Posted On August 17, 2016 by Print This Post

Finding the Balance Between Hooking Readers and Setting up the Story

Please welcome back author and ΓΌber blogger Janice Hardy.Β Β 

There’s a lot of conflicting advice about writing. Common wisdom says to start with a bang and hook your readers right away, while other views say show the protagonist in her ordinary world before it all goes sideways. What really makes this hard is that both are correct. We want to set up our stories and grab our readers at the same time.

Β The problem with starting with a bang: Since readers haven’t yet met those characters involved in the trouble, they don’t care what’s happening to them.

The problem with starting with setup: Since nothing is going on but introduction of the characters, readers get bored.

For most stories, the plot doesn’t officially start until the inciting event–which could occur as much as fifty pages into the book.Janice_Hardy

That’s a lot of pages for a reader to slog through if nothing is going on.

The trick here, is to find a “typical day” that’s also fraught with conflict and interesting things going on.

Let’s take a peek at one of my own novel as an example:

In The Shifter, the main plot doesn’t trigger until several chapters into the book. Since it’s a fantasy, I had a lot of world building to establish as well as introduce my protagonist, Nya. It’s exactly the type of writing situation that can sink a writer–a lot of setup needed before the story can start.

So I looked to the world for the answer.

You can setup a novel and provide the hook at the same time if you pick an “everyday moment” from the protagonist’s life that does three things:

1. Shows the inherent conflict of that world (either the world at large or that character’s world).

2. Shows an aspect of the character that will matter to the story.

3. Puts those two things together.

In my case, it looked like this:

1. Shows the inherent conflict of that world (either the world at large or that character’s world).
Nya’s city is under occupation by enemy forces and she’s living on the street, stealing food to survive. The opening scene is her stealing chicken eggs. It shows “life is bad for Nya and here’s why.”

2. Shows an aspect of the character that will matter to the story.
Nya has the unique ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person. If the soldiers occupying her city find out about her, they’ll capture her and use her as a weapon. In the opening scene, she uses this ability. It shows “here’s what Nya can do.”

3. Puts those two things together.
Nya’s egg theft goes wrong and she runs, and in the process, she’s forced to use her ability to heal someone and escape the rancher who wants to arrest her. Readers see her world, her ability, and her morality all in one fell swoop, while they’re wondering if she’ll escape and how this egg theft will turn out. It shows “here’s Nya’s life and the problems she faces because of her ability.”
Not once do I explain how Nya’s ability works. I don’t explain the political situation of the world she lives in. I don’t explain why she’s stealing. It’s classic show, don’t tell, showing all of these things and letting readers figure out how the world works and who Nya is in the process. They can see her ability in action, they can see her world is hard, they can see that she’s stealing to eat.

The hook comes from the setup.

Even though this is an adventure fantasy (and a little easier to create everyday conflict), the same principles apply to any story.

Let’s look at something appropriate to my host site–a romance.

A classic trope in any romance is the meet cute, and probably one of the easier hook/setup combos in the genre (from a grab-the-reader perspective, not the coming up with good ideas aspect). Two nice people meeting in a cute or intriguing way is fun. Romance readers picked up the book to see these two crazy kids fall in love, so they want to see how it all began. Let’s return to those three things:

1. Shows the inherent conflict of that world (either the world at large or that character’s world).
Without action-movie stakes, the conflict here will likely be more personal. He’s afraid of commitment, she’s been hurt one too many times to trust again. She’s a Capulet and he’s Montague. He’s a zombie and she’s alive. Whatever it is, their two “worlds” are keeping them apart.

Quick note about worlds: A world is whatever environment your character lives in. If it’s set in a post office, the post office is the story world. If it takes place in a single room (such as the movie, Closet Land), that room is the story world.

2. Shows an aspect of the character that will matter to the story.
This is how readers get to know the characters. If she’s afraid to trust, we’ll see her being betrayed or acting in a way due to her lack of trust. If she’s from a rival family, we’ll see her interact with her family. If she’s a living person in a zombie world, we’ll see how she deals with zombies. Whatever is important enough about the character to make readers want to read about her will affect the scene in some way.

Quick note about aspects: If this aspect is secret and the reveal isn’t for a long time, obviously you don’t have to put it front and center. But you might look for ways to show how it affects the character’s life, or a hint that there’s more going on here than readers see.

3. Puts those two things together.
The conflict of the world will be the problem the protagonist is dealing with in the opening scene. She’ll use or show whatever important aspect about her is vital to her character. If she has trust issues, perhaps show her on a blind date, waiting outside the restaurant trying to decide if the guy looks shifty or not. If she’s from a rival family, show her and her family having a problem with that rival family. If he’s a zombie, show his zombiness causing her trouble.

Quick note about togetherness: Look for situations that will in some way lead to whatever the core conflict of your novel is. A great opening scene that has zero to do with the story just creates a situation where you have two actual openings–one that hooks readers, and then one that starts the story. If they’re both great “openings” you’ll probably be fine, but if the real opening is all setup and no hook (common with “great hook” openings that don’t connect to the story), you risk readers getting bored and setting the book down when they hit that slow setup scene.

Setting up the story and hooking readers is all about showing them why they should read your book. The opening is either the reason the story is happening, or something that nudges the protagonist toward that reason. But either way, it’s a compelling character, in a compelling world, facing a compelling problem.

What’s the hook/setup combo in your current WIP?

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Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

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PYNW 2x3PLANNING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.

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Bio: Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University.

For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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55 Responses to “Finding the Balance Between Hooking Readers and Setting up the Story”

  1. It’s always a pleasure to visit RU. Thanks for having me back!

    Posted by janice | August 17, 2016, 6:59 am
  2. Very thoughtful and informative post. That first page/scene/chapter is so very important to get right.

    Posted by Bev Baird | August 17, 2016, 8:06 am
  3. Great tips! I find that my favorite way to start a book is with two characters arguing, or talking about something intriguing.

    “You’re going to have to tell your parents, Libby,” Mal said.

    That single line is fraught with tension. We know we’re reading YA, and a girl and a guy are probably stuck in a bad situation.

    Posted by Kessie | August 17, 2016, 8:31 am
  4. Janice, Your article confirms that I’m basically writing my story right. I worried about the first inciting scene being too far into the book, yet there’s things I need to explain before the reader gets to that point. As I write I’ve been laying “breadcrumbs” to that scene as I show different aspects of the situation and my main characters.

    Posted by Glynis Jolly | August 17, 2016, 9:01 am
  5. This is a great explanation! When I judge contests or read for other writers, I sometimes find that the hook is buried 10, 15, or 20 pages in. I’ve heard it referred to as “throat-clearing” and I think that’s an apt label. It may be necessary for the writer to put in those words for themselves, but they need to come out in editing–no real reason to inflict them on the reader.

    Posted by ngelica R. Jackson | August 17, 2016, 9:10 am
  6. I really enjoyed the balance you achieved in your book and what you gave us in examples. Too many times I’ve read something happening right away, when I wanted a chance to know the character.

    Great article. I have a hunch I started mine in the right place. At least I hope so LOL. Mind you I think I might have dribbled in a bit too much backstory. I’ll have to wait and see once I’m done drafting.

    Posted by Mercy | August 17, 2016, 9:13 am
    • Thanks! Every story IS going to be different, and to find the right opening, we have to consider what story we’re trying to tell.

      My editor actually had me add backstory to my opening after I sold it (grin). If your backstory works, leave it be for now. You can always trim it later if it’s too much.

      Posted by janice | August 17, 2016, 1:23 pm
  7. Your book gets off to an excellent start, and I enjoy how you decided to set it up. It’s such a tricky balance. I keep rewriting those first 30 pages!

    Posted by EmilyR | August 17, 2016, 9:50 am
    • Thanks so much! My critique partners and I refer to “the right opening” now as the “chicken scene.” As in, “I haven’t found my chicken scene yet.”

      It can take a lot of rewriting to find your own “chicken scene,” so don’t fret! But also don’t be afraid to move past it if you need to. Sometimes we need to figure out something later int he story before the right opening is clear.

      Posted by janice | August 17, 2016, 1:26 pm
  8. Thank you for the instructive examples, Janice. I struggle to find the right point to start my historical story. I’m afraid that what I’ve written so far in my first draft is a lot of throat-clearing as I search for the right moment to introduce the story.

    Posted by Barb Ris ine | August 17, 2016, 11:05 am
    • Most welcome. That happens, so you’re not alone. Remember, you can also cut those pages out later if they don’t work. Or if they don’t answer those three questions!

      Posted by janice | August 17, 2016, 1:27 pm
  9. I appreciated this blog on hook addressing the romance genre. Too often these blogs are only about action adventures.

    Posted by Sienna | August 17, 2016, 1:11 pm
    • Thanks! I do tend to use those as examples more since that’s what I write, but I knew the RU readers would want tips that related to their own openings. I try to show how things work with a wide variety of genres when I can.

      Posted by janice | August 17, 2016, 1:29 pm
  10. Wow, Janice, so much to think about in this post. Sometimes I think I’ll never get a finished product because the more I read your blog the more I learn and realize I have more to learn. Haha Thanks

    Posted by Tom Sullivant | August 17, 2016, 1:59 pm
    • Hehe, I know how you feel. That’s why I wrote my first “starter novel” about twenty times. I kept starting over for exactly the same reasons. But that’s okay, it’s helpful to have a project we can learn and improve on. πŸ™‚ You’ll be ready to move on soon enough.

      Posted by janice | August 18, 2016, 7:57 am
  11. This is a fantastic post. I’ve written the first few chapters of my novel, but on going back, I just see how weak they are at introducing the character (a female P.I.), the world (in the 1940s), and the conflict (gets pulled into a police case in an effort to prove herself). It’s boring.

    In brainstorming something new, I came up with something similar to what you’ve broken down here: an interaction with one of her clients (day-in-the-life) where she solved the case but won’t take payment because it didn’t turn out the way the client wanted (she’s a good detective, but honest — maybe too honest).

    It still needs work, but this has given me something more concrete to shoot for/let me know I’m on the right track. Thank you!

    Posted by Ginny Q | August 17, 2016, 6:03 pm
  12. It’s hard to write an opening scene that hooks readers and starts in the right place. Thanks for another tip that will help with figuring out where that right place is.

    Posted by Carla Ketner | August 17, 2016, 7:08 pm
  13. I love the ‘chicken scene’ in your book. That combined with the original (?) title ‘The Pain Merchants’ Compelled me to take it home and read! After a very long time your posts have helped me figure out my own chicken scene?

    Posted by Vahlaeity | August 17, 2016, 10:39 pm
  14. I have a WIP, a time-travel romance, where the inciting indecent doesn’t happen until end of Chapter 2. (It’s in first draft, so it may be end of Chapter 1 after I edit.) I usually don’t leave it that long, but I want to set up the hero as being very tech dependent, and I want the travel back in time to be at a surprising moment. I’ll remember this lesson when I edit those chapters.

    Posted by Christy | August 17, 2016, 11:58 pm
  15. Hi Janice,

    Great stuff! You made an important point about showing the aspect of the character in the first chapter. As a reader, I relate more to a character’s core beliefs, and as you stated, that’s what keeps me engaged. One thing I try to keep in mind when I’m scribbling is that while a character’s outlook may have changed at the end of the story, their belief system, for the most part, should remain intact.

    You have a knack of explaining things so clearly. Wonderful to have you back!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 18, 2016, 12:04 am
    • Thanks! There’s a great quote, “The plot gets readers to the story, but the characters keep them there.” They know they like the idea or they would not have picked up the book, but once they do, the characters need to bring them in and hold them there.

      Posted by janice | August 18, 2016, 8:02 am
  16. Janice, you’ve captured the essence of sorting out how to find that crucial balance between set up and hooking the reader! πŸ™‚ Excellent post, as usual.

    Posted by Sheryl Gwyther | August 18, 2016, 7:03 am
  17. Love your blog, Janice. This is definitely a tough balance to get right. Your examples, as usual, are very helpful. I’ve been second-guessing the opening of my WIP, but I think I’ve accomplished the three things you mentioned (at least I hope so!).
    Sometimes I have to tell my internal editor to calm down πŸ™‚ Thanks for the reassurance that my opening might be working after all!

    Posted by Rachel Stephenson | August 18, 2016, 9:48 am
  18. My story opens with a cute meet. Protag fears physical contact (with good reason). Opens boarding a plane for the first time and she is trying to avoid contact (in some extreme ways).

    That part I think I have covered, but a lot of details you covered that I need to review. Thanks, as always, for the help.

    Posted by JC Martell | August 18, 2016, 10:20 am
  19. BTW – I love the opening scene in Shifter when she thinks “Two words you don’t want to hear when you have someone’s chicken under your arm”.

    Gave my mother a brief setup and that line while she was in the hospital and she got a good chuckle holding on to her incision. Wanted to cheer her up, but maybe wasn’t the best time and place.

    Posted by JC Martell | August 18, 2016, 10:27 am
  20. What great timing. I’m struggling with this in my latest novel right now. Thanks for the advice.

    Posted by Kai Strand | August 18, 2016, 11:51 am
  21. I’ve read books with great openings that have nothing to do with the story. I’ve probably discarded books with great stories but no opening hook. Thanks for the tips on getting the right balance.

    Posted by Iola | August 19, 2016, 1:56 am
  22. One of my critique group friends knew I was struggling with JUST THIS VERY THING in my MG novel and sent me here. I’m so grateful to her and Janice for the terrific advice! This was very helpful.

    Posted by Teresa Robeson | August 19, 2016, 2:06 pm
  23. Great tips. I sometimes begin with action but also am sure to include conflict.

    Posted by Greg Pattridge | August 19, 2016, 6:51 pm
  24. I’m finding too, that a set-up/hook may be needed to start each scene or chapter. Maybe not as dramatic as needed to hook a reader in an inciting incident, but needed to ground the reader into the current surroundings and pull the conflict throughout the plot.

    Posted by Jen Sako | August 25, 2016, 7:26 am
  25. The book I’ve written starts with fairly dramatic action, but I’ve had feedback that I don’t spend enough time setting up the scene. How do I keep up pacing while giving a better sense of surrounding?

    Posted by Erryn | August 28, 2016, 8:40 pm
    • Look for ways to incorporate the surroundings into the action. For example, if there are mountains, let the characters climb them, or refer to them as a possible escape route, or use them as a metaphor to how they feel.

      If it’s a fantasy world and you need to show the culture or rules, have the characters worrying about those rules or being caught up in them. You might have them witness someone having the very problem they’re trying to avoid.

      For real worlds, look for any problems, hindrances, or influences the setting might have on what’s going on. If they’re downtown at 3am, empty streets and closed shops might play a role in how the characters solve or deal with the action.

      Basically, if you need them to notice a setting detail, give them a plausible reason to notice or interact with it that fits the scene.

      Does that make sense?

      Posted by janice | August 29, 2016, 6:45 am
  26. Thanks Janice for such a clear and helpful post. This confirms that I may have got my first chapter right in my WIP, after already deciding to cut the first 2 chapters as they did not bring the reader towards the inciting incident quickly enough.

    My romance is about a woman in an unhappy marriage who meets her true love in chapter 3. The opening is her waiting impatiently in a supermarket on a Friday night for her husband to pick her up. He’s late because he was helping out his brother (the relationship between him and his brother is an important subplot). This leads to an argument over him not wanting her to stay out overnight after her forthcoming company Christmas party, which is important to her for her career. Through this insight into her everyday world, I hope I have also revealed her goal and stakes, his jealousy and insecurity and set up a catalyst to the inciting incident in chapter 4.

    Posted by Beth | October 9, 2016, 3:09 am
    • That sounds like it works to me. You have characters with goals, a conflict, an example of the problems in her life, and all that leads to the core conflict. I’d say cutting those first two chapters was the right call πŸ™‚

      Posted by janice | October 10, 2016, 6:54 am

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