At the 2019 Stockholm Writers Festival, Julie Cohen presented on how to learn story structure from Pixar films and it got me analyzing everything in a new light.
Now, I’m much more mindful of the hook of a story and I notice when there is none.
What is it about a movie or book that sucks me in within the first minute of watching/reading?
During her wonderful presentation, Julie went into great detail about story structure and how to create inciting events, climaxes, and resolutions but for this article, I’m going to focus only on the beginning of a story since so many of us (myself included) get it wrong.
Opening scenes should plunge you into the action right away
The scene in Cars starts in all black and you hear the main character giving himself a pep talk before his big race. There are bright lights, the cheers from the crowd, engines revving, and rubber flying.
There’s nothing but action in the first two minutes of the film.
That’s how your book should start—jump straight into the action—hook your reader and get them flipping the pages.
Almost every writers festival has a “first pages competition” where writers submit their first 2-4 pages of the book they are writing for critique.
Make your first lines count
Why are those first pages so crucial?
Those first few pages are what hook your reader and get them to keep reading.
The judges from the Stockholm Writers Festival said that the first line of the story was the most important. They could tell if a story would deliver or not after reading the first line alone.
Since then, I’ve analyzed a lot of first lines of all books in all genres.
Here are a few first lines worth mentioning:
“The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant.”
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.”
“Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn.”
“When the clock strikes one…mummies come undone.”
(Hah! I couldn’t resist!)
Get to the point
Disney/Pixar movies are pared down, fast-paced, and simplified—that’s why they are so enjoyable.
All authors are competing for our readers’ attention. There is no time to waste because a whole digital world of “whatever I want to explore” is sitting right next to them or is resting in their front pocket.
Jumpstart the beginning of your book—children’s book, nonfiction, or fiction novel—with something magnificent.
The authors of the First Pages competition at the Stockholm Writers Festival said that they spent hours rewriting their opening lines.
Make your opening scene hook your reader and move quickly into motion.
Short stories should start fast
Like in a drag race, you don’t have much time to get your story going if you’re writing a short story.
Practicing flash fiction is a great way to exercise your short writing/sprinting muscles.
I subscribe to the Flash Fiction magazine newsletter to see what people are writing.
Testing out your flash fiction chops on Reddit is also a great way to get reader feedback and hone your writing for free.
I recommend reading: How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark
This book has great tips for writing better emails to your readers, Twitter posts, and Kickstarter campaign pages.
It also has exercises at the end of each chapter so you can practice, practice, practice.