When I mentor writers, the same questions come up quite regularly. So let me share with you five questions I’m asked most often, and my answers.
1. What’s the difference between a story’s “hook” and its “inciting incident”?
A story’s “hook” is simply its opening sentence or paragraph and is meant to instantly grab the reader. For example, the first sentence of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is: “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” What reader could not be fascinated by that? My new mystery novel The Deadly Trade, coming out in September, begins with: “I was trying hard to think of toys to keep my mind off death.” A hook is designed to fire up the reader’s curiosity to know what comes next.
A story’s “inciting incident,” on the other hand, is the momentous event in the main character’s life that gets their story rolling. I define it as the event that upsets the balance of that character’s life. It literally incites them to take some action to try to restore balance. For example, in The Wizard of Oz the tornado that sweeps Dorothy away to Oz is the inciting incident. It incites her need to do everything she can to try to get back home.
2. In writing dialogue is it okay to eliminate “he said/ she said” when there are just two people talking?
Certainly, if just two characters are talking, the dialogue tag can often be omitted. It’s all a question of clarity for the reader. If it’s obvious which person is speaking, no tag is necessary. However, sometimes several sentences of narration will come between lines of dialogue (for example, the POV character’s thoughts) and in that case it may be necessary to tag the next speaker, or else the reader may not be sure which one is resuming the talk. These choices are all about clarity, because we don’t want to lose or confuse the reader for even a moment.
3. What are your feelings/tips on the use of a prologue? Some articles say many agents hate them. A trip to the bookstore showed that several current top-sellers had a prologue. Is it something that could lead to a quick rejection?
It’s true that many agents (and acquisition editors at publishing houses) have a negative feeling about prologues. That’s because, very often, writers use a prologue simply as a dump for a chunk of backstory. You’re also right that bestselling authors sometimes do start their books with a prologue, but keep in mind that these authors have established a large readership who will buy their books regardless of style. To answer your question, I doubt that any agent or acquisition editor would reject a manuscript solely because it starts with a prologue. However, the wise writer should take into consideration the generally negative view that industry pros have about prologues.
4. When is the best time to put in backstory?
Not at the book’s beginning! The most effective way to start any story is to plunge into a situation in which something is already at stake for the character(s). That ignites the readers’ curiosity to know what created the situation. The backstory—the pivotal events that led up to the book’s beginning—can then be woven in as the narrative goes forward. Also, for backstory, choose just past events that have significant impact on the present story. For example, in a mystery novel a character’s divorce years ago was no doubt meaningful to them, but unless it influences the murder investigation or the character’s current actions, there’s likely no reason for it to be developed as backstory. All writers must make these hard choices; I call it “literary triage.”
5. Is “literary” a genre? My story doesn’t fit in any usual category: science fiction, romance, thriller, etc. But finding an agent who does “literary” seems more difficult than a more-focused type. What do you think?
Stories that do not fall into the broad popular genres (Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror) yet are still popular fiction, as opposed to literary fiction, are often referred to as simply “mainstream fiction.” So you could use that term (or “mainstream novel”) in a query. Unless your story is truly “literary” I would advise against calling it literary in a query. The reason is that most literary fiction does not sell well. Public perception about this is skewed by the fact that literary fiction gets the most attention from reviewers, but publishers know that sales of popular fiction far outstrip sales of literary fiction. Have a look at my video “Literary or Popular”: Which Kind of Writer Are You?” that explains 5 differences between popular and literary fiction.
All my best,