Show Me The Heart...

Since we talked about hook vs. heart in my last blog post, I'd like to see some of those rewritten openers that everyone mentioned.

Post your first 3 paragraphs and let's see if you've got the heart in the story. Remember, you got to get it in there at the beginning!

Bring it on!!!
Your Editor Devil

Hook vs. Heart in Story Openers

Many students in my recent Create Characters That Last! class asked me about introducing a main character in the first scene of the book and what was required to make the intro powerful.

Well, besides the necessary scene details--setting/location, time (at least night or day, future/past or present) and POV--we should get a physical and emotional glimpse of the main character. A few details will suffice.

Sketch details set in context work great, such as "she wore a short-brimmed hat over her straw hair and wide-toe flats beneath her pantsuit, so she looked more like a grumpy clown than the corporate attorney come to rattle our CEO's cage." That gives us enough physical elements to latch onto the woman while giving purpose and characterization to her presence.

But most of all we need a hook and a heart to the story. Just one or two lines to tell us her unique dilemma (hook) and why we should care (heart). Maybe even tell us what she’s after (goal). Most classes and books teach you to include the hook on page one, but they never mention including a heart. Or what I call the heart they call the character goal (either internal or external).

But I say the heart advises these goals and lays the foundation for the reader’s emotional attachment. In fact, the heart is the only reason to care whether the character achieves any of their goals. Heart gives humanity to the book. And humanity, not the cleverness of a hook, endears the reader to the story. It gives readers emotional entrance not just mental entanglement.

Again, a hook is some unique character situation or problem that intrigues us, while a heart is something about that character’s plight or their situation that warms us and make us empathize with them. Because the modern reader won't wait till page 20 to get emotionally hooked into your story, you need to deliver hook and heart early. Agents and editors know this, and they want that meat on page one.

One of my students wrote a story with a woman arriving in a remote airport who finds she has no rental car. She's stuck. That's the crux of the first scene. I advised the author to layer in a hook and a heart and see how that transforms the character and her plight enough to propel a whole story. Otherwise, the scene's just a cranky woman stuck in an airport. Not a story builder.

Now, a woman having the best day of her life who finds out she's stuck at a remote airport in a third-world country with an orphan she just adopted, a child who needs a heart medication refilled ASAP... that’s a hook. And let’s say this woman is one of those Doctor Without Borders nurse volunteers who helps kids get surgeries. And let’s say that she’s been waiting to adopt since she discovered ten years ago that she can't have children, which broke up her first marriage. That's a woman we care about, a woman who deserves a little happiness of her own and we want to cheer her toward that goal. That’s a heart. Get it?

Elmore Leonard Was Wrong About Character Description...And Right

The great and prolific author Elmore Leonard created a list he dubbed "10 Rules of Writing."

This list is now in book form (it originally ran as a New York Times article called “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”), with humorous art work, and makes a lovely gift for the writer or editor in your life.

If you don't know Leonard's name, think of the movies "Out of Sight" and "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown" and "3:10 to Yuma" -- all of which were novels he wrote. The man is a machine of suspense and 3-D characters.

Yet one of his 10 rules continues to bother me:

"8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s 'Hills Like White Elephants' what do the 'American and the girl with him' look like? 'She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.' That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight."

I humbly disagree. Writing in the modern age of TV and film storytelling, authors are behooved to compete by giving "visually oriented" descriptions if not other sensory ones.

Now, I agree character descriptions should be quick. Personally, I love sketch techniques. Readers can't remember more than 3 details anyway, so the verbose descriptions of yesteryear are at best ineffectual and at worst mind-numbing. Henry James and Tolstoy, I'm sorry.

But too vague a description and the character is nearly invisible. Give readers something to latch on to that isn't purely emotional or judgmental. Something physical and real. Pull descriptions from the senses, and readers will recreate your character at their supper table.

Sounds and smells and feels/textures are good. Tastes? Well, that all depends on the character and the genre! But sure, experiment.

And don't forget the eyes. The visual medium is an important part of the reader's experience. Lord knows I've mistaken a non-described character in a manuscript for a grandfather type, when it turned out to be a young brash hero. Woops! That's a mistake you don't want readers making.

Good luck, Writing Angels!
Your Editor Devil