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Let’s Talk About Your Opening . . .

once upon a timeNot long ago a student asked me if I would mind providing more definition about the inciting incident and core conflict. He said they sounded the same to him. Also, he was confused about what I meant when I said the best openings begin slightly before the beginning. I had been explaining how it was important to show a bit of the character’s ordinary world before plunging him into the story world. But my student said if he started his story with something that is status quo, then did it mean he didn’t need to grab the reader’s attention in the first sentence? He said he always thought it was best to start with some action to hook the reader.

This was my answer:  There are as many different ways to open a novel as there are novels. And there’s no one absolutely right way. The best way, in my opinion, would be to start with a great opening line, then write a bit of “ordinary world” to introduce the character, then the inciting incident which will propel that character into a less than ordinary world filled with a problem that he/she will have to overcome.

I think one of problems you’re having (and possibly lots of others are having) is what you think of when you think of a “hook.” A hook can be anything that makes the reader want to read on. With some writers, it will be a startling statement or word. With others it will be a beautiful, lyrical image. With others it will be something that raises a question in the mind of the reader. With still others it will be a line of intriguing dialogue. Or it can be a piece of information that doesn’t seem startling, but is important to the story or protagonist.

Just looking at the stacks of great books I’ve recently read or have read in the past, here are ten opening sentences:

1) The heart of a recipe, what makes it work, is a mystery. [from RECIPES FOR A PERFECT MARRIAGE by Morag Prunty]

2) What she was doing was wrong. [from SOUVENIR by Therese Fowler]

3) Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. [from WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen]

4) Softly the snow falls. [from BAKER TOWERS by Jennifer Haigh]

5) I do not know how many hours or days I have lain on this cold, hard floor, waiting to die. [from THE DIPLOMAT’S WIFE by Pam Jenoff]

6) She had often dreamed of her little sister floating dead beneath the surface of the ice, but tonight, for the first time, she envisioned Hannah clawing to get out. [from PLAIN TRUTH by Jodie Picoult]

7) In 1980, a year after my wife leapt to her death from the Silas Pearlman Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, I moved to Italy to begin life anew, taking our small daughter with me. [from BEACH MUSIC by Pat Conroy]

8) There is an ancient Persian proverb that says: “The sky is the same color wherever you go.” [from PRISONER OF TEHRAN by Marina Nemat]

9) It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. [from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen]

10) Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, found it difficult to believe that Mma Ramotswe, the accomplished founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, had agreed to marry him. [from TEARS OF THE GIRAFFE — book #4 of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series — by Alexander McCall Smith].

Of that group of books, several landed in the top ten of the NY Times bestseller list. As you can see, the openings are all different. Some might not be considered “hook” openings, but they all intrigued and/or interested me, and I bought the books. Of course, all were written by authors good enough to sell and some of the authors are highly acclaimed and the books were given rave reviews. These authors have the luxury of writing the way they want to write. The truth is, unpublished authors hoping to break into the publishing business have to try harder. That’s why everyone tells you to work hard to find a really eye-popping first sentence.

However, all the advice you’re given is “in general” or “most of the time” advice. Remember what I’ve often said. There are only TWO RULES in writing. Don’t bore the reader and don’t confuse the reader. Everything else is what is recommended as the best way (normally) to proceed. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way. But it’ll be the way that has evolved from lots of experience and study, which is why I will present it to you in my lessons. But nothing is ever cast in stone. You are the writer, and this is your work, so ultimately you must make the decision of what you will write.

Now let’s talk about the difference between inciting incident and core conflict. The inciting incident is the thing that happens that propels the protagonist out of his ordinary (safe/sane/routine) life and into an unknown where he will encounter problems that keep him from achieving his goal. The core conflict is The Problem. But the problem wouldn’t exist without the inciting incident.

Here’s an example:
Mary is an ordinary young woman who has a good job, lots of friends, and a normal life. There are things she wants, like a committed romantic relationship, but she’s not desperate about it. Still, one day she decides to sign up for an online dating service. Very quickly, she is contacted. One of the contacts writes a clever, funny note that really intrigues her (first part of the inciting incident). She answers back (2nd part), they progress to phone calls, then decide to meet. Unknown to Mary, this man who seems so wonderful is a serial killer and from the moment he contacted her and she responded, she became his next target. So now we have the core conflict. The inciting incident is what happens that gets the plot moving or the ball rolling or however you want to think of it. The core conflict is the problem itself, what keeps that plot moving inexorably to the end of the story.

I hope this helps.

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