Opening Sentences: Central Conflict as the Narrative Hook

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The Very, Very Beginning

Deep down, or maybe not so deep down, writers know the value of a good opening sentence. Because writers are readers and have read a multitude of first sentences that draw them straight into the story. Even if you don’t know how, you know why: the hook. That magical gimmick that entices readers to keep reading, to buy the book, to read to the end, to tell their friends.

So I’m sure you know why you need The Hook. But how to create it? Structure it? Incorporate it into your story?

Novels vs. Everything Shorter

Novel Hooks

As novels have more word count room to maneuver, the hook for a novel has traditionally appeared on the first page rather than in the first sentence. Most of the time. Can you imagine having to turn to page two in search of the reason to care about this story? I can think of many a book like this. Books I put back on the shelves, unpurchased. The novel may have a dearth of words on hand for getting around to the point, but I do not have a dearth of time to wait. So the latest you might expect a novel hook is on the first page.

Everything Shorter Hooks

Novellas down to flash fiction just do not have the wiggle room of 120K word novels. Often these drop the hook in the first paragraph at the latest. As someone in a constant all-fire hurry, I would say even this first paragraph hook comes too late. I, Mr. Average Reader, will think I’ve learned all I need to know about your story in the first sentence. Whether or not you’re promising me an interesting tale falls to how fast and how well you executed that Hook.

The Hook

Ah, but what of The Hook itself? What is it? There are two things readers want to know about your book, far and away above tone, genre, moral point, et cetera:

What is this person’s problem and why should I care?

The Hook answers those two questions. Almost like a thesis statement in academia. Through answering those two questions, The Hook generates the need to know more, like what happens to this person I now care about and how does their problem get solved?

So often the first sentence contains set-up. That’s fine, because readers could use an anchoring point to let them know what kind of story to expect. For example, the below sentence:

The southern tribes believed that the goddess of day and birth would drop a bead of her spirit from the heavens once every three hundred years.

But such a sentence leaves you asking, so what? And maybe not in the good way that makes you read more, but in the bad way that makes you put down the story. That sentence could contain more punch to jumpstart your reader’s interest with an immediate hook before you launch into continued description of the situation. Example, the below sentence:

The southern tribes believed that the goddess of day and birth would drop a bead of her spirit from the heavens once every three hundred years; Bead, named for this day 92 years ago, meant to be the one to catch it before her entire family line died out.

See how the second part of the sentence relates the main character to the described situation? How it creates need for that character, their personal conflict, and what’s happening because of that conflict? This character has almost a destiny to receive the goddess’s blessing and a very good reason for seeking it, but will she succeed? Now your reader has incentive to keep on reading.

Conclusion

If you can squeak The Hook, the central conflict and reason to care about it, into your opening line (and you can), then you stand a much better chance of convincing your readers to get through your set-up. Doing so in the first sentence leaves them almost zero chance to escape before you’ve got their interest. I suggest reading first sentences of your favorite books and short-stories to see how those writers did it. Then overhaul your first sentences using this method. See the difference.

Got any questions about adding the hook into your first sentence to get your reader’s attention? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for hooking readers in your opening sentences, I want to hear them!


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Sketchy Writing Advice: The Power of Rearranging Your Sentences

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The Plight of the Back-loaded Writer

Do your sentences ramble with a bunch of important details attached to the the ends? Like the equivalent of remembering relevant information for the story you’re telling your co-worker, but only after you’ve told most of it. A lot of your sentences start off with simple phrases like “The dog ran to the house” but tack on all nuance later, such as:

The dog ran to the house like a streaking comet as if carried by angels under his feet.

These sentences are fine. You know they’re not great, but fine. Maybe a period or two could break them up into manageable chunks. But what of when each sentence looks like this? The details, clauses, prepositions, and such all dwindle toward the end. The subject>verb>object pattern always happens at the beginning. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.

Yawn.

When you notice your sentences always or often follow this pattern, you may begin wondering how to fix this. Add more punch. Sprinkle your sentences with style, like those writers whose sentences pulse through the page like magic.

Below, check out how to mix your dull and extraneous sentences up and bring them to life!

Enter: Subordinate Clauses!*

To recap your basic English lessons from middle school, parts of a sentence fall into two categories:

  • the main clause
  • the subordinate clause

Main clauses tend to come first and stand on their own, while subordinate clauses tend to come last and depend on the main clause to exist. Kind of like me with my relationship to my day job.

But subordinate clauses don’t have to come last. In fact, mixing up the order adds power to your writing. Not every sentence works better when mixed up so you just have to feel whether the rearrangement adds more punch to your intended meaning. (Spoiler: it almost always does.)

Tweet from @shapedforbattle: You can pronounce spinach like stomach if you’re not a coward

In the above sentence, the main clause appears in the form of: “You can pronounce spinach like stomach.” Subject = you; verb = pronounce; object = spinach. Subject>verb>object, the most basic building block of sentences. One we writers repeat over and over as we string words together to form meaning.

The subordinate clause takes the form of: “if you’re not a coward.” That’s a sentence fragment on its own, buddy. We know it depends on the details of the main clause to make any sense.

To switch up the boring usual order of this sentence, we can just move the subordinate clause to the beginning (and add a comma) to read like this:

If you’re not a coward, you can pronounce spinach like stomach.

Boom. Now I don’t have to read yet another subject>verb>object sentence after another.

Enter Also: Prepositional Phrases!*

Another sentence block that lends itself well to rearrangement is the prepositional phrase. Prepositions are the connectors that link the verb to the object, so any words like for, in, on, around, over, through, beneath et cetera.

Dictionary.com definition: a phrase consisting of a preposition, its object, which is usually a noun or a pronoun, and any modifiers of the object.

Tweet from @shapedforbattle: I spend an unreasonable amount of time devising of writing class topics, modules, and lessons for someone who does not teach writing.

In the above example sentence, the prepositional phrase appears at: “for someone who does not teach writing.” Preposition>object>modifiers. Once again, this is a sentence fragment that cannot stand on its own without the main clause!

To switch things up, put the entire prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence (and add a comma).

For someone who does not teach writing, I spend an unreasonable amount of time devising of writing class topics, modules, and lessons.

Hid that subject>verb>object sentence order there in the middle again. Nailed it.

Enter As Well: Similes!*

In our sentence rearrangement endeavors, the final movable sentence block I want to discuss is the simile. You might remember similes from when you had to annotate poetry in high school. The easiest elements to highlight/underline and make yourself look like you knew what you were doing were phrases starting with like or as.

Tweet from @shapedforbattle: I just had to write this tweet for a blog example like a pleb

Because I could find ZERO tweets of mine containing any similes going back two years, and because I’m determined to keep things consistent, I tweeted this status just for the sake of example.

In the above sentence, the simile begins at: “like a pleb.” Similes are just comparisons, but they go great at the beginnings of sentences to usurp the subject>verb>object position.

Like a pleb, I just had to write this tweet for a blog example.

Better examples might look like: “He shot through the sky as fast as a speeding bullet” > “As fast as a speeding bullet, he shot through the sky.”

Basically, putting your as or like clauses first hints at the flavor of the main clause to come.

How I Learned This Skill

As mentioned above, back to back sentences all starting with the subject>verb>object pattern become tedious. They bother me to read, they bother me to write. I dislike seeing ‘the _____ (whatever noun)’ descriptor begin sentences again and again. Of course, those sentences matter as basic building blocks of communication. But they project more emphasis to meaning when used with intention.

Got any questions about rearranging sentences for better impact? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for rearranging sentences, I want to hear them!

*Excessive exclamation points brought to you by recent excessive listening of enthusiastic podcasts.


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Sketchy Writing Advice: 5 ways to make receiving feedback less painful

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

A Common Feedback Narrative

As a writer looking for ways to improve your skills, you may have heard or read this trite advice: writers must develop a thick skin. Don’t take feedback so personally. Blah blah blah. In reality, everything you write seems personal to you. At first. Maybe forever. You haven’t put many words out there, not enough to take the hits like a thick shield around you. Not yet. On top of that, you didn’t start writing because you’re insensitive. Writers happen to be among the most sensitive artist types out there. How else can you tune in to the human condition enough to translate that on-page for your readers to feel? To you, every bit of commentary on your work feels personal.

So, right now, and maybe for a long time, feedback has hurt you. Your words represent you, your skill, your thoughts and feelings, your convictions. You have tied your worth and value to them. Even though feedback feels like a personal attack, you know you have to receive critique in order to get better. I’m not telling you to develop a thick skin, because you may never manage that. But I am telling you to be brave. And most of all, clever.

As in the casting of any magic spell, set your intentions before you begin, keeping these elements in mind.

How to Handle Feedback

Know what you want feedback on. Tell your reader so beforehand. Very often, readers will focus in too much on an aspect of the passage that you don’t view as a problem, or that you are not ready to tackle just yet. Then, what you really wanted help on falls to the wayside, wasting everyone’s time. Having an idea of what needs scrutiny and pointing your reader’s critique at that specific problem will help you the most in the long run. And I don’t mean, “Here, help me with this paragraph.” I mean specific specific, as in, “I want the relationship between the characters in this scene to come off as tender but it seems flat. How can I fix it?” In addition, try to have the passage you want help with as polished up as you can make it. Glaring problems with punctuation, grammar, tense, voice, et cetera will serve to distract your reader from the main issue. They may even have a hard time gleaning a solution for you if your passage is an indecipherable mess.

Don’t argue with critique. Just write down your reader’s feedback and say, “Okay, thank you.” Arguing with suggestions for improvement, after you asked for help, leaves your reader feeling like you don’t want to improve your work, you just want things to stay the same, and you wasted their time. This behavior also sets you up for bad relations with your future editors. Not arguing about suggestions and feedback allows you to consider the advice in private.

In the end, you get to decide whether you should take the advice or discard it. Your conclusions aren’t always right, so keep an open mind, but their conclusions aren’t always right either, so have faith in yourself. Don’t go back and tell your reader your decision about their advice either way. This keeps relations between you and your reader good and leaves open avenues for future help with critique. But most of all, keeping a cool head in the moment of receiving feedback, and recognizing that you get to decide whether to keep or discard the advice, gives you all the power to avoid letting critique hurt you.

Request feedback from readers/writers of your genre/style. If you can. This will make the feedback you receive more relevant to your work. As a gross oversimplification for an example, if you write hard sci-fi and ask a romance writer for feedback, they may focus on trying to get your characters to kiss. And if you write romance but ask for help from a fantasy writer, they may focus on trying to get your couple to go on an epic quest together. But if you write horror and ask for help from another horror writer, they stand a better chance of helping you turn the fright up when that’s the problem you can’t fix yourself.

If you need to ask a non-writer for help, you would do best to approach a reader of your genre over someone who enjoys something else or who does not read at all.

Decide you want critique. This point leads into the next point, but first, a word. If you have been brave enough to seek out feedback, you should remind yourself that whatever form of feedback you receive, this information will help you. That feedback may challenge your views, it may ask of you more than you have the skills yet to give, it may attempt to silence you or demand you speak up, it may even seem vague and wasteful of your time. As long as you remain aware that you always have room to improve, you will come to view critique as a tool in that aim. You just sometimes have to work to dig out the helpful bits from the tone or the content of the feedback. Ready your scalpel.

Figure out whether you want criticism or praise. Too often, we writers hand our piece to someone we trust and say, “What do you think?” If inside you catch yourself hoping something like, please be good, please be good, please be good, you did not want criticism from that interaction. So when your reader dutifully points out something you could improve, you will feel disappointment. You instead wanted praise.

And that’s okay! Oftentimes, you won’t even know you have your fingers crossed for praise. But before you hand your piece over to someone, figure out what you want from the exchange and set expectations accordingly. So if you realize you just need a little hit of the serotonin that comes with praise, maybe include a caveat like, “I don’t want critique; I just want you to read this and tell me what you like.” There’s nothing wrong with asking for this kind of feedback. But you must remain aware and in control of your desires when requesting another’s thoughts.

How I Learned These Skills

In giving feedback to others, I went through a time of feeling guilty when the feedback other writers received from me clearly hurt them. I struggled to balance a genuine desire to help them improve with not hurting them by softening my tone, rounding the corners of my content, and couching criticisms inside praise. That doesn’t always work, but at that point, I can say I tried my best. I also found that writers would argue with my feedback, making me feel like all the effort I put in to picking out the issues causing the writer problems and suggesting solutions was a massive waste. I learned to walk away from those arguments, because they came from someplace personal within the writer that I could never hope to reach. You can only control so much.

In receiving feedback from others, I spent a long time yearning for actual help, instead of the vague, unhelpful phrase: “It’s good.” Whether I am being too hard on my work or not doesn’t matter – there’s always a way to improve my writing and it bothered me when someone did not point out any issues they found. In this way, through trial and error, I found more useful methods for requesting critique, such as finding writers in my genre and specifying where I wanted the critique focused.

Ultimately, requesting and receiving feedback comes down to a sticky social interaction. We have all seen feedback, reviews, and commentary devolve into a nasty mess. Some guiding principles, on both sides, should help we writers to navigate through this necessary evil and come out unscathed on the other side. Experience will lead to that thicker skin one way or another, but until then, may these tips help you dodge some of those scary flying knives.

Got any questions about dealing with painful feedback? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for receiving feedback, I want to hear them!


Thanks for reading!

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Word Nerd Scribbles: How and Why I Started Blogging

Way back when WordPress was barely WordPress but just after the (not so great) app had arrived, I started blogging primarily to remind the world that I was alive. Being in college forces you to think and make mental connections so much more than day-to-day life does, so at the time, I was filled with Thoughts and Feelings that I wanted to get out. But college also takes up far more of your time than does your average post-graduation life, so while I managed to type up a handful of blog posts about my Thoughts and Feelings, they soon languished in the wake of a stack of books half as tall as me for my English degree.

Maybe not half as tall, but these were for one semester. Yike.

Actually, I started blogging in high school. The now defunct Nerd Girl Scribbles, located at blogger.com at the time. But I was small-ish and had nothing to say, so rebranding happened sometime after.

Because of some nebulous cultural expectation and perhaps as a lingering habit from my days of writing argumentative papers about literature, I began feeling the uneasy need to review the books I read. After graduation, I had lost the classroom environment that encouraged discussion about assigned reading. I wanted to talk about the little narrative things I had noticed. You might say, well why didn’t you join a book club? I did, in fact. But they read books I didn’t enjoy so I ghosted. Instead, I began writing book reviews after closing the pages of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I loved it so much, had such a many things to say about it, and wanted the world to know about this book. (The world already knew about this book. I was late to the game.) After that, I kept up the book reviews and readers started following me for my thoughts about the random things I read. Wild.

The Friday before I was to take a one-week vacation, I was using my phone at work when I wasn’t supposed to, scrolling through Facebook. I came across the original post shown above, which asks the reader to describe them the way an author would in a book. As I went to repost, I knew no one would go along with the request, because effort. But people love to hear about themselves and I like to observe others, so. The offer to write character descriptions about the people who commented was born.

I wrote _thirty_ character descriptions. And surprise, surprise, people wrote some about me in return. I spent my whole vacation on this and it was a wonderful exercise in metaphor, finding my voice, and learning to tell a story in a few paragraphs. I also realized later, after hearing from my friends and family on why they decided not to participate, that I may have by accident revealed a little more about people than is usual. Shrug. Sometimes you just know a person. Sometimes you don’t know what’s a secret.

I wanted to keep all the character descriptions, not lose them to the vagaries of Facebook timelines. And hey, I already had a blog. One dedicated to a love of words. So each description got copied over and I had about half a year’s worth of content scheduled out.

Those were the good old days.

When those posts began to run out, I knew I wanted to keep posting weekly stories to keep my writing in front of the eyes of readers. My favorite show of all time is Mushishi, a serial story about a man who can see strange organisms not visible to everyone, phenomena closer to the source of life than anything else, and he makes his living by traveling across the country to help people troubled by these creatures. He’s gentle, patient, and kind, more willing to find a way around killing. I also at some point had started a (second or third or fifth) Deviantart profile. When I worked at Barnes & Noble, Mumford & Sons songs played on the overhead far more often than I would have liked, but one line always stuck out to me. “I’m a hopeless wanderer.” I tried to use that phrase, hopeless wanderer, as my username. It was, of course, already taken. So I twisted it into hopeful wanderer. Because as Brave Saint Saturn said, the bravest thing of all is always hope.

Those of you who follow my blog probably know where this went. I wanted to write a story about a person who never settled down, who was kind in their encounters with strange things, and I wanted very much to write about encounters with strange things. I had at the time begun toying with the idea of a neutral reader experience, that a lack of details about a main character viewed through first person could remove the lens of the author between the reader and the experience. Allow them to fall into the story themselves.

I suffer from depression. Or maybe I struggle with depression, because I fight the void every time it comes creeping back up. When one day I got my head above the briny waves of a depressive episode yet again, all these elements came together to create the first Hopeful Wanderer flash fic, A Barren Heart, which is about surviving depression again and again. For the last two years, I have written a Hopeful Wanderer tale (almost) every week. At the time of writing this article, we are ten episodes away from a total of one hundred!

Beyond the work of getting my words connected to readers – of newsletters and likes and follower counts and asking for patrons – the best part has always been the continued creation of this character and this world, of never knowing week to week what the Wanderer may see or do or learn. Sometimes, whatever life thing I’m grappling with slips into the subtext. Sometimes that thing gets noticed by readers, who find resonance with that subtext in themselves. The best part has been the connection. Of knowing that I am indeed alive, and that other people know that fact, too.

Thanks for reading!

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Writing Life: Time Change

I have one particular writing nemesis, and that’s the time change.

Every year at around this time — when it’s getting dark at 7p and earlier — my writing suffers. I write in the evening, after coming home from work, but now, the encroaching darkness tricks my brain into thinking it’s bedtime. I can’t possibly write right now. Not enough time, not enough time…

I think I read somewhere that the cold and the dark are what triggered the idea for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to happen in November. Now that Halloween is over, what else are we writers going to do?

Yet as the nights have grown longer in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a downswing in my productivity. I cannot even imagine trying to drag 300 words out of my brain right now, let alone 1600+. Better to slowly get used to writing after sunset again, until sweet, sweet Daylight Savings Time rolls back around.


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