A primary writerâ€™s tip involves the importance of your beginning. The first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first scene, ‘begin’ your story and are, perhaps, the most important words of your entire book. The final page/paragraph of each chapter is also significant and so is the ending.
These are Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events. The Stargate SG1 Series is masterful with these three elements. It offers a fantastic opportunity to learn not only the importance of hooks, hangers and the sequence of events but key points in making your own effective.
How To Begin – The First Sentence Hook
“In medias res” = “into the middle of things” (Latin)
Every episode of Stargate starts where the action is. I mentioned the importance of action in Part Three: Action and Dialogue so you already have some idea what makes action/showing (involving the senses) an effective way to begin your story.
It is often tempting to digress into exposition, prologue, history, and scenic/character descriptions (telling) but these tend to be less captivating for current-day readers. There are some brilliant books that start with less dynamic openings but are rich and engaging. Classics particularly are fond modern-day rule-breakers. Older story structure allowed a slow build up of tension over the first pages but these days it is more common to start with a bang. Times have been changing and present-day readers trend toward fast paced openings. They want to get to the good stuff right off the bat and won’t wait for lengthy scene-setting or information dumps. Book buyers often scan an opening sentence, paragraph or page when deciding to purchase so it is vital you grip them. Leverage your sale potential and ensure they won’t put your book back on the shelf.
After the opening scene you have an opportunity to backtrack or fill in your readers with the details that brought your character to this point. (If it’s necessary.) Often, the vital facts can be fed through the story without interrupting the flow but sometimes it’s important to clue up your readers about exactly how we got ‘here’ in the story since most direct-to-action openings are dramatic situations full of conflict and the first climatic clink.
Some fantastic guidance about hooking your reader is available in Les Edgerton’s “Hooked”. I recommend it to all novelists.
Page Turning, Chapter Turning – Cliff Hanging or Sun Baking?
It’s up to you, your characters and your story.
There are two choices as each chapter winds to a close and it’s occasionally challenging to decide which to make. Should you close the chapter “cliff hanging” or a gentle “sun baking”?
Hangers are designed to keep the reader turning pages. Many readers use chapter breaks as an opportunity to put a book down (we have to sleep sometime). Of course, we don’t want our readers to put the book down do we? We want them to read it cover to cover so we can be sure they finish it. (Admit it; you have a collection of half-read books on your shelves.)
This is where the hanging ending comes into effect. Stargate often ended episodes with a fantastic hanger. It was especially effective for the end-of-season episodes because writers left enough questions to entice readers to hold out for several months off-season to find out what happens next. Viewers dread those evil words, “To be continued…” but they truly work. Those viewers will be back next episode to find out what happens.
When it comes to writing a book you can also entice your readers to keep turning the page. Leave a few choice questions unanswered or close the chapter on the brink of climax. In a way you could “in media res” your chapter endings. Close the chapter while “into the middle of things”.
To the other extreme you may choose to offer a “bake” option to your readers. Some books are better suited to giving your reader a chance to close the covers.
Intense stories can be draining and long stories can be time consuming. By creating an effective ‘pause’ chapter ending, you give your readers the opportunity to come back later. This is really just a reversal on the “hanger” option. Rather than leaving your characters on a cliff bring them down to earth. Close the chapter with a contented sigh of relief. You still need to leave some questions unanswered but they are less immediate.
Either option can work well and it comes down to your personal choice and what suits your story. Sometimes the characters will decide on your behalf. If youâ€™re a planner you might choose in advance while a pantser may have to carve out and edit their chapter breaks in the second draft.
Some books don’t even have chapters but these elements can be played into all areas of your book. The chapter isn’t the only place a reader may steer away from finishing reading. Follow your instincts.
Going in the Right Direction – Always Charging Onward
The Sequence of Events is vital! Keep your facts straight.
In every novel there is a Sequence of Events. Readers start at page one and read consecutively through to “The End”. This sequence never changes and it often takes careful planning/editing to keep the sequence of events from sending mixed messages to readers.
While stories do not have to be chronological and time is flexible there are still some primary elements that must be considered to keep all details consistent and concrete.
I mentioned the remarkable foreshadowing and plotting involved in the Stargate SG1 Series in Part One: Story-Arc, Plot and SubPlot. These two atoms of every story are key factors in maintaining a solid sequence of events.
A literary technique that will strengthen your sequence of events is Chekhov’s Gun. Based on Anton Chekhov’s quote, “”One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
This covers two factors:
- Don’t waste words writing about anything that is not vital to your story and
- You can weave significant facts into the story from page one.
Stargate continues to build upon events with the introduction of many seemingly insignificant situations, people and events that later prove to be major elements in the plots. Writers must remember that the momentum is building, ever upward, tension rises until the final confrontation, the final climax when the story comes to a head and all (or most) is revealed.
Tip of the iceberg?
Sorry it’s so long.
This proved to be a rather lengthy entry but I hope you’ve learned a few things that you can carry into your current writing projects. There is much more we could cover and I probably would have done better to break this into three posts. I’ll have to make sure we come back to these topics in the future. They are intriguing enough to warrant more in-depth exploration.
As always, if you have comments, suggestions, or ideas of your own, please comment. Your thoughts are very welcome and I’d love to know how you’ve dealt with Hooks, Hangers and The Sequence of Events in your own writing. Do you have any resources you recommend for finding out more? What do you know that I didn’t cover today?