Writing is delivering on a promise to the reader. The very first page, the first paragraph, the very first line (the hook), is a promise. However you phrase it to entice your reader in, you are making a silent promise to them that they will know more about the hook by the end of the book. The trick for writing is not in delivery, but in knowing what promises you’ve made. Here are some methods I’ve heard about to help identify those promises, then fulfill them.
- Late in, early out. The idea here is that your scene has already started by the time the reader comes in. It’s already warm or red hot when the reader enters the story. The situation is then worked on and just as the action begins to die down, the reader is removed from the scene. Think of this like a party. If you are the first there, you have to make polite conversation with the host and perhaps help them set up. The best time to arrive is when a number of people are already there and everything is going. This gives you lots of opportunities to talk or relate to multiple characters, not just one. On the flip side, you don’t want to stay past everyone and be stuck with the boring cleanup duty. A great party is one where you go home with a little bit of the afterglow of the party. (You don’t want to go home feeling tired because it took a lot longer to cleanup then you expected!)
- Sanderson’s First Law. My favorite book author has a few rules that he uses when writing. His first rule is that the author’s ability to solve conflict with a system is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the system. For example, a last minute dues ex machina to solve the problem does not deliver on a promise. Bailing out the hero doesn’t feel satisfying to the reader because they relate to the hero and want to solve their own problems. Instead of breadth (adding more components) add depth (complexity on existing components). This can surprise the reader and deliver on a promise of growth. The hero figures out how to grow/overcome, so the reader grows too from the new idea. Which sounds better? “I never thought of that!” vs “It was all a dream?”
- Add in only if needed. It is easy to build your world and add in all sorts of cool details. However, it becomes very easy to accidentally make a promise to the reader doing this. Perhaps a detail you added in is more interesting to the reader then the main story. By not talking more about that detail the reader wonders why you didn’t focus more on this cool idea. If that happens enough, the story begins to feel weak because it zips by all these cool ideas.