Did you ever wonder how the author of that great mystery or suspense you just finished grabbed you from the very beginning?
Creating that hook is something authors of genre fiction, whether mystery or thriller or romance or sci fi or fantasy, focus on with every book. The first few pages and the first chapters are of utmost importance in grabbing and holding onto readers. In writing my books I’ve had to rewrite and revise my first chapters in order to get what I felt was the right balance of information, tension, emotion, detail, and questions. Important because the beginning sets the tone for the entire book, beginning as we mean to go on. That’s what I intend by my title. It’s a challenge authors must meet if we want to hook and keep readers. So based on my experience, various classes, and craft books, I offer a few features successful novels contain in the beginning.
Setting the scene. Authors ground the reader by either making it clear or hinting at where and when events are happening with significant details dropped into the narrative. Location, time period if not contemporary, season or time of day if that’s significant. My romantic suspense On Deadly Ground opens in Dulles Airport baggage claim with Devlin Security operative Max Rivera exhausted from a long overnight trip and pondering the next assignment.
Bruce Robert Coffin’s police latest mystery, Within Plain Sight, opens with a single-page scene of a homeless man climbing around in a dumpster. A common practice in police procedurals, chapters begin with day, time and date, so readers know immediately the setting is summer in the wee hours, and soon realize it’s in a city’s seedy part. When the next scene begins, we know the city is Portland. This is the fourth book in Coffin’s series, so it probably wasn’t necessary to identify it as in Maine rather than Oregon. Loyal readers would know.
Characters. Of course, a major part of the beginning is the introduction of at least one protagonist. Romance novels have two lead characters, the hero and heroine so often the first scene is one and the next features the other. Or both are introduced in the first scene. In mystery or thriller, there’s usually one main protagonist. It’s important to show the protagonist’s character traits and establish empathy with them. We want readers to care, to become invested in the characters so they will continue reading. In that first scene of On Deadly Ground, Max helps a young boy, lost from his mom, get to the officer who can help him, so readers already like my hero. Then in his conversation with his boss, he shows competence and knowledge of the smuggling gang they discuss. In Within Plain Sight, after that first scene, readers meat Detective Sergeant John Byron and see his expertise in his observations of the body and his meticulous habit of note taking. Through his thoughts and actions, we grasp his professionalism in handling the crime scene and procedures.
Viewpoint. I just mentioned how readers experience the crime scene through Detective Byron. He’s the viewpoint character. Likewise, earlier, readers experience the Dumpster through the five senses and emotions of the homeless man. From each scene beginning, readers know who’s telling the story, at least in that scene. In On Deadly Ground, readers are in Max’s head from the very first words. He’s pumped about recovering an artifact with a curse and returning it to the Central American country of Costa Verde. And then he sees a bit of himself in the lost child.
Trouble. A thriller might open in the middle of the action, either where the trouble begins or just before. Trouble is the monkey wrench tossed into the characters’ lives. It means change. Author Jennie Crusie advises, “Begin where the trouble starts.” Helpful but only part of the picture. We can open when a bad situation is about to get worse, just before or just after the trouble starts. This trouble, or conflict, must push the characters forward into the story plot, into a decision of some kind. The trouble in On Deadly Ground is that the Devlin Security boss phones Max with an order to fly to London with the client, but he’d rather get on with retrieving the artifact without having to deal with a museum executive. I should mention the executive is an attractive blonde. Also, while protecting the client, Max is to uncover whether her brother is involved in black-market dealing of artifacts. In Coffin’s Within Plain Sight the homeless man discovers gruesome remains inside that dumpster. The next scene turns to the protagonist, Detective Byron, beginning to work the case. Byron’s first scene hooks the reader by revealing something totally unexpected about the body. In my book, readers meet Max briefly, and then the trouble starts—his assignment to a dangerous case while he’s already exhausted from a previous one. In Coffin’s book, the trouble is introduced first, and then Detective Byron, the protagonist.
Conflict. Not to be confused with trouble. Conflict is what drives a story. If Max and the client, Kate, meet no obstacles in retrieving and returning the artifact, we have no story. If Detective Byron solves the case easily, we have no story. It’s a big yawn. Conflict can be between characters or within a character or against outside forces, including nature. These beginning chapters are where authors establish what is at stake in the story, the protagonist’s story goal, and a hint of the forces blocking their way.
Clearly, the major conflict in Within Plain Sight is that Detective Byron must solve the murder case. But first he must work with a detective who has an attitude problem. Further along, we discover the case bears similarities to crimes in Boston, and the investigation runs up against influential forces. Byron must be more than just a detective to handle all coming his way.
Max’s goal in On Deadly Ground is to retrieve and return the artifact while evading others who want it for their own purposes. Oh yes, and to do all of that before an impending earthquake occurs in the jungle region. We also see hints of Max’s and Kate’s internal conflicts that their coming adventure will force them to deal with, which adds to the complexity of the story.
As the story moves along, authors want to make the reader curious by revealing some information but not too much. We must maintain suspense, surprise, and if it fits, sexual tension throughout. We must keep the reader asking why an event happened and why the character did what he/she did by raising questions, creating problems, anticipating clashes, forecasting a disaster, or setting a deadline or ultimatum, for instance. And whatever way we end scenes and chapters, we want to leave you the reader wanting to know what will happen next and how can the character ever attain that goal.
You can click on the blue text to find out more about both books on Amazon. And hint, hint, the ebook of On Deadly Ground will be on sale next week Sept. 21 – 25.
This is a terrific outline of what we do, Susan. I’m sure many blog readers will be interested in the necessary elements and how they should be brought together, and it’s a great refresher for those of us who write as well. I’m very much with you about conflict – one cannot have too much of it, no matter what the genre.
Brenda, thank you so much. Yes, conflict has to be at the heart of the novel. All kinds of conflict, not just the central one.
Great information, Susan, thank you. Even when we do it over and over, it is so helpful to have a reminder about those things we’re supposed to do so we can fine-tune the novels.
Thanks, Kate. Writing this post and examining my story and Bruce’s reminded me of all that as well.
I’ll echo the other comments. This is nicely laid out.
John, thanks so much. I was hoping some readers would glean some perspective about their own reading from this, but maybe they just didn’t feel the need to comment.