Where does a story start? What are the rules for opening scenes, and why do they work? What makes a book a ‘good read’ from the get-go?
If you’ve ever wondered any of the above, I know a book you’d enjoy. Hooked, by Les Edgerton, has the answers to those questions and many more. A thorough examination into the openings of stories, Hooked takes us by the hand and leads us systematically through the whys, whats, and hows of catching and keeping our readers from page one.
There’s history, terminology, innumerable examples from published film and print, and even a chapter of literary agent feedback on pertinent questions. Edgerton delivers it in the style of a practiced teacher: He gives a general overview first, going over specifics such as the evolution of story, the elements of scene, and some basic definitions. Then, with a humorous tone and a few well-chosen themes, he walks us through the process of crafting and revising opening scenes using ten core components:
the inciting incident
the initial surface problem
the story-worthy problem
the opening line
Many of these should be familiar, even if you haven’t done a great deal of writing, but all of them come into new light under Edgerton’s masterful hand. He devotes six lengthy chapters to a thorough study of their use and purpose – easily two-thirds of the book – and demonstrates via published examples the multiple ways the components can work together. The process is orderly and concise as Edgerton groups and discusses the most vital and difficult first, then moves on to incorporate the others.
The end result? We gain a solid understanding of the difference between short-term and long-term problems, when and how long to start or hold a story’s tension, and how to handle the necessary concepts like backstory that doesn’t distract your readers from the trouble at hand. In one book, we’ve learned all we need to begin crafting fantastic opening scenes.
All this plays directly into the central theme of the book:
If there is a central, enduring truth to the concept of ‘story’, it’s the absolute need for trouble. How and when it manifests, however, is the subject of much discussion throughout the book, and the central issue of the first three components. And, in case you still somehow miss it when Edgerton is speaking, the literary agents he quotes also bear down hard on the subject.
Trouble is, in fact, the defining push of Hooked. Today’s world demands crisp tales, and for that, we need new conceptual tools and multiple levels of trouble for our characters from the get-go. We need mastery of the core components Edgerton teaches.
Besides this ever-present need for trouble, Edgerton demonstrates how film and television have taught us to engage visually with stories, and he teaches us how to make our stories’ troubles more visible, while remaining centered on the individual.
In the same breath, he warns us away from society-wide constructs or ideologies. If we want to keep our readers, Edgerton tells us, we must start with a concise, grounded view of our protagonist. It is the individual that readers wish to know and the individual’s trouble readers wish to read about.
Finally, Edgerton reminds us that story is sequential, whether or not it’s told in chronological order. Thus, if your sequence doesn’t connect naturally – or if you attempt a ‘dream state’ in a cheap attempt to avoid explanation – you will lose your readers no matter how well you apply the core components to the beginning. As Edgerton proves, the best beginnings hold a hint of the end to come. They cannot be disconnected from the whole.
Hooked is a study of beginnings, but it is also a holistic look at what makes a quality story. Through Edgerton’s examination and analysis of others’ works and his thoughtful construct of the book itself, we learn much more than just the catching of readers. We learn technique, gain an appreciation for today’s styles, and are introduced to innumerable authors who have gotten it ‘right’. Ultimately, Hooked gets our stories started along the right path.
Edgerton maintains a blog page here. If you like his style from this book, you’re sure to enjoy the others he’s written, too!
Looking for other writing resources? Check out our review of Fight Write.