On Writing, Posts On Writing

Set Your Hook: Bad Beginnings and How to Fix Them

One of the best ways to stand out in the slush pile is through a good, solid hook. However, a poorly written hook is one of the quickest ways to get rejected. But why is that? 

Because first impressions are everything. 

Hooks give your readers a sense of what is to come; it’s a promise that the first bite is going to be as delicious as the last. And as I learned first hand from reading the slush pile these past couple months, slush pile readers don’t have enough time to give stories until their second or third pages to get good. 

That being said, here is a guide to some of the five most common bad beginnings I saw and a couple of tips on what you can do to fix them to snag your audience hook, line, and sinker.

Bad Beginning #1: No conflict

I can’t even tell you how many stories came through that lacked conflict in their beginning. One example of this was a story that opened with a girl hopping on her motorbike and her mother, with absolutely no heat or emotion saying something like, ‘No, go tomorrow.’ No more additional context, no description of feeling, nothing. It wasn’t until nearly page 3 that we found out that grandma was deathly ill and the main character was going for a visit. But by that point, I didn’t care and I stopped reading because there wasn’t enough tension in the situation.

In this case, I wished the author had taken the time to pull the conflicting emotions forward and illuminate them from the get go. It would have been much more interesting for me to know earlier that the girl’s grandma was dying and why her mother wanted her to visit the next day even though it was clear grandma could pass during the night. 

If you feel like you’re having a hard time starting your story with conflict, begin by analyzing the goals and feelings of your characters and hold them up to the situation they are in. Do any of the character goals contrast? Is there something about the situation your character is in that is preventing them from reaching their goal? Once you’ve answered these questions for yourself, illustrate these conflicts in your hook, and you’ll have a beginning that entices your audience to keep reading to find out the resolution.. 

Bad Beginning #2: The essay.

I had a good handful of stories start like an essay. In our submission guidelines, we indicated we were looking for stories that mimicked the form and function of fairytales. We literally had a few people beginning with defining fairytales and myths and then going on about how their story was going to be different, rather than just jumping in and showing us how their story was different from the classics.

Unfortunately, while beginnings like this might be a good way to get your thoughts pumping and the brain storm brewing, it is uninteresting for anyone to read. If you find yourself falling into the trap of beginning your story like an essay, the best thing you can do is find the bit in your work where things just start getting good and delete everything before it. You’ll want to start your story during the action so that your reader gets swept up in the excitement. 

Bad Beginning #3: Leading with vague feelings.

Vague beginnings are a personal pet peeve of mine. Frequently, I saw writers trying to get the reader interested by honing in on a character running from something, but the character didn’t know what it was, or only that it was a ‘shadow that meant death’ and they knew in their heart they had to run from it or it would consume them and their family and the universe would die!

This does not work. In order for a reader to care about what your character is running from, you need to give enough clues that create conflict (as I mentioned in Bad Beginning #1). I understand the idea is to keep some things a mystery so there is something to reveal, but too much mystery does not generate interest.

While trying to build a hook around mystery, make sure you have concrete clues your reader can build context around. Running from a shadow is fine and all, but there’s much more tension if the character saw the shadow strip the flesh from the bones of a companion at just a touch, or if the shadow is part of a known family curse that must be broken for the main character and their posterity to survive. 

Bad Beginning #4: Displaying interesting things in an uninteresting way.

This one is a real doozy. One example I saw in particular, the author was trying to compare their magic system to the way that stars and colors jump across your vision when you put pressure on closed eyelids. This could have been very interesting, but the delivery and description of it came across drier than Grape Nuts cereal.

An easy way to avoid this pitfall is to find a unique angle to describe things from, or pick verbs and metaphors that connect the described phenomenon to your world in an unusual way. However, note that it can be difficult to make sure metaphors and descriptions are not overdone, which leads nicely into my next point.

Bad Beginning #5: Confusing or unclear settings, descriptions, and metaphors.

Each time I found a story in the slush pile that had a hook with confusing/unclear settings, descriptions, or metaphors, I put it down quickly. One story came in that used descriptive language to try to get the reader to guess what creature the narrator was, but the further I read, the more disoriented I got. The writer attempted to use vague clues to bring mystery and intrigue to the story instead of telling me straight up what kind of creature the narrator was. This didn’t work because I was first led to believe it was a small bird, then a person, then a raven, and finally, a dragon.

The best way to fix this is to get someone you trust to read your hook for you and see if they can reflect back to you what you were intending to show. If they can’t tell you correctly what you were trying to convey, you need to do a rewrite to clarify and focus your descriptive language. In these situations, less is always more. Pick the strongest image, description, or and run with it.

Have you run across any other types of bad beginnings? If so, what were they? Let me know what they are and how you think they could be fixed in the comments below.

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