Appendix A: Examples of Hooks

All of the following hooks are from published short stories or novels. The first thirty-some are mine. The others are from a few professional writer friends.

My sincere thanks to the writers who allowed me to use excerpts (hooks) from their works. Each of them have many more stories and novels than those I have listed here. I hope you will find their works and purchase them.

Some are calm hooks, those that set a quiet or serene scene and/or mood. They are what I think of as the “once upon a time” variety. I find them useful for more humorous or tongue-in-cheek or satirical stories. They’re also very good for magic realism stories.

Some are more frantic. Those are the ones that are designed to snatch the reader into the middle of the action.

Regardless of the kind of hook you use, it’s always a good idea to include as many of the physical senses as possible.

First I’ll provide a generous sampling of my own better hooks. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. Then I’ll provide the hooks my friends offered for me to use.

From My Private Stash of Hooks

The Clearing (novel)

The night was dark, the air heavy. A foghorn sounded in the bay down below the coastal hills and was driven flat in the pattering rain.

Confessions of a Professional Psychopath (novel)

Of the three wingback chairs in my library, only one is upholstered in human skin. There’s a reason for that.

Body Language (novel)

The dark Louisiana night draped heavily over the swamp, absorbing sounds and collecting scents. It smelled of ancient things and evil things and people and purposes long forgotten.

Comanche Fire (novel)

Jade Talbot spurred his horse into a gallop. He leaned forward in the saddle as he drew his Remington .44 caliber revolver. And the realization washed over him that he was a dead man.

Wes Crowley, Texas Ranger (novel)

A loud knock came on the door of Corporal Wes Crowley’s room at the Amarillo Inn. “Crowley, I know you’re in there. C’mon out.”

Leaving Amarillo (novel)

Wes Crowley leaned forward and poked at an ember that had popped out of the campfire a moment earlier. “Been a long trail this time, boys.”

Longing for Mexico (novel)

Someone tapped lightly on the door to Texas Ranger Otis McFadden’s room in the Amarillo Inn. The door opened slightly. “Mac? I saw the others were back. I heard what happened. You are all right?”

The Marshal of Agua Perlado (novel)

In the Fisherman’s Wharf Cantina on the bay at Agua Perlado, Wes Crowley and Miguel Martinez touched their mugs and quietly concluded a private toast.

The Scent of Acacias (novel)

Wes Crowley reined in and dismounted. He whipped Charley’s reins around the hitching post, and crossed the front porch.

A Little Time (novella)

The Blue Goose Café & Truck Stop looked as if it had been crammed into the roadside cutout in the piney woods just outside Florentine, Alabama.

“The Oldest Debt”

The ambulance screamed into the yard, its siren winding down. The revolving lights drew streaks across the dust cloud that hovered. They traced one after the other across Raphael’s worn, weathered face, up the brick wall and across the windows, and back to streak the dust cloud again.

“Requiem for a Bard”

On a cloudy, dreary day in a very small town in Italy, in a room much larger than it had ever been before, Serafín hunched over his timeworn mahogany desk, laboring over a promised eulogy. His desk chair complained against the stained oak floor. He leaned back, rubbing the stubble on his cheeks.

“Soft as a Breeze”

It’s been twenty-six years since the world imploded and those scratching sounds crept back into my head.

“The Well”

Shortly before 11 p.m. in a drizzly rain, Robert got out of his car. As he walked to the back, the muddy roadside sucking at his boots, he carefully counted his steps. The air was thick and warm despite the drizzle. The odor of rotting trees and sour moss on rocks permeated the air. Seven steps. He unlocked the trunk. The first seven steps of any journey are the hardest.

“Coffee? Perhaps Tea?”

Sometime in the past, Mr. Wilson had misplaced his mind.

“The Cycle of Ramón”

The world had been sad for three days. The sky wept steadily, softly, the water drip, dripping from limbs and leaves of trees and eaves of houses. It trickled into rivulets and streams that whispered their way east, back to the sea.

“The Baby”

The baby lay abandoned in the grass toward the end of the rest area. A pool of dim, filthy light from the streetlamp overhead slashed through the pouring rain and across the child’s left knee. The light was absorbed in the soaked, cheap motel bath towel on which the baby was lying.

“Barbecue”

The southwest desert on a clear night in December is cold, and the sun disappears quickly.

“The Unfortunate Case of Agatha Bitters”

Agatha Demon Bitters was an angry woman, and not because of her name.

“The Breath Formed”

He was eating. Picking tender shoots of new grass from early November snow.

“Desecration”

Mr. Orlando cut a striking figure in his trim suit and his bowler hat. Especially against the bland background that seemed to follow him everywhere he went.

“Family”

His right foot still on the bar rail, Tommy leaned back and spread his arms for effect. His black hair, slicked back, glistened in the dim light of the bar. His dark grey pinstriped suit fit so well the action barely moved his lapels to the side. “I mean c’mon, Bobby, who gets treated like that, eh? Who?”

“Mrs. Featherberry”

When Mrs. Featherberry came to town, she walked directly down the middle of the street, skirts bustling, little sawed-off dust devils forming, swirling and dying in her wake. And for some reason everybody stayed up on the boardwalks.

“Finding Harold”

Mavis Harshbarger was not in a good mood. She bustled into the Riley Drug & Grocery Store in her small-print floral dress and her flat-soled dust-colored house slippers. She resembled a long, broad garden, albeit one built on odd, undulating hills.

“The Maid’s Pulse”

Eugene stood in only his underwear on the far side of the bed, his back against the wall, his hands clasped to his mouth.

“The Unfortunate Life of Thomas Mercer”

The Reverend Thomas Mercer staggered along the road, the palm of his right hand pressed hard against the gash in his abdomen.

“No Better Day”

Late in the day, to one side of a two-rut road, an old man sat alone on a rock.

“Paper Hearts”

At 3 a.m. the world is quiet as a grave.

“Saved”

At 3 a.m. dressed only in his boxers and a stained white t-shirt, the former pastor Bob Delaval stood at the bedroom window. A fringe of mostly grey hair ran from one temple around the back of his head to the other temple.

“Sordid and Organized”

In the dim basement, I moved from one stainless steel table to the next. I carried a small orange hose in one hand, a slick stainless steel spatula in the other.

“The Day They Came”

The day they came for us was a real mess. The sky was drizzling, and it had been for days. Like it couldn’t quite make up its mind to just let go and rain. The pit patter patter pit all but drove us nuts as we sat in the Quonset hut and waited.

“Tradition”

Through a heavy silver mist, the old church was visible just behind the cemetery to the left. A dilapidated adobe ruin, the buttressed walls remained strong, but the roof had caved in. The top of the steeple was no more than fifteen feet off the ground, sitting atop what was left of the bell tower, which had set itself down behind the front wall.

From Steven Wedel, horror writer, novels and short fiction

“A Change of Clothes”

It was just after 10:30 p.m. and the clothes were coming to life.

“Digging Up the Past”

Levi pitched the shovel aside and stood up. He reached behind him with his right arm, his only arm, and held his back as he stretched to relieve the cramping.

“New Blood”

The basement door opened slowly, silently, on well-oiled hinges. A long-fingered pale hand reached through into the darkness. There came the sharp click of a switch and electric light exploded into the cellar. The seven naked people below lay unmoving on their cold steel tables.

“Like Dying”

Sam Davidson awoke with a start, thrown out of a sweaty sleep into the oily blackness of the night that had filled his bedroom. His heart was pounding and the blood rushed in his ears. His sweat-soaked pajamas clung to his body. The need was back. Insistent, demanding. He had to obey.

“Latent Lycanthropy”

The girl stood out like a ballerina in a morgue.

from Don Johnson, novelist

A Texas Elegy (novel)

Sometimes a man’s expectations come down to very little at the end. A few minutes’ relief from the pain. A few words of comfort from someone he trusts. The thought that, for a little while at least, he’ll be fondly remembered by someone.

from Alison Holt, novelist

Credo’s Hope (novel)

Blood smeared the mattress where Bibi O’Dell had fallen after she’d been shot. Given her occupation, hooker, and her drug of choice, meth, I wasn’t surprised when she told me to go stuff myself after I asked who’d pulled the trigger.

Credo’s Legacy (novel)

I sat across from a man who had a white smile painted on his face. White and red circles surrounded charcoal grey eyes that misted over as he vehemently denied kidnapping his ex-wife’s latest boyfriend. As he spoke, he fiddled with the curly orange clown wig he held in his lap.

from Dan Baldwin, novelist and ghost writer

Caldera (novel)

“Call me Bitter. I am 117 years old.” These were the first words of any significance the old man had spoken since I crawled into the adobe cavern that was his home.

Sparky and the King (novel)

“Fer Chrissakes, Jack, you’re getting blood on the customers!”

Bock’s Canyon (novel)

“You goin’ up against a .44 with just a pen knife, kid.”

“It’s all I got.”

“It ain’t enough.”

Trapp Canyon (novel)

“Rocks move.”

If a broken clock can be right two times a day, then a mind-numbed brute like Grat O’Brien might occasionally recognize his ass from a hole in the ground.

Vengeance (novel)

The old woman started screaming around 10 p.m., screams muted by the duct tape across her withered mouth and tightly twisted around her head.

Heresy (novel)

Professor Ashley “Ash” Hayes had no desire to commit heresy. She had no professional death wish, yet whenever a new trail through the history of Native Americans opened up, she could not help taking the path regardless of the personal danger.

Desecration (novel)

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem… dry bones?” Naw, that’s not it. The man with the red-lined eyes wiped a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth.

Vampire Bimbos On Spring Break (novel)

The vampire had one hell of an aching, hacking, coughing, itching, can’t sleep at night, snot-slinging head cold.”

* * *

I also strongly recommend almost any of the hooks used in any works by Ernest Hemingway or Ray Bradbury.

When you read anyone else’s work and feel yourself pulled into the story, consider the hook.

Does it make you want to find out what happens next? If so, how does it accomplish that?

I hope this gives you some good ideas for your own writing.

* * * * * * *

That’s it for this time. Next up, Chapter 6: Writing Setting and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part I

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

 

Of Importance to Writers

Hi Folks,

Tomorrow the Story of the Week will post. And then on Wednesday, Feb 24, Appendix A of Writing the Character-Driven Story will post.

Today I thought I’d sneak in a few notes from my latest Daily Journal blog that are of interest to all writers, or certainly should be. I urge you to check out these links. Doing so will be to your benefit.

If you’re a writer and you want to read something great, do yourself a major favor and read Dean Wesley Smith’s post on Day-Job Thinking vs. Long-Term Thinking.

Great Topic of the Night over at Dean’s place on The Renewal of the Audience. Important and informative especially if you’re an indie publisher.

I recommend visiting Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s site and checking out the table of contents for her Business Musings and Business Rusch Publishing articles unless you’ve already gotten through all of them.

Finally, I recommend visiting Neil Gaiman’s website and read his post on how to give your copyright (real property) to your heirs when it’s time. This is important.

If you haven’t read one of my better stories— “Old Suits” —you can see it at http://nicolaszporter.com/a-story.

Of course, I do a lot more in the Daily Journal than redirect readers to other websites. (grin)

Thus far in 2016 I have covered the following Topics of the Day over at the Daily Journal:

  • Numbers
  • The Power of Ideas
  • Character Names
  • Reading Your Work Aloud
  • Practicing
  • Novel Length and Freedom
  • Trusting Your Characters
  • Nostalgia
  • Life Happens: Keep Coming Back
  • Making Writing Important
  • Starting and Fear
  • Writing “Fast”
  • Quick Online Learning
  • Another Note on Heinlein’s Rules and WITD
  • Why I’m a Cat Guy
  • Inspiration
  • The Magic Mantra

Wow. That’s seventeen separate topics since the first of the year. If you’re a writer, most of these are very good things to know. If you’re a reader or student and are interested in my work, they will give you insight into me as a writer.

But if you aren’t subscribed, chances are you’re missing them.

To visit The Daily Journal and poke around for yourself click http://hestanbrough.com.

To subscribe (again, it’s free) Please Click Here or put http://eepurl.com/5676v into your address block on your browser.

Next up, the short story of the week and then Appendix A from Writing the Character-Driven Story.

Until then, happy writing.

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. Or if you want, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.)

If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much. And if you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Chapter 5 — Writing the Hook

First, a note: Oh good lord. If you’re a writer and you want to read something great, do yourself a major favor and read Dean’s post on Day-Job Thinking vs. Long-Term Thinking. Absolutely excellent.

Second, sorry this is late. I think I forgot to categorize it as part of the Pro Writers category.

Okay, now to Chapter 5.

I almost included this as part of Chapter 4 — Writing the Opening, but the hook is such an important concept it deserves its own chapter.

Not only does a good hook capture the reader’s interest with the first word, phrase or sentence, but it also is one of your better marketing tools.

The best two things you can do to sell your current story or novel are

  • give it an attractive, attention-grabbing cover, and
  • provide a strong story hook at the beginning of the story.

And while I’m on the topic, the best thing you can do to sell your NEXT story or novel is write a great ending for the CURRENT story or novel.

Whereas the opening is the first scene of the story, the hook is the first striking sentence or paragraph. It is what compels the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next.

What Is a Hook?

A hook is a story starter for the reader, just as it might have been a story starter for the writer.

It is a few words, a first sentence or a first paragraph that grab the reader’s interest. Ideally, it’s so well written that the reader cannot escape and doesn’t want to escape.

The opening phrase and sentence should convey a sense of immediacy, curiosity and/or urgency that gives the reader no choice but to read the next sentence.

In addition to the hook at the beginning of the story, each scene should also have its own hook. In a longer work, each chapter should have its own hook.

Again, the task of the hook is to attract the attention of the reader so strongly that he doesn’t want to put down your story.

Please note that hooks often are universal. That is, a great hook in one genre can be plugged into another genre, often with no changes at all, and it will work fine.

The Components of a Hook

A good hook, from the first few words, will have one or more of the following effects on the reader:

  • Convey a sense that the reader is crossing or has crossed a threshold.
  • Convey a sense of intimacy, that you’re letting the reader in on a secret.
  • Convey a sense of immediacy through emotion: intrigue, curiosity, fear, and so on.
  • Pull the reader immediately into the mood of the story (ominous, dark, light, humorous, frightening, and so on).
  • Hint at the main conflict in the story.

Think back for a moment over the last few stories you read. What about the first sentence made you want to keep reading? Compare it with the list above. Which of those components did it contain?

A Few Ways to Write Hooks

If you have a natural feeling for the language — if you’re an accomplished poet, perhaps, or if your friends often comment on your wit — writing a good hook might be a relatively simple exercise in thought.

If it isn’t, or even if it is, it’s almost always a good idea to begin with Action—In Ars Poetica, the poet Horace wrote that stories should be started in media res, meaning the storyteller should “snatch the reader into the middle of the action.”

Beginning in the middle of the action is the best way to hook a reader up front and keep him turning pages. You can do that in any of three ways:

  • Open with a strong narrative, preferably one that appeals to the physical and emotional senses of the reader. The physical senses are sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The negative emotional senses are fear, trepidation, anger, caution, and so on. (Notice that the negative emotional senses are those the reader experiences when he feels tension.) The positive emotional senses are joy, elation, and so on.
  • Open with dialogue. Staple this to the inside of your eyelids. In the written work, dialogue equals action. Because it links the reader directly to the characters in the story, dialogue immediately engages the reader and involves him in the story. Dialogue forces the reader to become a character in the story: the Eavesdropper.
  • Write something that appeals strictly to the emotional senses, something so intriguing, so profound, or so well written that the reader must continue to read.

Here are a few of my own hooks for short stories or novels that were designed specifically to appeal to the reader’s physical and/or emotional senses. They enable the reader to experience what’s going on in the scene and/or they capture the reader’s imagination.

As you will see, sometimes a hook is only a sentence or two. Other times it takes a paragraph.

You’ll find many more examples of hooks in Appendix A.

From the short story, “On Bullies and Gods”

On the eighth day of my trek across Death Valley, I saw God.

From the short story, “Requiem for a Bard”

On a cloudy, dreary day in a very small town in Italy, in a room much larger than it had ever been before, Serafín hunched over his timeworn mahogany desk, laboring over a promised eulogy. His desk chair complained against the stained oak floor as he leaned back, rubbing the stubble on his cheeks.

From the novel, Body Language

The dark Louisiana night draped heavily over the swamp, absorbing sounds and collecting scents. It smelled of ancient things and evil things and people and purposes long forgotten.

From the novel, Confessions of a Professional Psychopath

Of the three wingback chairs in my library, only one is upholstered in human skin. There’s a reason for that.

From the novel, The Clearing

The night was dark, the air heavy. A foghorn sounded in the bay down below the coastal hills and was driven flat in the pattering rain. Still sitting in his car, Detective Sean McManus turned on the windshield wiper for one swipe. He leaned forward and peered at the warehouse before the rain could accumulate again.

From the novel, Leaving Amarillo

Wes Crowley leaned forward and poked at an ember that had popped out of the campfire a moment earlier. “Been a long trail this time, boys.” His attention fixed on the ember, he worked the tip of the stick under the edge nearest him, then flipped it backward into the fire. A few sparks released. “Sure lookin’ forward to gettin’ back.” He looked up, a tired, easy grin on his face. “What about you, Mac?”

Next up: Chapter 6 — Writing Setting

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Chapter 4 — Writing the Opening

Character Driven 300Note: Not sure why this post didn’t send through MailChimp yesterday morning, but it should go out this morning at 8 a.m.

Also, for anyone who would like a copy NOW, I published this full book yesterday (Writing the Character-Driven Story). If you are a subscriber, you already received your copy.

You may also catch it here one chapter at a time through March 30. Or you may purchase a copy at your favorite ebook retailer for $9.99. Thanks! Now on to Chapter 4:

As I mentioned in the Definitions section of the Introduction, the opening is the introductory scene.

The sole purpose of the opening is to introduce the reader to a character with a problem in a particular setting. That’s it.

The opening is usually 300 to 500 words. So about a half-hour’s work.

The opening is important in two different ways:

First, this is the part of the story that determines whether the writer wants to keep writing, shelve the idea for another time, or just forget it altogether.

I am fortunate in that most of the time, the opening runs and I go with it. Then it becomes a short story, a novella or a novel.

Every now and then (rarely, thank goodness), something about the opening fizzles. Then I do one of two things:

  • If I really liked the idea, I toss out the opening and write another one off of the same idea. If it runs, I go with it. If it fizzles too, I toss out the opening, period. If the idea was all that good, I’ll have it again eventually.
  • If I didn’t really like the idea, I chunk it, come up with another idea, and write another opening.

Second, after the story is published, the opening is the part of the story that determines whether the reader will continue reading, shelve it for another time, or just forget it altogether. Sound familiar?

The only difference is that you, the writer, control what the reader experiences as he’s reading the opening. So make it good.

Tips for Writing the Character in the Opening

  • Use the character’s full name, including any major nickname, the first time you mention him.
    • This matters because it embeds in the reader’s mind any names he might encounter for this character later in the story.
    • For example, my character Joseph “Joey Bones” Salerno is called Joseph by his mother, Joe, Joey or Mr. Salerno by family members, acquaintances and others who know him, and Joey Bones by a select few.
    • The nickname, in every case, is used either to indicate actual or hoped-for familiarity and respect (for example, by peers in his line of business) or to indicate disdain or disrespect (for example, by law enforcement officers).
  • Often the character’s full name will be the first words of the story and part of the hook. More on that in the example under “Tips for Writing the Problem in the Opening” and in the chapter on writing the hook.
  • Give the reader a sense of the character’s physical appearance as well as what he’s wearing and doing. This will make the character more real to the reader.

Note: Despite what you might have heard from people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, it is NEVER all right to withhold a character’s name strictly to build suspense. When you withhold a character’s name and the reader finds out later you did so without a valid reason, the reader will feel cheated and alienated.

Tips for Writing the Problem in the Opening

  • The problem in the opening doesn’t have to be (and often is not) “the” big problem or conflict of the story. It’s just a problem the character has to solve in order to move into the story.
  • The problem in the opening often is implied rather than stated outright.
  • The problem in the opening (implied or otherwise) often appears in the first sentence along with the character’s name. I strongly recommend it appear at least in the first paragraph.
    • For example, “Joseph P ‘Joey Bones’ Salerno tried the door knob to his bedroom again. He frowned, then reached for the pistol under his left arm.” You can see the implied problem(s), right? The first and main implied problem for the opening is that the bedroom door is locked and that is unusual. The second implied problem (what he will find behind the door) depends on what sort of story you’re writing. It might well even be “the” big problem or conflict of the story.
  • The problem doesn’t have to be implied, of course, and it can appear alone in the opening sentence.
    • For example, “An explosion rocked the asphalt parking lot and ripped the northeast corner off the seven-story parking garage.” Or “An explosion rocked the front of the ship, tossing the crew about like kindling.” Or “An explosion shattered the front window of the Lincoln Navigator.” Nothing implied in any of those, right? Who reacts in what way to that opening sentence will inform your hook, your opening and your story.

Tips for Writing the Setting in the Opening

I will cover this topic thoroughly in Chapter 6: Writing Setting. For now, here are a few tips:

  • Any descriptions of the setting must come through the character’s perception or opinion. For example, if the opening is set in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas,
    • One character might believe the decorations, music, scents, and so on are gauche or distasteful or cold and commercial.
    • Another might find those same aspects of the chapel humorous or ironic.
    • Another might find them beautiful. If two of those characters are getting married, your problem might be couched right there.
  • Use as many of the character’s physical senses as possible in describing the setting. Most writers use only the sense of sight. That renders the setting very one dimensional. The reader who is grounded in the setting will find it much more difficult to put down your story.

When Do I Write an Opening?

The short answer is Whenever you get an idea. In fact, that’s the long answer too.

Sometimes I won’t even have a full idea (character with a problem in a setting). In fact, most of the time I have only a story starter.

Maybe a title occurs to me from something I read or heard.

Maybe a sound evokes a memory or a mood.

Maybe a character name pops into my mind.

When that happens, when I get an idea or a trigger, I sit down, put my fingers on the keyboard, and write an opening.

A Case in Point

I was doing nothing in particular one day when three words — Joey Bones Salerno — popped into my head. And the character popped in with them.

The words “Joey Bones” roll off the tongue better if they follow “Hey,” pronounced without the hard H sound. And the whole thing comes off better if there’s a bit of attitude behind the pronunciation.

I could see this guy, Joey Bones, in my mind. He was standing on a street corner in Brooklyn. (I’ve never been to Brooklyn.) His facial features, physique and clothing were as sharp as if I were standing three feet away from him.

When he spoke, his voice and his accent — even the way he clipped words and where he clipped them —were clear and crisp. The emphasis on the accent varied a bit depending on whether he was talking with peers or his boss, underlings, or those who didn’t know him. Yeah, just like he was a real person.

I could smell his cologne. I remember feeling surprised it wasn’t stronger. I knew the humidity in the air and the temperature

Those initial three words and the character “vision” that came with them spawned at least eleven short stories and one novella. The novella and probably four or five of those short stories were based on that particular character. The rest were based on the character type.

Another Case in Point

Several years ago, the name Wes Crowley came to me. I wrote a short story titled “Same Ol’ Bull, Same Ol’ Rodeo.” It was a contemporary western mixed with horror and psychological suspense.

That Wes Crowley must have been the great grandson of Western Z “Wes” Crowley, who came to me a few years later.

Beginning in late October 2014, I wrote nine novels and well over a half-million words based on Wes’ life. He also spun off seven short stories. And I suspect there’s more to come, probably about some of the other characters in those novels.

So Here’s the Whole Point

When an idea occurs, write the opening. Right Now.

If it doesn’t work, throw it out.

If the idea is good, write the opening again. (Don’t rewrite. Throw it out and write a new opening.)

If the idea is no good, come up with another character with a different problem in another setting and write another opening.

The more times you do this, the easier it becomes to turn an idea into a story.

Step One: Write the Opening.

Step Two: Keep Writing Openings.

  • Don’t worry about how it “feels.” Just write the opening.
  • Don’t worry about where it’s going or what will happen. Again, just write the opening.

This isn’t a lifelong commitment. It’s just a character with a problem in a setting.

What does the character say and do to solve or alleviate the problem? Write it.

Next up: Chapter 5 — Writing the Hook

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Chapter 3 — Story Starters and Where to Get Ideas

Note: If you’re interested in Irish food, clothing and other unique items, visit Celtic Clothing. This past Christmas season I ordered two sets of Guiness pint pub glasses. When the order arrived, there was only one set. When I emailed them, they apologized, explained that their supplier had failed, and then refunded the full price of my original order, almost $50. They insisted I keep the first set of pub glasses as a gift and apologized for their inability to fill the full order. In my experience, companies like that simply don’t exist anymore, so I want to do what little I can to promote them. I hope you will visit their site.

All story ideas are also story starters, of course, but not all story starters are story ideas.

Most of this chapter will talk about where to get story ideas, but I thought this was the most appropriate place to talk about story starters too.

First, the differences.

The story starter is any physical, emotional or mental stimulus that evokes a memory of something that happened or provides a catalyst to something that could happen. It’s only a trigger, nothing more.

The story idea is a character with a problem in a setting. It’s only a trigger, nothing more.

Both are only triggers, nothing more. The sole purpose of both is to get you to the keyboard.

The Story Starter

A story starter can be literally anything.

It can be a scent or a sound or the lighting or something seen or heard in a particular lighting.

For example, the aroma of a rosewood-scented candle might evoke a memory or a story. The same aroma in a dimly lighted room might evoke a completely different story. The same aroma wafting past on a beach will almost certainly evoke another completely different story.

The same goes for things seen or heard or smelled or tasted or felt, physically or emotionally, in various lighting situations and with various background noise types and combinations or various olfactory sensations and so on.

In other words, that same aroma of a rosewood-scented candle mixed with the predominant aroma of freshly baked bread with the sound of cars passing in the background would start another completely different story. And the same stimuli in a dimly lighted room might evoke a completely different story.

A story starter can be the single chirp of a bird. It can be a rock in a particular shape that you see as you’re walking down the road. It can be what she said the last time you saw her, or part of what she said. Or it can be the way she said it. Or both.

It can be a lyric or a line of dialogue or narrative. It can be a character name or a character type. It can be a flash from a scene, like a bull rising into the air as the chute gate is pulled open at a rodeo.

Any of those and anything else can be a story starter.

Any stimulus that can evoke a memory of your past can also evoke a memory of something that hasn’t happened yet (so a story).

What matters is what you do with it.

I should add here that some writers can turn a quick story starter straight into a story. And it happens so quickly that they practically skip over the “character with a problem in a setting” story idea stage.

Dean Wesley Smith collects pulp magazines. He keeps a list of titles from stories in those magazines. Then when he wants to write a story, he selects HALF of one story title and crashes it into HALF of another story title. The resulting title serves as his story starter.

So perhaps he sees a story titled “The Breath Formed” and another one titled “Mouth Watering.” He might crash those together to get “The Mouth Formed.” (Horror, anyone?)

He sits down, puts his fingers on the keyboard, and types in The Mouth Formed. Then he hits the Enter key a couple of times and writes whatever comes to him.

I do the same thing, although seldom with titles.

I collect professional grade photos to use as the basis for book covers. Occasionally I’ll glance through them. As I’m looking at a photo, a title or a line of dialogue or a character laughing will come to me and bam, I’m off and typing.

It really is that easy.

The hard part is sitting down and putting your fingers on the keyboard. Once you get over that horribly traumatic notion, the rest of it is a snap.

The Story Idea

As I wrote above, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. That’s it.

Many would-be writers say they can’t come up with ideas. Most often that’s because they don’t know what an idea is.

They believe, perhaps, that the story has to be born whole. That simply isn’t true.

A story idea is a hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible.

Most would-be writers believe a story idea is a hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible. But then a wizard shows up and tells him the ring is evil. Turns out the poor hobbit must travel a great distance, during which he encounters all manner of strange, wonderful and terrible creatures. He also must endure various misfortunes, danger and great hardships in order to destroy this thing he holds so precious.

That is not a story idea. That is a plot line.

Could you write that without infringing on The Lord of the Rings? Of course. You might want to change “hobbit” to “grelber” or something, but that’s pretty much the only problem.

But I could never write it, period. Why? Because there’s no room for the hobbit (or grelber) to exercise free will. He might as well be in chains. I know where he’s going, and I know why he’s going. End of story. Ugh. Writing it would just be boring.

So get over the notion that you have to get an entire story all at one time in order to start writing. You don’t. And if you do get that, I recommend you go get another idea. One that will allow you to drop into the story and enjoy it as the characters write it.

Again, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. And the problem doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story. It just has to be a problem that this character has to solve in the immediate future. It’s just a trigger, something to get you to the keyboard, to get you started.

Here you go:

John is running a half-marathon. Within a mile of the finish, something sharp pokes him hard on the instep of his right foot. With every step it pokes him again. He can barely stand the pain, but his main rival is behind him only about a hundred yards. What does he do?

Sit down and write it.

Want a little more?

At the first poke, John grimaces. Me. Always me. Why is it always me?

At the first poke, John grins and shakes his head and points to the sky. “You and me, Lord. You and me.”

At the first poke, John winces. What in the world was— And crumples to the ground, dead.

Okay, now sit down and write it.

So Where Do You Get Ideas?

When a conference goer asked Harlan Ellison that, the famous writer replied, “I get all mine from a little shop in Schenectady.”

He said that because if he told the truth nobody would believe him.

The truth is, where do you NOT get ideas? They’re all over the place.

Again, a Character with a Problem in a Setting.

You’re out for a walk early in the morning on a dirt road. An SUV passes you. It doesn’t slow down, and when you glare at it you see a woman (the driver) apparently angry and gesturing toward the back seat.

If you’re a writer, probably you have two immediate thoughts.

The first one is, Frankly, I’m fortunate she didn’t run over me. Does she know me? And then you laugh. Maybe.

And your second thought is, Okay, her name is Jillian, her husband came home drunk and abusive one too many times and she’s headed for her mother’s house with the children. They’re in the back seat and wondering aloud why Daddy isn’t coming too.

Sit down. Write it.

Ways to Create Triggers (to Get You to the Keyboard) and Ideas

Select three words at random from the dictionary. Sparrow, hay, tornado.

Select two seemingly opposing ideas and crash them together (in my “The Compartmentalized Mantis,” a feminine personality in a man’s environmental suit / in “Saving the Baby,” the main character sees an artillery shell as an infant). More on this technique in the first exercise.

Select a setting, put a character in it, give him a problem and write.

Select a character, give him a problem, put him in a setting and write.

Select a problem, slap it on a character in a setting and write.

Collect titles, lines of dialogue, settings, characters, problems/situations. Put them in a list and browse it occasionally.

Collect photos. (When you need a story idea, glance over the photos. I have a few hundred from CanStock, BigStock, iStock, ShutterStock, et al but photos from any source will work for ideas. Just don’t use them for covers unless you have permission.)

Shrug. And whatever else you can think of.

Notes on Story Ideas

Inspiration is wonderful. Take it when it comes, but professional writers never wait for it. At the bottom of my emails is this signature: “Like Peter DeVries, I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 3 a.m.”

Lose the notion that ideas are gold. They aren’t. If you lose one, get another one.

Remember, practice coming up with ideas. The ability to come up with an idea is a muscle. The more you use it, the more natural using it will become.

Observe everything and everyone. Make up stories about people you see in waiting rooms, in malls. Make up stories about storefronts you see as you’re driving by, or people who are driving by you.

The ability to convert an idea into a story also is a muscle. Remember, an idea is nothing more than a trigger to get you to the keyboard. So when you get an idea, get to the keyboard right now, sit down and write it.

Lose the notion that all ideas will work. Most will, but some won’t. You might even go through a period during which some will work and most won’t.

Next up: Chapter 4 — Writing the Opening

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here. I am a professional writer, folks. This is my living.

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