Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hook your readers with the very first sentence

Want your readers to follow you anywhere? Then you’d better hook them with your very first sentence because that’s as far as most people will go if they’re not happy with what they see.

I’ve written for seven newspapers, local and national magazines and had a couple of books published by traditional publishers. But the best lessons I’ve learned about writing weren’t taught at any of those places. They came from my very first freelance “employer” ~ MacFadden Enterprises in New York City

Most readers have never heard of MacFadden, so let me put it another way: how about True Story, True Confessions, True Love and True Romance. Oh yeah- you remember those. They were the tearjerkers we read back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s that told about women who loved and lost; loved and won; and those who never found love at all. 

The editors I wrote for at MacFadden never used the word “lead” like newspapers and (most) magazines do. They called your first sentence the “hook.” Instead of the “lead, nut graph and body” expected in a news article or feature story, at MacFadden, the words were always “hook, climax and conclusion.”

And you know what? That is the concept that has helped me over and over again in both fiction and nonfiction through story after story in my 30-plus years of professional writing and editing.
Right in the beginning, an editor at MacFadden told me, “If you want to sell to us, you’d better leave the reader laughing or crying because the first and last sentences are critical."

I soon found the conclusion wasn’t anywhere near as critical to my paycheck as the lead. If I didn’t have a compelling hook, the editors never got to my climax or conclusion. The stories with wishy-washy (or down-right poor) leads came back to me in  “SASEs” – the 9-by-12 standard brown self-addressed stamped envelopes writers used  before computerized submissions became the norm.

You bet your lead is important. And the ways to write it are as different as the stories that you’ll tell. It doesn’t matter if you’re a news writer reporting on a dull meeting or writing what you hope will be the next bestselling novel. If your lead sucks, few readers will get past it.

My late husband owned a commercial fishing business. He used to say “hey, if they return it, I can always use it to wrap what I sell.”
Bad joke honey, but oh, so true. 

In the beginning of any writer’s career, rejections aren’t a joking matter but eventually we toughen up and learn to listen to editor’s advice. Successful writers have to have more grits than Quaker and more balls than a bowling alley to fend off all the rejections that come with “staring to write.”

So how do we get that super fantastic lead that will make people pick up your story, or book? It’s really no secret. You have to be creative.

NONFICTION EXAMPLE: Would you rather read “The Johnson County Commission voted today seven-to-three to begin using an automated garbage collection vehicle where recycling containers will be emptied using a mechanical arm instead of workers lifting garbage cans and emptying them into the vehicle.”

OR: Commissioners talked trash today and it’s going to affect everyone living in Johnson County. Now give the details, not in the lead. This part is called a nut graph in news and “the body” in stories. It needs to include the what, when, where, why and how. You don’t need details in a lead, you need a fantastic “grabber.” But it has to relate to the story to follow. You can’t write something like “Godzilla ate Bambi” and then start talking about trash. If the story is about garbage, you have to write a lead about garbage. Misleading the reader isn’t only unfair, it’s just plain wrong.

SO HOW ABOUT A FICTION EXAMPLE? FIRST, THE DETAILS WE NEED: Joan Swanson had become a recluse after a terrible breakup with her lover of seventeen years. Now she spends most of her time drinking vodka alone, behind closed doors. Humm… how to tell this. There are so many choices. Let’s try a few.

MAYBE: “Do you want a drink Ma’am,” the butler called from outside the door to the master bedroom. He knew better than to open it. Miss Swanson would never approve.
“No thank you James dear. I've had enough.”
Of course it was a lie. Joan had made love to Absolut far too many times this afternoon and still had another full bottle in her room. But that wasn’t much different than every afternoon since her breakup. Seventeen years! I’ve wasted seventeen years on this man! She thought as she sucked the vodka down with a vengeance.

BETTER YET: Maybe if I drink enough of this I’ll never have to face this loneliness again, Joan thought as she finished off her second bottle of Absolut. How long had she been locked away in her room, refusing to see anyone, even her closest friends? She didn’t know and at this point, she really didn’t care. Ralph was gone and that was all that mattered. Seventeen damn years she’d wasted on that man. Seventeen damn years. 

There are as many ways to lead a story- fiction or nonfiction- as there are stories. You just have to decide which one feels right to you!

No comments:

Post a Comment