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Starting with a bang totally wrong

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by joshua mcdermott, Jan 21, 2021.

  1. I have been getting some advice (not here so much but) that a story really needs to start with a huge bang event - but I am not sure that is true and wonder if we need a debunk session to find out if this is actually a thing.

    Like, if one went to the fantasy section in the bookstore and took a random 20 books off the shelf, how many would start with some sort of action on the first page.. the first 3 pages.. the first 10 or even 20? And these are the books on the shelf making a ton of $ .

    if I get a chance I will actually do this- but what say you all?

  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    It needs to start with a hook. That might be a physical event and even a literal bang.But it has to be something that make the reader want to go on.
    JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit starts with a description of a home... it is interesting and hints at much bigger things to come.
    Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men starts with the weather and Witches, and that something is going to happen.
    Personally a huge event at the beginning of a story might make me think the rest of the story seem a bit tame.
    You started with the end of the world and need to go Bigger after that?
    I'll freely admit I tend not to read "action" stories. I like a good crime tale that twists and turns this way and that.
    StrawhatOverlord likes this.
  3. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    It's been said to me that a writer needs to hook the reader in the first 5 to 10 pages. Less than that for a short story, where you only have a paragraph or two. The question is how you create that hook, that sense of wanting to read more. I think this matters more in the first book in a series, or in a standalone book, than it does with a sequel. Sequels are easier, in that the reader is already familiar with the setting and the characters, so all (?) you need to do is set the story. So then, how to start the first/standalone book? Personally I look for something to interest me. That might be a sense of the world or the main character, or it might be an event. Think along the lines of Michael Scott Rohan's Chase the Morning, which I loved reading - and I was hooked from the first page.

    The first book I wrote started with an event, as a way of introducing and explaining the main character and their motivations without going into a series of descriptive paragraphs. (The sequel was then able to start with a couple of paragraphs which described the setting, because the characters were already established.) But, it wasn't a big event, it was as simple (and small) as someone coming to ask the main character for help. Then, I could over the course of the next two thousand words (or so) develop the reasons for both the request and the main characters response, as well as adding a description of the immediate setting and the wider world.
  4. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    All good books start with action and a bang...I think you're missing understanding the word action in this case. Maybe you're thinking of actions as a chase sequence, a battle, one on one combat, something thrilling and it doesn't have to be. Action could be as simple and someone walking down a street. Action tend to bring the readers straight into the scene, instead of giving an info dump as you're opening then a character walking down a street. By the time the character appears, I'm getting bored all ready. Get me interested in the character then begin to tell me information I need. If you don't know me and I start giving you my life history or the history or a town I live in is that really going to interest you that much? Get to know me for a while and your curiosity will start to get the better of you maybe and if you care about me, you'll likely care about my life a bit more.

    What you need are hooks and as many as possible. Try to look at what you're story is about, who features in it, what's the plot and theme and combined them as much a possible with a hook.
    If the opening of my book is: "The boy walked down the street." Is that very interesting? Does it raise many questions? Does it tell you anything about my plot, central character, theme, setting? It is action but it lacks a hook.
    If I said: "The small boy hobbled down the street in battle armour." It's still not as good as it could be but it raises more questions and gives some information. The plot is likely to be about a war or battle. Theme might be exploring children used in battle and they have been. Why is a boy fighting this war? What's the set up for this world? Where is he hobbling to? You could then add to that sentence and pull it out. The boy is your focal point. So maybe the character watching him describes the armour because he's a black smith and he made that armour for children to possibly die in. How does he feel about this? Is this so common in this world that he thinks little of it because it's the norm. Was he taught a trade to escape the battle field and be of use? This give us a sense of character and maybe some backstory that is relevant as it ties into the present.

    It's all about how you weave things together. Starting with a bang really just needs having a damn good opening chapter. And action just means something is happening, not just the writer telling us information we don't care about at the moment.
    Vicki27 likes this.
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Marley was dead, to begin with.

    That’s a subtle bang, especially for a book called A Christmas Carol. Bang really isn’t the right word. As folks have mentioned, some sort of hook is what matters. Something that invests the reader.
    StrawhatOverlord and Vicki27 like this.
  6. right: but what I am hearing is simply that you need to make the book interesting. This is surely true and basically applies to the whole book I would assume and not just the first chapter :). I guess the structure that seems to be advocated for these day is: hook, exposition (however you couch it to make it less so), rising action, climax, resolution.

    And I am fine with the hook being "anything that catches the readers interest" but that is a definition trying to define itself by itself. And does not have to be an "action" at all- it could just be an amusing and well written description of a hobbits house.

    I think that there is an overemphasis on this need for a defined hook or action- "big start" whatever you want to call it that detracts in many of the new books and people can be misled in following this formula too blindly.
  7. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    I'm inclined to agree with you when you write that there is an overemphasis on the need for a defined hook or action. But I'd add to that, and say that there is an overemphasis on the need for a quick hook. I see far too many agents (and publishers) saying they only want the first 5 pages - thats maybe 2500 words on A4 paper, less in a normal paperback format - before they make a decision on whether to take the book. What would those agents have made of the first book of the Belgariad? A good book doesn't necessarily start fast, but it does draw the reader in and keep them there - and thats all in the writing.

    I'm not sure I agree when you say that the definition of a hook is trying to define itself. That definition is for me a bit like the definition of bait - its whatever you need to attract the attention of whatever it is you're trying to catch. And that varies with your target. Personally I'd rather have a fairly open defintion, because it avoids forcing writers into following a formula, and leaves it open to change as writers develop.
  8. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Troubadour

    What I've read (and I believe works best for any sort of genre/type of story) is that the first paragraph needs to leave the reader with a question, one that they want the answer to and will have them keep reading. In I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, there is the description of the corpse of Gorrister in detail. Then you see the start of the next sentence, in which Gorrister then sees his own corpse, and all the characters realize they've been tricked, again. What in the world is going on? How could this be possible? What do you mean again?

    The problem you run into is if you have a big event/action, the reader doesn't know about/care about the characters yet, but something being weird or interesting or a mystery can happen to anyone. The start of the Jurassic Park novel has characters you'll never see again, but one of them is attacked by a dinosaur. So you know that someone has already made dinosaurs, that people are interacting with them, they're dangerous, and people are trying to cover that up. Think of the movie version, some random guy get's eaten by a raptor and it communicates the same ideas as the book. So you KNOW that when the characters are going to Jurassic Park, they're in real danger, but they don't know that yet, so that imbalance of knowledge creates tension.
    StrawhatOverlord likes this.
  9. good points. I don't have it on me but I think I recall the Jurassic Park novel that it was in the prologue - which is another thing to talk about. but it may have been the first chapter yes. its been a long time.

    I agree a good book can start with that- and many many do, but I wonder like as a percentage of published works.. is it like 50%, 70%, 30%? because the current mantra seems to be that 100% need it. which is a pretty boring way to go about writing if every book starts with the same formula. (Yes I am overstating a bit)
  10. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    Of course, you could just start your novel with an absolute pearl of an opening line. The best one I've ever read is the opening to Alfred Bester's book The Rat Race:
    "Every morning I hate to be born, every night I'm afraid to die."
    StrawhatOverlord likes this.
  11. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Troubadour

    I think you're going to drive yourself crazy seeking an objective answer to this. Every book is different, what works for an MG fantasy won't necessarily work for women's upmarket fiction. You also have to keep in mind a lot of published books are...bad. Look at the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. Look at the Razzies. When I was little it drove me NUTS that the "we'll publish one of these books every month for forever" books like Animorphs and The Saddle Club and Babysitter's Club had the first chapter be "My name is [name], and I'm a member of [group], and we all [shared trait]. Sometimes we run into [bad guys], but we always find a way through!" and they repeat the backstory and character traits over and over again. If Arya Stark turned towards the camera at the start of the Winds of Winter and said "oh btw here's the situation" then it's going to look really dumb and be a waste of everyone's time. But Animorphs is designed so you can pick up any one of the books and get a complete-ish story, while you need to read all of A Song of Ice and Fire, but they're also for two totally different audiences. They were also published in different times. You can't compare your current manuscript to Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Enders Game, any of that stuff because the norms and readers' tastes have changed.

    What would be best for you, I think, is to do what serves YOUR story the best. If you don't know if a BIG ACTION start makes it better, then write it both ways and do an A/B test with some friends (you give them both versions, have them read both, and have them tell you which one they liked better/which one makes them want to read more of the story and why). This is where the "There are no rules of writing" comes in. You can do anything, as long as it serves the story and it's executed well. I'm sure lots of people will groan that I start my novel with a dream flashback, but there is A Very Good Reason (since the world of dreams is an important setting, as is a character that only exists there). But if I only had a dream flashback to build some backstory and nothing of consequence happens, then it doesn't really do anything. A very, very early version had a prologue that was in media res to a big battle and showed the MC using a new power for the first time. And young me thought it was extremely cool...but who were these characters? Why would a reader care? Why would having this new power be a big reveal? But I thought the story needed that because other stories did that. A later version had a "talking heads" conversation between two characters with an unseen observer to vaguely drop some lore/backstory, and again young(er) me thought it was very cool and clever. But again, why would a reader care? It's all obtuse and doesn't tell them anything.

    No one is going to care about your characters/plot/world as much as you do. What is the thing they need to know as fast as possible? What is that little nugget of intrigue that makes your story stand out from the others? For Jurassic Park it's the dinos, for Harry Potter it was this secret society of wizards alongside our own, for I Have no Mouth it's this eternal hell the computer has made. Give your readers a taste of it, give them a reason to keep reading. Assume they're going to skip the prologue. Have you tried distilling your story to 1 sentence/tweet? An elevator pitch, if you will. "Normal boy finds himself in secret society of wizards and goes to magic boarding school." "People find themselves trapped in a themepark with cloned dinosaurs." "A war machine reaches its full potential by torturing the same 5 humans for the rest of time." Use that to guide you as to what your beginning should be.
    StrawhatOverlord likes this.
  12. heh the classic: "It was a dark and stormy night." that is often parodied but also used pretty effectively in 'a wrinkle in time'

    I hear you. i think perhaps i am having a knee-jerk opposition to what is not such a big deal. perhaps what the first paragraph/page needs is really an indication of where the book is going. and if that is of interest to the reader then they are in and don't worry about those who are not.
  13. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    A story should not start with a bang. If I hear starting with a bang, I take it to mean something big and awesome. A big fight scene, a chase, an explosion, someone dying. That sort of thing. These work great in movies, because you have the visual effects to draw a watcher in. With books you don't have this. These kinds of scenes are boring if you don't have any emotional attachment to the character. So don't start your book with them

    A story should start with something interesting. The first sentence must make the reader want to read the rest of the first paragraph. The first paragraph must make the reader want to read the first page and so on. One way to do this is just to have great writing. Assassin's apprentice by Robin Hobb is such a book. It starts with someone writing their memoirs. There are hints that a lot of stuff happened. But I kept reading mainly because he just sounded so characterful.

    A hook is another way to do this. A hook for me being a clear open question that the reader wants to have answered. Something intriguing. The "Every morning I hate to be born, every night I'm afraid to die." mentioned earlier is a great hook. Because it's so strange readers want to know what's going on. Of course, the trick with a hook is that you need to follow it up with something equally intriguing. If that line is followed by two pages of the sun setting and the character staring at a flower, people will put the book down, no matter how good the hook.

    A third common option is just something happening. The main character is doing something. Preferably something they are passionate about. There is 'movement' in the story. I think it's hunger games which starts with the main character hunting. She's doing something she likes and it shows some of her skills. But it's not immediately life or death.

    Actually, they mainly reject books in the first five pages, not buy them. They would normally request the rest of the book before buying it (unless it's something very exceptional). The best comparison to explain how they can do so is to replace "writer" with another art profession, like painter or pianist. If you listen to someone, you can tell within one or two minutes if they are a good pianist or not. You might not know their exact level, but you will be able to tell if it's someone who started playing last year and had lessons once a week or if they've been at it for the past 10 years.

    it's the same with writing. You can tell within a few pages if someone knows how to write a decent book. You can tell if you like their voice and if they know how to do description and characters and all that. A saying I've heard from an editor on this was "When you're editing a manuscript, you can fix an ending, but you can't fix a writer's voice."
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    All advice about what a story "should" do is predicated on a false assumption of "the reader." The reader wants this. The reader hates that.

    There are many readers. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it because I believe it's significant, but also because I think missing this can lead new writers down many blind alleys. Where they get mugged. Or mug themselves. My metaphor is wandering ....

    What is a great hook for one reader is a tired trope for another. In fact, the same reader at twenty will not be enchanted by the same book when they're sixty. We all know of books we once thought were great but now think are dull, and vice versa.

    To me, there's a pragmatic alternative to the theoretical reader. Instead, deal with actual readers. Write a story. Does it please you, the author? If not, rewrite or abandon. If it does, then hand it to beta readers or an editor. Repeat that as many times as necessary. Then, either shop your story to publishers or publish it yourself. Sit back and hope you get reviews.

    That's it. Who cares what theory says, what literary critics say, or what blog posts say? You have a story, it has pleased yourself and at least a few others, and it's time to get on to the next one. No matter what folks say about your story, future generations are likely to say something different. In which count yourself fortunate that your story is still being read.

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