Where Do I Begin?


a colleague’s question

“I wondered,” suggested a writing colleague, who read my memoir manuscript for the first time, “whether you should have started with the moment of crisis? You know when you heard the scream from Kristy’s bedroom?”

Her question resonated for me as I read a recent post by memoirist and memoir-writing mentor Marion Roach Smith, “How to Write a Difficult Family Story.” Roach Smith encourages writers to begin with a line that reader will “fall into.” Called “the hook,” by writers, this is a device that catches the reader’s interest so powerfully with the first few sentences they feel compelled to keep reading.

where does the hook belong?

Often the hook places the protagonist in a terrible situation, sometimes even at the point when they have run out of resources. The intention: make the reader immediately say, “How are they ever going to deal with that diagnosis?” or “Can they escape those people?” If the writer can entice the reader into asking such a question, then maybe they’ll keep reading because they need to know how the protagonist overcomes the “invincible foe.” This is an important factor to keep in mind. Victory may come as a change in perspective, attitude, or emotions, but there is almost always an assumption of victory-of some kind. Or the reader will feel cheated.

another way

There is, however, another way to use “the hook.” It’s trickier to make work, but it’s the one I used for the portion of my memoir this colleague had read. That device begins with the best of it, showing the high point in the protagonist’s life. Then the story plummets into struggle, often into a situation much worse than the main characters could have imagined. This isn’t what the reader expected to happen to these people. Yet, the question remains the same, “How are they going to handle this?”

A risk & a reward

There is both a risk and a reward with this second approach. The writer risks boring the reader with what seems a mundane narrative at the beginning-ordinary people leading ordinary lives, no drama. His, her, their job becomes rendering these characters engrossing and charming enough that the reader waits to see what’s coming. Then comes the reward. When the disaster occurs, the reader is fully engaged with the main characters. They know them and can feel with them. Thes reader cannot bear to be left behind. In their hearts, they hold these people and have a stake in what happens. Of course, they’ll stay until the end.

The second approach is the road less traveled, but it‘s the one I’ve chosen. When the memoir comes out, I hope you’ll walk along with me.

Daddy's Birthday

8 Replies to “Where Do I Begin?”

  1. I’m sure that your hook will work, however, you decide to do it! That picture must have been Dad’s birthday, right? Since it’s a German Chocolate Cake? How crazy to think that it’s the same age as I am right now! You had so much more on your plate at that age than I do. It’s incredible.

    1. Yes, Sweet Daughter, It was Dad’s birthday! We were always big on those at our house and I love the way you kept the tradition going. Hope Dave is having the best 50th possible!

  2. I think you made the better choice. The reader knows the outcome but then is curious to see how you got there.

    1. Hi, Steve,
      You’re very right. The blurb on the outside of the book will certainly hint at where it’s going, but I need to establish where we began.

  3. You can also begin with the high point, while inserting just one or two sentences (no more) that suggest of something unsettling to come; that this is not at all how your lives would remain. That way you can engage the readers in the main characters more deeply, while also tickling their curiosity about the trouble to come.

    1. Hi, Kay,
      Great idea. Work in a hint of foreboding-subtle, but there none the less. I’ll work on that. I like that thought.

  4. Before I had fully read your posting I was already hoping that you would choose the opening that you did. It occurred to me that behind the decision would be what is the main expression you wished to project. Would it be the presentation of an intriguing story or of your experience of Kristy? Kristy was more than her crisis, as you know best of all. So Kristy is the real hook.

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