Apr 2, 2009
Beginning - Relay Race or Marathon?
We all know, I presume, the importance of a good hook. Many of my friends who read this blog are familiar with Miss Snark's First Victim's Secret Agent contests, in which one has only 250 words to dangle that hook in front of an agent. She is presently running a first sentence contest, in which your hook must be in the very first sentence of your novel.
All well and good, but as I contemplate the best place to begin my Secret Novel, I would like to go beyond the obvious need for a hook and ask, "Yes, but what kind of hook?"
It isn't enough to hook the readers in Chapter One and then throw them back into the lake of lukewarm plot tension for the rest of the book. The hook has to lead into the rest of the book.
It seems to me there are two ways the hook can do this: the Relay Race method or the Marathon Race Method.
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In the Relay Race Method, the hook in the first chapter is not itself the main problem of the book. It is merely the first of a cascade of problems, each one leading to the next, so that tension in the story is passed along like a baton between different racers in a relay race.
For instance, imagine a Regency Romance in which the heroine finds a dead body on her lawn -- and the hero standing beside it with a smoking gun. She thinks the hero is a murderer, and this is the first hook. By chapter 3, however, she has discovered the hero is not a murderer, but to protect him from going to prison, she pretends he spent the night in her bedroom. This alibi protects him but destroys her reputation, so they are forced to pretend they are engaged.... We may find out the true killer in chapter two and the dead body may matter no more to the story. It's served its purpose in setting off the chain of problems which drive the plot.
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In the Marathon Race Method, the Big Problem at the heart of the story's conflict is the problem introduced right off the bat. The characters run and run after the solution, which doesn't come until the end of the book. There are other problems, twists and turns on the road to the finish line, but they are all basically part of the same race.
For instance, imagine a similar story to the one above, but this time make it a Mystery. Now the question of who killed the dead man on the heroine's lawn is the central question to be answered by the book. The heroine may still cease to suspect the hero by Chapter Three (perhaps prematurely) but the mystery must remain unsolved until the climax of the novel. In this version, the subplots of the heroine marrying the hero to give him an alibi/protect her reputation supplement her quest to find the murderer. (And who knows, maybe the rogue did do it!)
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I know I need a hook for the beginning of my novel. But should it be a relay or a marathon?