Something That Might Not Actually Be True

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This month’s post is written from the perspective of a reader, not a writer—because I’ve started wondering if what we’re told we need to do, as writers, matches up with our experience as readers. Specifically, that all-important “hook” in the first couple of pages.

We hear again and again that we haven’t a prayer of engaging a reader, agent, or editor unless there’s a high-stakes, compelling hook in the first few pages. Better yet, on page one. So that’s what we aim for, when we write. But is it what we require, when we read?

I decided to examine a few of the books I’ve enjoyed recently—novels by a diverse group of best-selling writers, all of whom I admire tremendously—to see what actually happens in the first few pages. In each case, the book captured my interest and made me keep reading. (That’s not the same thing as sustaining my interest, of course. There are many books that I begin but don’t finish. That’s another post, however, and none of these novels are in that category.)

So. Let’s look at some opening pages written by Joyce Maynard, Jodi Picoult, Alka Joshi, and Charlotte McConaghy to see if they do what we’re told we’re supposed to do.

Prologues and time-jumps

The first thing that struck me is that all four books have some kind of prologue, even if it’s not called that. (No, I didn’t choose them for that reason. I chose them because I liked them and thought they worked, so this was a surprise. And no, they’re not especially similar to one another since they span different cultures and settings, including imaginary futures.)

In fact, each prologue or introduction takes place in a different time period than the actual story. Jodi Picoult begins Wish You Were Here with the sentence: “When I was six years old, I painted a corner of the sky.” She relates a short anecdote—a memory from that idyllic time—and then the rest of the story, apart from some additional bits of backstory, takes place when the protagonist is an adult.

Joyce Maynard begins Count the Ways with a prologue that takes place years before the novel opens, although somewhere in the middle of its chronological span. The prologue has symbolic significance and its motifs recur throughout the story, but the reader can’t know that yet.

Alka Joshi and Charlotte McConaghy go even further, switching tenses as well as time frames in their prologues. Joshi’s prologue to The Henna Artist describes an incident that occurs two months before the story opens—told from Radha’s point-of-view, in first-person/present-tense—and then the story switches to Lakshmi’s point-of-view, in third-person/past-tense, which continues for the rest of the book. In Migrations, McConaghy opens with a dramatic stand-alone line (“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here”), then segues to a short memory in the past-tense (“Once, my husband found a colony of storm petrels”), and then shifts to Greenland in the present-tense.

All four openings are rule-breakers. And all of them work.

The stakes  

Okay, maybe this prologue business is just a matter of style. Surely these four gifted authors have still set up the stakes in their opening pages!  No stakes, no reason to keep reading, right?

Let’s skip the prologue, then, and look at the first “real” scene of each story to see if those stakes are clear, inevitable, and critical. I’ll give each author the same five pages that agents typically give us when we query them.

By the sixth page of Wish You Were Here, Picoult’s protagonist Diana has taken the Q train to Times Square, transferred to the uptown number one, and gotten off at Seventy-second Street. On the fifth page, she’s greeted by Kitomi Ito (a barely-disguised Yoko Ono) who might or might not be selling a famous painting. We’ve also learned that Diana works for Sotheby’s and is about to go on a vacation with a man she’s pretty sure is going to propose. Not much has really happened and I have no idea what the stakes are—that is, what terrible thing will occur if Kitomi Ito doesn’t sell her painting or the boyfriend doesn’t propose. As the boyfriend himself says on page 15, “No one ever dies of an art emergency”—but I’m engaged anyway, because Picoult is such a good writer.

What about Count the Ways? Well, after the prologue, the story opens with a loud noise that reaches all the way to “the field where the chairs were set up.” A few people scream and the protagonist, Eleanor, wonders what caused the sound, yet there’s no evidence that something dire has happened. “Eleanor’s family is safe … dazed, confused, but unhurt.” False alarm, then. Eleanor is holding her granddaughter Louise, who’s studying her necklace, and tells Louise that they’ll look for her mama, even though (again) there’s nothing to indicate that Louise is upset.

Five pages into the scene, we learn that Eleanor has just seen her middle child (Louise’s mother) for the first time since a major rift three years earlier. We’re curious about what happened, yet there’s no special tension (or stakes) since the rift has now been repaired, at least enough for Ursula to let Eleanor carry her child. But again, I keep reading because Maynard is such a good writer.

No Giant Stakes in the first five pages or Migrations or The Henna Artist either—yet I’m entranced by both books because of their vivid settings and intriguing characters. I don’t need stakes just yet. I want to know more about these characters and the world they inhabit; that’s why I keep reading. For me, the stakes can wait.

Story Question

What about the idea that a story question has to be raised right away, before the impatient reader loses interest—the Big Question that will sustain the entire narrative?

In Migrations, McConaghy gives that question to us bit by bit. First, she has her protagonist note: “I have tried seven captains of seven boats.” My radar goes up as I read that line; it’s intriguing and original. Then, on the next page: “I’m out of options, and I’m running out of time.” A ticking clock, then, and a task. A paragraph later, McConaghy writes: “I won’t be staying; even if I were capable of it, Niall would never forgive me.” I still don’t know what the story question is—as in: “Will Franny find a boat so she can do XX before it’s too late?”—but I feel its presence.  I keep reading because I want to understand what the story question is.

Maynard tells us her story question explicitly, the one that will sustain all 441 pages of Count the Ways: “How does it happen that a person with whom you have shared your most intimate moments can become a stranger?”—but not until page 19. Counting the prologue, that would be page 23, well past the ten pages that more tolerant agents (and, presumably, readers) are said to allow us.

The story question in the other two books isn’t so clear. In The Henna Artist, it emerges gradually as characters are introduced, their lives entangle, and we want to know how it will work out for all these interesting people we’ve come to care about. You could say that the question is “Will Lakshmi find fulfillment?” but that’s not very specific and doesn’t do justice to a skillful novel teeming with specifics.

Picoult’s real story question doesn’t appear until page 188. I don’t want to spoil Wish You Were Here for those who haven’t read it, so I’ll leave it at that.

My point is that good story questions take time to unfold. If we feel compelled to state the Big Story Question right away, before the reader has come to know and care about the characters, we risk wasting its impact.

So what’s left?

What do I need, as a reader, in those first five pages to keep me from setting the book aside?

Sometimes it’s the sense that something isn’t quite right or hasn’t been revealed yet; I’m even willing to tolerate being a bit confused if the hints are intriguing. Sometimes it’s the promise of an unusual character who will show me a world I don’t know. Sometimes it’s the voice, or just plain wonderful writing.

So where did this hook-and-stakes thing come from?  From readers—or from overwhelmed agents who don’t have time to read more than a couple of pages before making a quick judgment?

I’m not blaming the agents, by the way; they have to make a living like the rest of us, which means they have to use their time efficiently. I’m just raising a question about whether (maybe) we’re working backwards and, in consequence, treating readers like children who need instant gratification or else they’ll go and play with someone else.

Over to you, now, WU community.

What do you need, in the opening five or ten pages, in order for a story to plant its “hook?”  Insight into the POV character’s motivation and goal?  An intriguing setting? A compelling voice? An external conflict—and, oh yes, high stakes?

What do you need, as a reader?  

About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force" and selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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