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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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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!)

* * *

I know I need a hook for the beginning of my novel. But should it be a relay or a marathon?

10 comments:

sraasch said...

That's a really accurate analogy. I prefer marathon reads -- I like being swept up in the same event from the beginning. Relays are good, but if I had to chose between the two, I'd go with marathon.

Lady Glamis said...

Tara, this all goes back to the Inciting Incident and the Inciting Incident character/event. *GRINS*

The Relay Race hook is often an Inciting Incident that focuses on excitement and shock value to pull the reader in. The character who starts it all might not even be important to the story (which I think can be a HUGE problem, but just my opinion). It's also my opinion that these types of hooks don't work well for a story in which you want a lot of depth and meaning.

However, thinking about my own book, MONARCH, the hook is a Relay Race hook, but it's not the Inciting Incident. It is, however, directly related to the Inciting Incident, and that makes all the difference.

The Marathon hook seems to invite more depth and focus to a story. My first novel does this, and it is definitely deeper than my second book, I think. This is not a good or a bad thing - just different. Sometimes action and depth are evenly balanced. Sometimes they aren't. And oftentimes readers like one more than the other. Depends on the reader, which bring me around to finally answering your question: which one should you go with? Whichever works for the story you're telling. Sorry that's not very helpful. Email me if you'd like to talk about it more. :)

scott g.f. bailey said...

Like Lady Glamis says, "it depends." If you look at a Sherlock Holmes story, nothing really happens until the Client show up at 221b and tells his/her story to Holmes, who agrees to solve the case. In other mysteries, the story opens with a bang, a clear-cut mystery to solve, and investigation into this mystery reveals an even bigger mystery.

I have strong suspicions that statements like "you must hook your reader within the first X number of words" are total bollocks. Perhaps lazy readers (or lazy agents) need to have the first pages be essentially marketing copy, but beautiful writing is the best way to make friends with your reader, I think. An arresting image is a good way to begin.

My opinion is that the best way to write the first part of your book is to know how your book ends, so what you begin with doesn't start to drift away from what happens afterwards. I'm also a big fan of foreshadowing, so I think your opening should be the story-in-miniature in veiled form. Again, it all depends. Don't over-think it.

Windsong said...

Thanks for sharing. I'd never classed books this way before, but I think your analogy works very well. I tend to write marathon stories rather than the relay types. I think both can be done very well, it just depends on what the story's asking for.

jessie said...

I think that I am a bigger fan of reading (and writing) the Relay Race. I want to build up to the event. If it is happening the minute I start reading, I feel a little cheated somehow. I want to get to know the MC, even just a little, before the II (as Lady Glamis puts it). In the Marathon I'm convinced that the MC doesn't really care that much if I know her story.

Jenn Johansson said...

Really interesting book. I am a huge fan of great, but not necessarily shocking first lines. My favorite ever is from a book called Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George. The line is something like "It was my aunt's idea to give me to the dragon."

I just LOVE it. :D The rest of the book is just as good too.

I'm with the others, it depends on the book. If they were all the same it would be boring anyway. ;)

Davin Malasarn said...

I've rejected the idea of having that "hook" in the first line or the first page as well. I think there are two different hooks that people talk about. One is what you discuss here, the opening of the book that captures a reader's attention. The other hook is something that would be more of a one-line summary of the book, almost like a subtitle. It works as a hook because if the reader gets that sentence, they are hooked into reading the entire story.

But, I really like your relay-race analogy. That's how I try to work the openings of my stories now. The relay race isn't necessarily the first in a series of obstacles, but it's a first sentence that gets the read to read the second sentence, which gets them to read the third sentence. So, I'm thinking of it on a smaller scale. That little snag that keeps the reader progressing through the story can be anything as long as it sparks interest.

Alicia said...

While I agree it's bad to put readers to sleep with the first chapter, I think it's kind of sad we feel the need to make a big bang with the first sentence. I also think it makes writers prone to creating false starts -- some piece of tension or drama just to entice the reader. If starting with a bang matches the tone of the book, then sure. Go for it. But sometimes a quiet hook works better. I'd rather get to know an intriguing character than get thrown right into an action scene.

I also have to wonder ... where did our attention spans go if we can't even get past the first sentence without an action fix?

Janet C. said...

Love the analogy, Tara (and your new blog header). Many of the comments here reiterate my thoughts on creating a tension filled, blockbuster first page. I don't mind some quiet set up, some hint to the tone of the novel, a gentle ease into the story. If you start with an all out bang, then I'm going to expect that on every page (that takes some amazing writing). Definitely something to think about.

~Jamie said...

The whole hook this is so stressful for me!

I love your analogy though! We gotta get em hooked and keep em hooked!