Hooking the reader (and hopefully the editor) with the first 13 lines

July 16th, 2006

While I can’t speak for Damon Knight, late creator of the “13 line critiques,” I think a bit of explanation is in order.  The idea of being able to hook the reader (and hopefully the editor) with the first thirteen lines of a short story is fairly simple and straightforward.  Yes, the “first thirteen lines” may sound like an esoteric magical number–and the name “Damon Knight” certainly adds to that ambiance–but they spring from a very plain dry fact: When using proper manuscript procedure, a double-spaced sheet of paper has 25 lines, 1 1/4″ margins, and Courier typeface.  However, on the first page of a short story, with the header, author information and appropriate spacing, that number is halved to thirteen lines.

There.  Nothing esoteric about it.  You could just as easily say “You have the first half a page” to hook the reader and entice an editor to remove the paperclip and turn to page two, rather than reaching for the form rejection slip.

Unfortunately, this bit of commonsense practicality keeps getting misinterpreted as a form in-and-of itself, like a sonnet, with authors deliberately placing a cliffhanger at the final word of line thirteen.  Stop this.  Please.  Just because you intrigue the reader enough to make them turn to page two does not mean they’ll want to go on to page three.  Moreover, if you start the story with a demon dangling the baby off a cliff, what are you going to do for an encore?

The cliffhanger emphasis comes from television teasers, those short bits at the start of TV shows which introduce the beginning of the episode and usually have an incredibly strong hook to entice the viewer to stay through the first commercial break, rather than channel surfing.

Short stories, thankfully, are not quite in that same boat, so “hooking the reader” does not mean “open your story with a moment of high melodrama.”  Yes, you can, but you are also allowed to start with something slower and softer.  You don’t have to overcome two minutes of commercials and a hundred alternate channels, only a paperclip and editor enuii.  This doesn’t mean readers will sit still for uninteresting blather, endless exposition or stultifying backstory–and editors and especially junior editors are just looking for some reason to be bored–but a languid, lyrical or dreamy intro can still hook the reader so long as it provides sufficient intrigue.  Do not underestimate the power of plain good writing.

Another trouble with melodrama/cliffhanger beginnings is that, all too often, they have nothing to do with the story at hand.  If that’s the case, even if the reader does get to the end of your story, the reader will feel cheated and the editor will be annoyed if there is no payoff to what was right there at the start of the very first scene.  You’re also cheating yourself as an author if you don’t put something, not just dramatic, but significant, as your very first line.  Along with the last line, those are going to be two of the most powerful lines in your story, by sheer virtue of their placement.  The first lines are the hook.  The last lines are the clincher.  The first thirteen lines of the hook are not just what gets your story read, but combined with the clincher at the end, if they match, they’re what gets your story sold.

17 Responses to “Hooking the reader (and hopefully the editor) with the first 13 lines”

  1. makoiyion 16 Jul 2006 at 9:49 pm

    On hundered percent there with you, Kevin. The only thing I disagree with, with the thirteen line challenge is that you cannot do a novel challenge in 13 lines versus a novellete or short story. I think, personally, that even with a novel, if you can’t hook someone in the first few lines with a novel, it is the same. Because that’s about all a buyer will give you in a store. They’ll skim the first para, and that’s it.

    I have come across this so many times. You join a workshop/forum and if you don’t start a story of with bang, you are obviously doing it wrong. Not so. It is the quality of the writing. You can start with a trope – a dream or the weather. If you engage the reader it doesn’t matter.

    At least that is my opinion as both a reader and a writer.

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 17 Jul 2006 at 3:12 am

    Readers generally have a bit more patience with novels, but as you mention, only a bit. However, a novel has the virtue of a back cover blurb or dusk jacket flap description to do extra selling of the story.

    I’m of the opinion that the first chaper of a novel should stand on its own as a short story, even if it’s just a slice-of-life. There are some exceptions to this, of course, and it may be more than one chapter that’s the complete substory, but there are different pacing issues in the short story and novelette compared to the novella and novel.

  3. k1on 17 Jul 2006 at 4:31 am

    I have a question. It may seem a little odd, but at the end you say the first thirteen lines are the hook, and the end is the clincher. Don’t you guys – as authors – ever run out of “hooks”?

    Personally, when I pick up a book, I don’t usually read the first few lines. I read the back first and if that grabs me, I usually start in on the first few pages.

    Often though, that won’t tell me much. The first few pages often are not all that exciting – sometimes they are – but often they are not. The back of the book for me is the most important, if it sounds cliched I won’t usually touch it (unless its from an author I really love eg David Gemmell or Katherine Kerr :) . For instance, a classic cliche is:

    “In the far off kingdom of ______________, a young boy labours in hard turmoil against his cruel life. However, dark forces are stirring against the kingdom of __________, and this boy may change the destiny of more people than he can imagine”….

    Its amazing how many fantasy books have a back cover like that, and whats more astonishing, is that people cannot see that it reads like a “hollywood Trailer”, there are consequences. If the “trailer” does not match the book content, then your in real trouble as an author.

    ie if the book hypes itself like a Hollywood Trailer, then readers expect an uber amount of action, of betrayals, of mystery and intrigue. If it does not match the back cover, you get that same feeling, you get when you look at a movie trailer and it looks fantastic, but when you go to see the movie, you realise they had shown you any good bit in the movie.

    I don’t (generally) want the life story of the boy – with him going through various minor adventures – meeting creatures/bandits on the roads, making friends and enemies, and then at the end we get some sort of “action” scene whereby the boy becomes king. How often can the boy “luckily” get through an encounter? That sort of book has already been done a lot, and all your doing at that point is competiting with the other good ones that are out there. eg David Edding’s Belgariad series. If you are going to do that, you better be dammed sure that you make it good – in other words, your writing skills have to be really honed to sell it…ie if it keeps me gripped great.

    Unfortunately, many authors cannot write that way – they don’t have enough “events” in their story for the size of the book. In that sort of book, you need an event per chapter basically – get bogged down in description for a few chapters and you may have lost your reader (if you write that sort of fantasy book).

    The major problems with the back covers, and the hook and clincher method of selling a book, is that:

    a) It degrades the percieved standard of the fantasy/sf genre. People assume that readers are just ex-comic book readers, who need to be constantly astonished and excited to stick with it. That may or may not be true of some readers, for myself, I don’t mind there not be constant excitement, if its something that will make me think – eg Philosphical talk on truth, good/evil etc.

    b) It means people are more likely to stick with the major authors they know of or have heard of. As there is no point venturing out from those authors, because all the books have a similar way of selling the book, it means why take a chance that your going to get a duff that isnt your thing? It encourages a “stick with the tried and tested”.
    Rather like the movie industry – many people who go to the movies want a specatacle, want the flashes and the bangs and the whizzes, so therefore, they are not likely to go to see the smaller independantly made movies, but go to the major blockbusters, as Hollywood have been doing that sort of thing for years.

    c) It makes the recommendation method that much more important. So if an author I really like, has written a recommendation for another author on the cover, I am going to pick up that book and give it a read.
    (I don’t trust the various magazines and the like, but I do trust in the integrity of an author I like).

    Anyway, thats my two cents…

  4. makoiyion 17 Jul 2006 at 11:28 am

    Well that whole hook thing. Yes, I had noticed that some folk seemed to be using one on the thirteenth line :) The same as folk seem to think you absolutely have to have one at the end of every chapter. I disagree. The whole chapter has to be the hook to drive the story forward. There is a danger that folk will perfect those thirteen lines as novelists will the first three chapters say. Simply because those are what an editor/editor’s assistant will look at. As an editor who accepts and rejects flash, my attention has to be caught even earlier.

    I know whenever I sub anything anywhere it is as perfect as I can make it. It’s a selling tool, a window to what I can do, and I tell you, it makes me nervous as hell. So I can never understand why other folk do not check for typos etc. When you’ve just read I don’t know how many other subs, you are not going to accept the one with typos and spelling errors even if it is the most brilliant thing since ice cream.

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 17 Jul 2006 at 12:13 pm

    k1,

    As a reader, I generally agree with you, but there are a few things you should know:

    1. The back cover blurb of a paperback, and the dust-jacket flaps of a hardback, are rarely, if ever, written by the author. They’re written by the marketing department and editorial staff. Jane Yolen has mentioned before that the most printed and read thing she’s ever written is the dust-jacket text for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I only mention the “if ever” because I did write the back cover copy for my first novel, House of Secrets, but that was when White Wolf was new to publishing and I’m a pretty fair hand at ad copy.

    2. The “hook” and “clincher” do not–I repeat, do not–have to be scenes of high melodrama. I thought that was the point of my post and what I was railing against. However, since extra explanation seems in order, here goes: The strongest parts of a sentence are the beginning and the end. Likewise with a paragraph. Likewise with a scene. Likewise with a chapter. Likewise with a whole short story or a section of a novel, and likewise with a whole novel.

    Authors don’t run out of hooks because a hook is simply a way of saying “an intriguing beginning” and a clincher is just another way of saying “a fitting end.”

  6. Erin Underwoodon 17 Jul 2006 at 2:45 pm

    Kevin, this is really great information for writers, like me, who are new to writing short fiction. Thanks so much for taking the time to put this information together in such a succinct way.

    After reading your post (and your critiques) I wanted to see some well written hooks from published authors, so I fished out a couple anthologies and began flipping through the first few paragraphs of each short story. That’s when I “got it”. Thanks to you I now know a good hook when I read one; let’s just hope that translates into writing a good hook. 😉

    Also, Lois, I loved your short story about the shepherd and the dragon bone flute. I only meant to read the first few paragraphs to see how you set up the story; the next thing I knew, the story was over. Nicely done!

  7. Danion 18 Jul 2006 at 3:42 pm

    one at the end of every chapter

    But that’s exactly what Tolkien used (which is why a number of authors have abused that model).

    I agree with Kevin. The flow of the story (highs and lows, dramatic points, resting points) is critical to the success of the story. Making that flow artificial (i.e., inserting a cliffhanger by line 13) only dilute the impact of the story — like what happens in a bad B movie.

  8. Katharine Kerron 31 Jul 2006 at 5:46 am

    Editors of novels read the first 10 pages, unless the first page is really awful. However, editors also only read agented submissions, these days, so the agent is expected to weed out the really awful and only send the sellables.

  9. Harry Connollyon 26 Aug 2006 at 10:30 pm

    Looks like it’s time to add word verification or something before people can post.

  10. Katharine Kerron 27 Aug 2006 at 4:53 pm

    Dave the sysadmin is off this weekend. I’ll email him to come take these out when he returns, because I would have to do it by a very laborious process, and the messages, at least, are garbled. Gads. I suppose it’s the “hooking” in the post title that made them spam here. Obviously they can’t read well.

  11. David Louis Edelmanon 29 Aug 2006 at 1:16 pm

    *Whew* Okay, I’ve cleaned up the porn and gambling spam from this thread. I’m surprised the anti-spam plug-in didn’t catch these. You’re right, Harry, we may need to add word verification if this persists. %$@$!#@ spammers….

  12. Mitch Wagneron 29 Aug 2006 at 3:39 pm

    David Louis Edelman – As I understand it, word verification doesn’t really work. The spammers get around it, and it inconveniences legitimate users.

  13. Adamon 28 Jun 2007 at 9:45 am

    Hi

    If I know the author, I may buy a book I don’t like the look of on the strength of his/her previous work.

    If I don’t know the author, I will read the blurb and then randomly open the book to see if the book ‘thinks’ in a way I like. I never read the first page to decide. It’s too easy to be swayed by all the hooks!

    I am interested to know, if anyone cares to comment, when writing a novel as opposed to a short story, what the main differences are in terms of beginnings. I presume you write in just the same way as for a short story but you carry on for longer, and this naturally leads to a more complex story, either in depth or events or both. It still grows like a bush from a single stalk at the bottom to a single leaf at the top. I can’t see why you would start differently.

    Adam

  14. Beth S.on 28 Jun 2007 at 10:12 am

    I don’t think there is a difference. Short work or long, the same rules apply for those first few paragraphs. They have to draw the reader into the story.

  15. Beth S.on 28 Jun 2007 at 10:21 am

    Also–

    No matter what technique is used, the opening must impart a sense of building momentum. Of a wheel starting to roll. One of the most frequent mistakes made by beginners is to make the opening a static snapshot. Or to choose a moment that’s not inherently interesting, dramatic, or tense. Or to start with a reaction instead of an action. And this applies equally to novels or shorts, IMO.

  16. […] Hooking the reader (and hopefully the editor) with the first 13 lines by Kevin Andrew Murphy […]

  17. […] people say you have thirteen lines in which to hook the reader of a short story. I found this to be more or less true as more often […]

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