Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hook Readers With an Opening Question

Writers are told time and again to start their stories with a bang. Open in the middle of a murder, a high-speed car chase, or heist-in-progress, and readers will be instantly hooked, right? How is it, then, that Margaret Atwood dares open her hefty contemporary novel The Robber Bride with a main character’s morning routine: waking up, getting dressed, taking out the garbage, making breakfast. This chapter is hardly the stuff of tabloid headlines. In fact, this is exactly what young writers are told not to do. At first glance, it might seem that Atwood only gets away with this because she’s the Canadian grande dame of fiction, with a dozen bestsellers already under her belt.


However, a second look shows that the only reason Atwood “gets away” with it is because she’s a master storyteller who knows exactly what she’s doing. The very first thing she does in opening her story is to raise a question. In a few poetic paragraphs, she introduces a character, known to the three main characters, and then drops the bombshell: this character has reappeared on the scene years after her own funeral. How can readers not keep reading?


This superb hook gives Atwood immediate leeway in slowing down to introduce characters and develop their personalities. Even still, hauling us through one woman’s morning routine could easily test our patience. Who cares what time the clock reads when the character wakes up, or if the garbage needs taken out? Get to the point already! But Atwood gives us a character so unique and interesting that even her most mundane morning rituals become insights into her personality and windows to the answer to the question that originally hooked us. It takes a skillful author to make a reader care about all this minutiae, especially at the beginning of a novel. But in The Robber Bride, Atwood shows us how to deliver the one-two punch—a killer hook and fascinating characterization—that makes her writing so unforgettable.
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