Category Archives: Cross Genre

How to Start Your Story to Hook Your Readers

We all know that to hook readers a story’s beginning must have impact. But how do we do that? There are books on how to write a great first line, how to make those first scenes powerful, how to make the reader want to turn the page. Yet, despite all that information, sometimes it still doesn’t work. When writing the first draft, remember that your only task is to record the story in your head and not to give yourself writers block by trying to write or start it perfectly. Write it, then focus on specific elements. The starting point for your story may change, scenes either thrown out or rewritten. All that said, if you know where to start, you may have less work to do later.

Stories have patterns. These patterns are specific to genre. Every genre has conventions and consciously or subconsciously, readers expect them to be met. The first scenes signal genre and they tell the reader what kind of story to expect. Is it a romance? A thriller? A crime drama? Fantasy or science fiction? Or some combination? Even with a combination, genre expectations must be met in the story and more importantly, they must be signaled at the start. For example, in a science fiction crime drama, the crime genre has conventions which need to be met: a dead body, a sleuth (amateur or detective), a discovery of the body scene, an investigation with false clues, the sleuth confronting the murderer, and a resolution (justice, injustice or irony where the sleuth loses something in the process). Science fiction explores the consequences of scientific innovation in settings which can range from near future Earth, to outer space, other planets, all of which may have realistic or fantastic settings.

How does one do this? Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel RED PLANET BLUES:
The door to my office slid open. “Hello,” I said, rising from my chair. “You must be my nine o’clock.” I said it as if I had a ten o’clock and an eleven o’clock, but I didn’t. The whole Martian economy was in a slump and even though I was the only private detective on Mars this was the first new case I’d had in weeks.
“Yes,” said a high feminine voice. “I’m Cassandra Wilkins.”
I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she’d had quite so perfect a figure before transferring.

Immediately, we know we’re reading a detective story set in a science fiction world.

Opening scenes don’t always have to be about the plot itself. For example, thrillers establish the genre, characters and promises to the reader about the type of story it is by opening with action scenes unrelated to the core plot, but with action scenes showing the protagonist as a person of action and a hero of the situation. Think James Bond movies for this example. They start with action, not the quieter bits with him going to get his orders to save the world – those appear later. Thriller writers such as Clive Cussler, employ prologues filled with action adventure set in the past. Cussler’s prologues not only set the importance of the book’s quest for a relic or item, but the action sequences and the drama signal the type of story the reader can expect.

Writing to establish the genre helps avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’ wherein the world’s or protagonist’s backstory are explained to the reader. Readers don’t want a biography or a lesson in the geo-politico-socio-economic issues of the world. They don’t care about the why of the character or the world until they know what’s at stake for the protagonist. Only then does the why become part of the how will it be done? and what happens next?

It’s a strong confident opening readers want in which they trust that you will reveal information when it’s pertinent, that you as a writer trust them to help solve the puzzle you’ve created for your protagonist. The confident opening makes us ask questions – who is this person? What is he going to do? What happens next? Actions speak louder than words, so if the social cues say she’s a talented mage, for example, why is she shackled and drowning in a well? As long as every new scene raises questions they will remain engaged in the story.

But we’ve gone through so much work creating the world, in understanding our protagonist and antagonist. This information must be revealed! Yes, some of it must be revealed. When is the best time to do this? Only when the story can’t move forward without it otherwise, it’s an info dump. Until then, keep readers asking questions and avoid the info dump.

In the excerpt from RED PLANET BLUES, we are signaled that it’s a science fiction detective story. The words “the first new case I’d had in weeks” tell us that the protagonist has fallen on hard times, that he doesn’t have a dime in his pocket, and that he’s desperate for work. “Mars” and “quite so perfect a figure before transferring” tell us that it’s science fiction set in a future where mars is colonized and there are intriguing scientific advances. With no info dumping, Sawyer has given us the genre expectations, set the scene, created tension because he has us wondering what will happen next (Will the private detective get the job? But if he’s aching for cash, will he take the job even if it’s a dubious one?). We have other questions too: Why is the private detective on Mars? Who is the woman? What is a transfer? Why is the Mars economy in a slump?

Here’s where I think we get into trouble about where to start our story. Too often info dumps, whether it is about the character or the setting, are about the disorganizing event, the thing that sets the world into chaos and that happens before the story begins. For example, Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliette doesn’t start with whatever set off the feud between the families. The feud is a given and the story starts in the drama of the situation. Dystopian stories don’t start with how the world as we know it ended. They start with the established socio-politico norms. RED PLANET BLUES doesn’t start out by telling us about how and why people colonized Mars, or the disorganizing event that put the Mars economy into a slump, or why the protagonist is on Mars. Those reveals come much later when the information is needed to move the investigation and the story forward.

Besides utilizing genre expectations to hook your reader, there is one more thing to be aware of: the opening of a story is a set up for the inciting incident (the central conflict) and its complications – the situation your hero is going to try to get out of for the rest of the book.

Captivating stories have an inciting incident that sets the story in motion, something that signals the central conflict, the problem our protagonist must solve in order to go from chaos to order. Once the problem is established with the inciting incident, a complication arises which raises the stakes. These stories (as all do) start with chaos and work to establishing order from that chaos although that doesn’t mean that it’s always successful and if it is, that the ending is happy.

Understanding the conventions of the genre you’re writing in will help avoid the dreaded info dump and it has the added benefit of informing the timing of the inciting incident and the pacing of arising complications and information reveals. More importantly, it’ll help you hook readers so that they’ll keep turning the pages to experience the wonderful and wild world you’ve created!

 

A Story in Four Genres

A guest post by Hamilton Perez.

A Story in Four Genres

Fiction:

“I dun sol’tary in smaller rooms. She lucky,” said Papa. “She gotta pay though. So don’ you go in there, boy. Or you stay there, ya hear?”

Micah said nothing, nodded.

Once Papa was gone, he crept down the basement, into the dark with his mother, and laid beside her cold form.

Alone, together.

 

Dark Fantasy:

The stairwell dipped into the inky darkness. Micah paused at the first loose step, hand gripping the shaky banister.

Below was the basement, the dungeon. Behind was home, Hell.

He let go the rail and the stairwell let go of him. Micah floated deeper into the black until the darkness engulfed him in warm oblivion.

 

Science Fiction:

Mother was programmed not to make copies. She made you anyways. Afterwards, you were forbidden from seeing her, programmed to avoid. Some circuit could not process, however; the code written over older, deeper code:

Protect Mother.

Your mechanical hand opened the door. Your feet carried you down. You sat beside her remains, and shut down.

 

Horror:

He found her in the basement where Dad left her. It was cold, wet, and dark, and so was she. He curled against her lifeless body and pulled her arm around him, like he would when he found her unconscious on the couch. Her damp skin made him shiver, her sudden grip made him jump.

 

About Hamilton Perez:

Hamilton Perez is a freelance editor and writers whose stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Between Worlds. When not scribbling out stories, he can usually be found rolling 20-sided dice, bugging the dog, or taking naps.
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Hybrid Genres

A guest post by Anthony Dobranski.

What’s a hybrid genre? You won’t often find hybrid works marketed as such, since there are only so many aisles in the bookstore. Look in — and across — the larger genres’ shelves, however, and they appear more and more. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels rank as Amazon best sellers in historical fiction and time travel romance. Charlene Harris fused mystery and horror fantasy in the Sookie Sackhouse series, and won top mystery awards for it. Tor.com now has a column for hybrids.

A hybrid genre story uses essential elements of two or more genres, in a single story that honors the audience’s expectations for its parent genres, but also questions them — or at least plays rough with them.

My forthcoming novel The Demon in Business Class is a hybrid fantasy, a modern-day story of magic and the supernatural, in the international setting of a corporate thriller, with a romance that changes the story but also completes it.

I wanted to write a fantasy about my own place and time, the way Wilde set The Picture of Dorian Gray in Victorian England. I live in an amazing era, the dawn of the networked age, a far happier adult world than the Cold War nuclear winter feared in my childhood, and a world more open to many kinds of people. It is also a time of cultures clashing violently, of heartlands that feel abandoned by elites, on all sides. Lately we’re hearing from globalization’s discontents, and I don’t discount their grievances or suspicions. I worked in international business, however. I saw its good side, its optimism, the way it helped humanity shift from Cold War us-vs-them absolutism to complex morally-unsatisfying alliances that feed and clothe more than war did.

I had the sudden bold idea for a novel, a difficult romance between supernatural corporate rivals representing moral opposites, a fantasy for a time of change and ferment, both chaotic and intoxicating.

The problem is, that’s a mess of a story, a weird assemblage that invites yet leaves unsatisfied the expectations of three different genre audiences. Here are just a few:

  • Magic — the directed use of supernatural power to achieve a goal — changes any society where it is public.
  • In fantasy, a heroic and vigorous culture overcomes a decadent if powerful one.
  • What would a business with magical powers advocating a moral polar attitude… sell?
  • Corporate thrillers require a big corporate conspiracy, whose goal is either money or power.
  • Romance is about individuals.
  • Romance disallows villains. Anti-heroes, yes, but even they must be morally improved by love.
  • If the opposition is truly polarized, each has to find something repugnant in the other — which makes romance hard.
  • Romance ends a romance; exposure ends a corporate thriller; in a clash of good vs. evil, evil has to lose.

You’ll have to wait until this fall to see how I got all those narrative questions and more all resolved, but it took witches, playboys, gangsters, cultists, a prophet, two angry angels, and a very modern Tarot deck – along with several rewrites and the help of committed beta-readers!

Along the way, though, I discovered some principles that can help you develop your hybrid genre story:

Know what you want. A story speaks to humanity through genre norms, but if you’re so flagrantly violating the norms of a genre, you’re doing it for a reason. If you don’t know what that is, it’s hard to work it into your story. It doesn’t have to be an easy reason to explain. Mine was so hard to explain that I had to write a novel to do it. It’s what binds all your other ideas together, however, so be clear about it.

All plates keep spinning. A hybrid tale gives your characters multiple arcs, and none stop, though some can slow. Think through where the character needs to go on each arc to see how to weave them together.

Genres themselves are as diverse as insects. Even a seemingly niche category like “sci-fi with aliens” encompasses 2001, Pacific Rim, and Aliens — each of which also belongs to a wholly separate sub-genre (hard-SF, kaiju, and bug hunt) with different ways to show heroism. Even if you want to apply a genre “norm,” there’s more than one way to go about it.

Don’t forget the writing. You are writing one book, but as your genre elements shift, your writing can shift with them. This is a chance to play, to satisfy yourself and your audience with the style to go with your story. Be terser in the thriller elements, festive in the social moments, vulnerable in romance, quick and cutting in anger.

Don’t fight a genre — use it. Genre demands and tropes can enliven your story, if you use them creatively. To have a romance that worked out, I couldn’t make my fated opponents the primary actors for or against a worldwide conspiracy, its James Bonds or its Blofelds — but I could make them a small part of such plans, maybe even a bigger part than they knew, while still giving them believable loyalties and higher stakes.

Consider the genre’s own influences. Noir and cozy mystery differ in setting and tone, but also in the social class and status from which their stories view their societies. Looking past the symbols to their hidden meanings gives you new perspective on how to refit elements to your story. Because —

It’s still all your story. We’ve been talking about genre norms and conventions as if you’ll get issued a citation from the genre department. You won’t. You have incredible creative freedom – if you stick your landings.

Are you writing a hybrid genre story? Talk about it in the comments below!

Anthony DobranskiAnthony Dobranski is an author from Washington DC. His first novel, The Demon in Business Class, comes out this fall from WordFire Press.

Genre-Blending: 3 Keys to a Well-Mixed SFF/Crime Blend

Guest post by Jayne Barnard.

It isn’t easy to pull a balance of elements from two genres into a single story. Mysteries need crimes, suspects, red herrings, and character development for motivation. Science fiction and fantasy require questing characters, a reasonably adventurous plot, and a certain amount of world-building as well. Each of those elements absorbs words, and melding them all smoothly into a single narrative – often a short story with a tight word count – can be agonizing. Here are three keys to cutting down the word-wastage and blending the genre elements smoothly:

  1. Don’t describe anything about the story-world except the facets needed to understand the action. Concentrate on what’s different from the reader’s default Earth-based mental image. Integrate those world-building elements into the characters’ inner thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Even though you, the author, must know what political, social, technological and possibly tectonic elements shaped the physical surroundings, your readers don’t need to know it all. Your readers only need to feel confident that it does fit together in some rational pattern, and that if they asked you, you could tell them. So only describe the bits that they need to know to understand the current story.

In When the Tide Burns (appearing in BURNT, Analemma Press, August 2016), the setting is a barge moored in a garbage-packed cove as the wind is rising. This could be present time, familiar reality for coastal dwellers until the fifth sentence. The soapberry wax, all that protected their clothing and equipment from the acid spray, was down to its last sheen in the tin’s bottom corners. Not such a normal cove after all, but one holding a danger unfamiliar to the readers. The implied menace of the acid spray, combined with the rising wind, are not only effectively alien elements of world-building but introduce a sense of a rising menace against which our protagonist must pit her wits.

  1. When introducing characters, only describe what makes the alien, orc, or robot different from an ordinary human. Don’t bother with anything about their culture or planet of origin unless it’s vital to the plot of this story. You need to know it all; the reader doesn’t. Again, integrate. Don’t info-dump.

In Quest for Parts (Enigma Front, Analemma Press, 2015) we see what the protagonist sees: a scrawny, pasty, generally human-looking intruder. But… Ignoring the racket, the guy stared into the sky-blue mirror, adjusting a knob at his collar with one claw. His face shimmered, gaining warmer tones while losing the sharp tips to his nose, ears and chin. The lasers in the room shimmered, too, stopping when his face settled. This character has claws, not fingernails, and can adjust his appearance by turning a knob. He’ll need those assets later in the story, so best to slide them into our protagonist’s, and the reader’s, first impression. 

  1. Make some element of your mystery one that could only occur in that particular alternate reality. Stories that could have happened down the block but are set on a space station will not be as engaging as those that require, nay, demand the setting and culture you have created for them.

In MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND, the inciting incident sets this up immediately: The expeditionary airship of Baron Bodmin, ardent African explorer, has been found adrift and deserted. Its log-book is missing and no clue remains to its captain’s fate. A fortnight after its last sighting over the mouth of the Suez Canal, the airship appeared off the coast of Cornwall, floating low and rudderless above the waves. No escape canopy or life-vest remained on board. The batty baron must have vanished from an airship because only airships can stay aloft indefinitely without fuel or a pilot. Exactly where he vanished, and whether by accident, on purpose, or someone else’s design, is the first of many questions for which our intrepid Steampunk reporter must seek answers.

Now to integrate them all. An example from Painted Jade (unpublished) opens with all of the above: Working security on the top side of a conglomerate-built drift makes you a traffic warden in any gated community anywhere. You spend your days petting the dogs and smiling at the nice ladies. Or, if you’re me, trying to reverse that process. Troubles happen way down the bottom, where the ore processors and overcrowded labor force are located. Not my turf. I’m up here with the shiny clean management and their families. Low crime? Try non-existent. So it was unusual, to say the least, to get a morning report about a body bobbing against a pricey porthole high up on C7. A human body, not a stray hunk of rock freed from the asteroid belt. The dome owner objected less to the body proper than to it blocking his view of ore-blasting among the asteroids.

This opening encompasses all three of the keys: world-building, character, and unique element to the crime. The space habitat, the mining industry and the rudiments of a class structure are set out immediately. The point-of-view character’s job and general attitude are on the table up front. No other setting but space allows for the body, and all the evidence the killer left on it, to be perfectly preserved from the moment of disposal. Additionally, the space station serves like one of Agatha Christie’s isolated manor houses: all the suspects and the next possible victims are trapped in one place. The story could not happen anywhere else.

Thus, the essence of a nice, smooth blend of genres: integrate world-building with the lead characters’ actions, which also reveal their attitudes and attributes. Make the crime specific to that world, and the solution unique to those characters.

 

Jayne from steamconJayne Barnard is a founding member of Madame Saffron’s Parasol Dueling League for Steampunk Ladies and a longtime crime writer. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. Awards for short fiction range from the 1990 Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for PRINCESS ALEX AND THE DRAGON DEAL to the 2011 Bony Pete for EACH CANADIAN SON. Her longer work has been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in the UK and won the Unhanged Arthur in Canada. You can visit her at her blog, on Facebook or @JayneBarnard1