You have one opportunity to engage your reader, draw them in and capture their interest in your story. We know how difficult it can be to convince a family member to read about an ancestor they’ve never met. Why should they read your family history? Although, a great story is partly a result of your research, it will not resonate or entice a reader unless you learn how to shape it, frame into a story, with a beginning, middle and end. It must engage with action, plot and characters, and it must convey a meaning to your reader. How many times have you read a family history that begins like this, Helena Phelan was born in Ireland in 1824? Nothing about that sentence makes me want to read further, how will that sentence encourage a family member to read on?
The beginning of your story should contain several elements, and a careful arrangement and combination of these elements are at the heart of creating an engaging opening that will dive the reader deep into the story. Let’s take a look closer at these building blocks to a great family history story.
First lines are important in setting up the reader to ask a question. The hook is a component introduced early into your story to catch your reader’s attention. The exposition introduces us to the character, setting, conflict, and theme, each of these needs to be present in the right amount without distracting us from the story. The inciting incident sets your ancestor on a path of change. Today, we’re going to look at the hook and inciting incident, their similarities and differences and how to use them.
The inciting incident is your first plot point, the moment all things begin to change for your ancestor. (We’ve discussed this in the guide). If it comes early enough in your story the inciting incident can also be your hook. Your first plot point gets the plot in motion, therefore your first plot point can be your inciting incident, but your first plot point cannot be your hook as well. If you use your inciting incident as your hook, be prepared to identify a first plot point. Understand, this is about placement, the first plot point usually occurs about the 25% mark, as I’ve indicated in the story arc in the guide. The hook happens earlier.
The hook occurs early in your story. It is an event that will capture our attention and throw us into the action. It doesn’t have to be a big event, but it usually proposes a question, that may be answered by the end of the first chapter or early in the story. Once it is answered, another question quickly follows. The hook must be relevant to the rest of the story, don’t insert an event for drama that does not fit your plot or theme.
Let’s go back to Helena Phelan and identify a hook and inciting incident. Rather than start with a statement of fact, start your family history with a dramatic moment, a moment in Helena Phelan’s life. Maybe it was the day she arrived in North America, or meeting her future husband, or the death of her father, or sudden death of her husband but it must relate to how we framed the story. We want to open our story by re-creating a scene that shows this event in Helena’s life. Find the moment that sets her on a path of change. At the end of her story, Helena Phelan is changed perhaps both externally and internally but the reader is changed as well.
Let’s take a closer look at Helena Phelan and how we can set up her story to capture the reader’s attention.
The Frame of the Story: Helena Phelan becomes a prominent and successful business woman with a strong voice in her local community.
The Hook – We open the story with the sudden death of her husband James Stapleton. Helena Phelan is left with a farm, no money, six months pregnant with her sixth child. It grabs the reader’s attention and we are left wondering how Helena will manage.
The Inciting Incident – This is the event that will start a movement toward change for Helena Phelan. Perhaps the bankers are on her doorstep after her husband dies, looking to take the farm, or she can’t put food on the table for her children facing a harsh Canadian winter and the impending birth of her child. Maybe giving birth to her last child months after her husband’s death triggers a decision in Helena to move her family from the farm and home they know. There will be some obstacles along the way, these are your plot points, but the change has been set in motion by the knock on door from the bankers, or the birth of the child. This inciting incident should set us up with a question, what is going to happen? How will Helena Phelan survive without her husband and move beyond the circumstances she finds her in and the hope is the reader will want to read more?
Plan your hook and inciting incident carefully and plot them on your story arc (you’ll find it in our Getting Ready to Write Guide). They are your first chance to engage your readers into your story and leave them wanting more.