the pitch.

That said, in the world of writing, there’s a lot to be said for the old switcheroo. Last week we looked at the ‘Narrative Hook’ and two of its styles—the puzzle and the hint.

This time we’ll look at two more styles which offer the prospect of presenting the reader with a tempting enough morsel to draw them into your book. They’re my two favourites: atmosphere and interruption. I like them both so much, I usually combine them. 

‘Murder?’ Holly whispered. She frowned, turning aside to look out of the bus window at the sun-scorched fields and the blurring heat haze on the distant mountains. The roadside went up and down but the sleepy drone of the bus’ engine remained undisturbed by each bump and jolt. 

‘It’s true,’ Reece insisted. ‘That’s what she said she saw.’ He lowered his voice. ‘By midnight tonight, he’s going to be arrested for murder. Our murder.’ 

This was the opening of my debut novel Merlin’s Wood, published ten years ago today. It was the heyday of ‘bait and switch’—the truly explosive, gruesome, intriguing or spectacular opening paragraph that often seemed unrelated to the rest of the book. I sometimes felt someone other than the author had written those spell-binders.

It was kind of like a MacGyver effect—if ever you watched the show, you might been sucked in, as I often was, by the thrilling opening scene—which would then turn out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the episode. Terry Nation, famous for introducing the Daleks in Dr Who and developing Blake’s 7 moved to Hollywood and made an excellent living writing those MacGyver hooks. 

I’d resisted the idea of a narrative hook for a long time, lulled into a false sense of security by beta-readers who liked a slow build-up of tension. Finally, after a long series of rejections, I decided to bite the bullet on the issue and see what happened. With cold calculation, I thought of the most dramatic word I could to start a children’s novel. Let’s try, hmmm… murder… 

The story was picked up the very next time I sent the manuscript out. The publisher even told me right up front it was the first fantasy he’d ever read. But he couldn’t put it down because he was so intrigued by the opening. From that moment, I was sold on the narrative hook.

Yet, as I’ve looked across my shelves and plucked dozens of Christian novels down to find examples, I’ve seriously struggled to find any.

Perhaps it’s time for us to be more intentional about them. There’s a good reason why it’s used—because they work so well. 

In the meantime, if you know of any examples of the Interruption or Atmosphere styles of narrative hook, I’d love to read of them. 

And a reminder: over at Omega Writers, this month’s writing challenge is to craft your manuscript’s opening paragraph – either fiction or non-fiction – so it has a nifty narrative hook. 

Deadline for entries is 20 December 2013. Entry is free for members of Omega Writers and $5 for non-members. A cash prize of $25 plus 3 new books from Light the Dark and a cool award for your CV awaits the winner. 

Send your entries to registrarATwordswithwingsDOTnet 




Anne Hamilton is the current President of Omega Writers, a support group for faith-based writers across Australasia. Today she’s celebrating the tenth anniversary of the publication of her first book, Merlin’s Wood. If you’d like to win a copy of this historic momento, we’ll draw a few winners from those who comment a week from today.

Print book giveaway, 3 winners: 1 Australian reader, 1 New Zealand reader, and 1 international reader. 

22 comments:

  1. Terry Nation wrote MacGuyver? That explains why I liked it so much (that, and Richard Dean Andersen).

    I can think of a couple of Christian novels I've read with a great opening hook. One had the heroine going over a waterfall in a barrel. Unfortunately, the rest of the book was a typical US historical Western, and while it was good, the beginning was the best part.

    The opening hook of Rooms by James Rubart was good, and the rest of the book was equally good if not better. I really enjoyed it.

    An opening hook is important, but it's equally important that the rest of the book lives up to the opening.

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    1. No, Terry Nation only wrote the hooks in MacGuyver. He didn't write the whole episode... which explained to me, when I discovered it, why some episodes were so uneven and didn't live up to their initial promise. I love the image of the heroine going over the waterfall - but, as you say, the rest of the book has to live up to the beginning.

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    2. I to loved MacGuyver (it could be for Iola's reason too) I loved the Dr Who shows too and also Blakes 7.

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    3. Yes have to say I was. Its not the reason I love Stargate REALLY!

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    4. Sure, sure. Just as it's not the reason I love Space: Above and Beyond - REALLY!

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    5. Another here who loved Blakes 7. Except for the end. Felt that was a bit of a let down as though the author boxed himself in and couldn't figure out a way out.

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    6. Ahhh... now I actually got my start in writing a long time ago (under a rather transparent pseudonym) by writing a fan story which used the exact dialogue of the last episode to bring it to a different conclusion. It was quite famous for a while. In fact, it came very close to winning a prestigious FanQ award in the US. I was advised it was impossible to even be nominated for this award without sales of 50,000 copies of the story. The guy who told me was a zine dealer who estimated there were a quarter of a million copies circulating and that it was seen as the only real way to interpret the final episode. Somebody made a lot of money from my story - since I only sent one copy to the US.

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    7. I'd have loved to have seen it Annie.

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  2. I think one that would fit into this category of narrative hook (although it kind of overlaps into the 'puzzle' style as well) is the opening couple of sentences from 'Kane and Abel' by Jeffrey Archer: 'She only stopped screaming when she died. It was then that he started to scream.' Also, the opening few sentences of 'The Kite Runner' by Khaled Hosseini made my blood chill well before I found out what happened that day: 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid, overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek...'

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    1. Love those examples, Jo-Anne. But in Christian novels...?

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  3. As a writer, I appreciate the immediacy of a narrative hook for both the story's sake and to grab the attention of an editor. As a reader, it doesn't bother me so much. A book has to pique my interest only a little in the first page for me to keep reading, but as Iola wrote, it then has to keep it going. Am I in the minority? I think I might be!

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    1. Hi Andrea
      I think readers are more forgiving of a lack of narrative hook than editors. The reason, at least in my opinion, is that readers assume a book will spark up quickly if it's been published by a major house. After all, an editor wouldn't invest time and money otherwise. In other words, there's an unspoken trust between the reader and the publisher.

      However I think this may be breaking down as the deluge of self-published books makes even readers more astute about what they like about their favourites - and start looking for similar things.

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  4. Thanks Annie! I think I'll have to pay more attention now and look for that detail of atmosphere and interruption. You've given me much to think on!

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    1. I think it comes down to the hook that's easiest for you personally. Sometimes I find that what I need to do is just chop out the bit at the front that isn't so exciting - and cut straight to the chase...

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  5. A great post Annie with great advice as usual! Thank you.

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  6. Loved that opening, Annie. I can see why the non-fantasy reader couldn't stop reading.
    Thanks for sharing. :)

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  7. Annie, great post! My opening paragraph in 'Falling for the Farmer' is a single line hook: She had to escape now!

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    1. I like it... it's dramatic and immediate.

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