self publishing

The 5 Things your 1st 3 chapters must have (Part 2 of 5)

It is pretty obvious that most publishing houses ask for the first three chapters of your novel to evaluate if the novel has enough zing to propel the reader on. What’s not obvious is, what exactly is the publisher looking for in those first 3 chapters?

We have already looked at the first thing

  1. Within the first chapter we must have an introduction to one of the 3 main characters.

The second thing on your list (yes it is the second most important thing not the most important) is the HOOK

  1. Your first chapter must have the HOOK

This second point will lead on to the third thing your first 3 chapters must have; more on that later.

In my last post I had mentioned about the lynchpin and how easy it is to start with the lynchpin to provide the HOOK. It’s only fair we look a little more deeply into the hook.

The HOOK is just short for ‘narrative hook’. It’s the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention and prods him to read on.

A novel especially one in the genre of mystery, thriller, or romance must hook the reader’s attention in the first paragraph and, if possible, in the very first sentence. It must create in the reader an urgency, the immediate need to know how this situation described plays out or is resolved.

Sometimes you know how it’s resolved but you want to know how it plays out. Consider Erich Segal’s master opening in his most popular work ‘Love Story’:

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.”

So you know the girl who loves the narrator dies, you want to know how it plays out.

Sometimes, the hook is merely a portent of what’s going to come

Consider Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, the novel that ensured she never had to look back.

Mrs Ferrars died on the night of the 16th – 17th September – a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.

It was just a few minutes after nine when I reached home once more. I opened the front door with my latchkey, and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning. To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried. I am not going to pretend that at that moment I foresaw the events of the next few weeks. I emphatically did not do so.

But my instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.”

In the above cases, the hook is the major problem or the major situation, in many cases however, the hook is just a minor problem that leads the hero or protagonist into his most important bind and that resolution forms the crux of your story.

Consider John Grisham’s classic The Chamber (You must have guessed by now, I am partial to this particular work). This is how it opens: “The decision to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was reached with relative ease. Only three people were involved in the process. The first was the man with the money. The second was a local operative who knew the territory. And the third was a young patriot and zealot with a talent for explosives and an astonishing knack for disappearing without a trail. After the bombing, he fled the country and hid in Northern Ireland for six years.”

It’s enough to want you to read on, but it’s not the main problem and a skilled writer like Grisham doesn’t spend too much time on this lynchpin. Once done with the failed assassination he moves to the main problem: “How to get clemency for Sam Cayhall.”

Almost all of Dan Brown’s novels start with a murder but it is not the murder that is being solved, the murder leads to the larger problem. In “The Da Vinci Code”, the murder of curator Jacques Saunière sets in motion the events where the main problem is protecting the Holy Grail from falling into the wrong hands. This kind of a hook leads to a more convoluted ‘problem-resolution’ setup and works only if the transition from one problem to another is seamless. If you looked carefully, you would understand that while the hook was the murder, the starting problem was Langdon trying to clear his name and prove he had nothing to do with the murder. Very quickly the problem shifts to puzzles and riddles and while throughout the entire book, the aim is to prove his innocence, the main problem shifts from solving the murder to locating the Grail. It’s not often that such seismic shifts in focal points make for a good read. Not everyone has the research and pace of Dan Brown in creating a hurtling thriller peppered with jaw dropping “facts” that make you forget the incoherence in plot structure.

It’s much more difficult to pull off the second kind of hook. It needs excellent storytelling skills but more importantly finesse in seamlessly moving from the minor problem to the major one.

Another idea has been to go where the action is and start your story from that point and then go into flashbacks and back-stories as the novel progresses. I have come across some fantastic novels that have successfully managed to pull off the difficult task of going back and forth, but it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Not to mention it is the leading cause of manuscript rejections. It is extremely easy to lose your way in a story spanning a couple of hundred pages or more and you wouldn’t want your reader confused.

 The most common and unfortunate interpretation of the HOOK has been action instead of dramatic action. The use of action as the hook is so widespread that dramatic action has often been interpreted as actual action.

The story doesn’t necessarily need to start with actual action. A husband splitting up with his wife could act as the dramatic action. The husband doesn’t have to kill his mother-in-law because he can’t get along with his wife.

 Although we are talking about fiction, there is such a thing as a fictitious HOOK: one that is outlandish and has been created just to serve as a gimmicky attention grabber. Readers aren’t going to forgive you for leading them on.

The HOOK is a masterful device but don’t treat it like a prop or device. Make it your own and it will serve you well.

Happy Writing.

Anirban S. Bose

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self publishing

The 5 Things your 1st 3 chapters must have (Part 1 of 5)

It is pretty obvious that most publishing houses ask for the first three chapters of your novel to evaluate if the novel has enough zing to propel the reader on. What’s not obvious is, what exactly is the publisher looking for in those first 3 chapters?

Having been on the other side of the table assisting some editor to make the ACCEPT or REJECT decision (I say assisting, while in most cases I was merely nodding along) I know what ticks them off and what gets them mildly excited (yeah, I have never seen one of those guys jump up and exclaim “this is good!”)

I dedicate this post to the mild excitement and the first thing on your checklist.

  1. Within the first chapter we must have an introduction to one of the 3 main characters.

The 3 main characters in any novel are the protagonist, the antagonist, and what is known as the catalyst or the lynchpin. Not all novels have all three.

A lot of novels start with the protagonist. Romantic novels start with the hero or heroine and then they go on to meet their other half thereby completing the couple. A lot of murder mysteries and whodunits start with a case coming to our detective or cop. It’s fairly straight in structure and highly recommended for first timers. Writing from this starting point also establishes what is known as point-of-view and the protagonist’s point of view is a fairly easy one to maintain.

Though it’s non-fiction, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love” due to its narrative structure could easily pass for an example to uphold this point. The story starts with the protagonist and within the first page tells us who the protagonist is: “professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak.”

This is why it is crucial that you talk about the protagonist within the first three chapters, even if not in the very first chapter. The reader has a right to know what the story is going to be about.

The lynchpin or the catalyst as a starting point is also a good start point provided you know what to do with the catalyst once he/she has served their purpose. A lot of whodunits start with the murder or death of the victim and the investigation or events flow from it. The event (death or murder) or the victim can act as the lynchpin or the catalyst bringing the rest of the cast into the space of the novel. In John Grisham’s “The Chamber”, the story starts with the lynchpin, the character Marvin Kramer is the Lynchpin. The ‘radical 4th generation Jew’ takes up a major part of the first chapter and his failed assassination sets in motion the rest of the story, set years later. The lynchpin could also be an event. It can be argued that Marvin Kramer’s failed assassination and not Marvin Kramer, is the lynchpin. Starting with the lynchpin or catalyst is quite popular and it also provides the story with the HOOK. The HOOK is the exciting incident that, you guessed it, hooks the reader and compels him to read on. More on that later.

A much lesser used and understandably less popular starting point is that of the antagonist. The first reason for the lack of popularity is that starting with the antagonist is a technique that lends itself only to certain genres and structures. A thriller could start with a diabolical serial killer so the reader knows what the hero is up against. While starting with the antagonist is OK, it rarely does justice to the reader or the writing to not immediately also introduce the protagonist. After all it’s the protagonist you want your readers rooting for. The antagonist as a starting point is also really tricky, it’s a fine balance between creating a formidable villain and one that overshadows the protagonist. Of course, if you have a villain as the protagonist, you have little choice here. The example that jumps to mind is Patricia Highsmith’s classic “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.

The idea is very simple. Your first chapter could start with anyone or anything of those three, but do find your principal character and tell me straight off about him or her. You have three chapters to do it.

Happy Writing.

Anirban S Bose