Hooking the Reader
edited: Friday, February 11, 2011
By Flo Fitzpatrick
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Friday, February 11, 2011
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Setting the mood in your opening paragraphs.
Hooking the Reader - Set the Mood
Every book has it’s own mood, or tone. We generally compress them into a few adjectives to describe that mood or tone, such as dark or light or comic or sweet or sensual or spicy or scary or funny, etc.
Let me jump right in with a mood-setting opening from one of my favorite novels.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
Recognize it? Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. If you’re never read it – now’s a great time. If you last read it when you were fifteen, I recommend a reread. Partly because it’s one of the best books ever written, but also because Ms. Du Maurier does such an incredible job of creating mood with her opening paragraph. The first sentence alone lets us know this is not going to be a roll-on-the-floor belly buster. We know it’s going to be in first person and there’s an ethereal feel created simply by use of the word dream. Even the name, Manderley, also conjures up the image of a grand old estate. Her use of terms like iron and padlock and chain and rusted spokes let us know the desolation the dreamer herself experiences even before we read that this in now uninhabited territory. There are secrets buried at Manderley and Du Maurier hints that they’re pretty dark in only a few choice sentences.
I first read Rebecca when I was twelve. I had no idea a movie had been made back in the 1940’s. I had no idea what constituted a good opening. I just read that first paragraph and was immediately swept into another world and a mood of loneliness and sadness and loss.
That’s what you want. Not necessarily the dark mood, mind you – but the kind of opening that will immediately evoke a tone for your reader.
Now, something to consider: You want to establish a mood in your book, but you also need to decide whether you want to surprise your reader later with a totally different mood change - and what that will do to your story. There are no hard and fast rules, but generally, if you’re going with dark, you need to stay dark. If it’s a thriller, you probably don’t want to suddenly go ha-ha funny in Chapter Two.
So –let’s say you’ve got a wonderful idea for your book. You’re going with a dark mood since the book is primarily a contemporary Gothic and you’ve thrown in a serial killer just to make the tone even scarier. You have more dead bodies lined up than the Rockettes at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Your heroine is named Nina, her best friend is Marge, they live in a rural area not far from Ft. Worth, TX. There’s a killer loose and he’s after debutantes. Of course, Nina and Marge are both debs.
You’re going for dark – remember? But this is your first opening.
Nina rolled her eyes. “Ah come on, Marge – I can’t date a cattle baron – I’m a vegetarian. Elsie, Flossie and every cow from Wisconsin to California will appear in my dreams brandishing cans of whipped topping and squirting me to death. Besides, bar-b-que sauce doesn’t work with debutante white.”
It’s not roll-on-the-floor funny, but it’s definitely light. It’s also not one bit scary in tone (unless you happen to be Elsie and Flossie, and that cattle baron is looking for dinner.)
You don’t have to frighten the wits out of your reader with your opening sentence, but you do need to let the reader know what she’s in for. If your reader hates horror and thriller but your opening leads her to that she’s getting a light contemporary - guess what? You’ve not only lost her for this book but possibly for future books because she’ll feel she can’t trust you as an author to match your opening with the actual mood of your book.
Here’s a rework of Nina and Marge that might help draw your reader into what will be hopefully be a suspense-filled ride.
Nina shivered as trickles of cold sweat blazed a trail down her spine. “Marge,” she whispered, “I swear here’s someone following us. Damn! Why do they have to host this stupid Cattle Baron ball in the worst part of Ft. Worth? And why did I have to read that horrible headline about the debutante getting murdered last week? Marge? Can you hear me? Marge? Are you there?” The silence which greeted her soft call was deafening.
You’ve immediately made it clear there’s danger here. You’ve also established a setting that your reader can identify. You haven’t set up any false premises and you’ve intrigued your reader with the promise of danger to come – possibly in that first chapter.
Take a look at your current work in progress and make sure your mood in the first Chapter hooks your reader - but doesn’t deceive.
Web Site: Flo Fitzpatrick
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|Reviewed by J Howard
|i recognized the story immediately as i love the movie. just starting a novice writing club and will use your suggestions as one of our speakers for the night. thanks so much for sharing-|
|Reviewed by Debra Conklin
|Fortunately, Flo, I've never seem to have a problem with those opening lines, it's continuing the flow that gets me. But, your advice is good and informative. Thank you.
|Reviewed by Reginald Johnson
|Excellent advice. You have reminded me of many fond memories. Per your suggestion ... I shall revisit Daphne du Maurier, again.|