Last week I was somewhat disparaging about opening hooks of novels. Today I want to do a thorough analysis of the structure of Chapter 1 of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, because I think it is an example of an opening hook done well.
I read enough books on writing and listen to enough podcasts on writing that I might conflate a bunch of terminologies. Some of this will be Story Grid or Writing Excuses or classical Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Sorry for not sticking to one style of analysis.
The chapter consists of seven scenes or segments (some are quite short, so “scene” might not be quite the appropriate term).
The first paragraph let’s us know the narrator’s wife went out for routine drugstore supplies and wound up dead. This is the inciting incident for Act I, but also for the chapter and the scene.
King doesn’t tell us how it happens, and this is the hook.
What makes this a good hook is that this opening starts at the beginning of the story. This isn’t some artificial action to draw us in. He doesn’t tell us how she dies, and that is the driving force behind keeping the reader interested.
It’s the removal of information rather than the giving of information that makes this work.
The scene rounds out by the narrator looking at what his wife purchased.
King ends on a cliffhanger: the narrator sees something that indicates she might have been living a double life, but he doesn’t tell us what it is.
Now we have removal of information again. We want to know what the item is, and we want to know how she died.
I find it hard to imagine someone reading this first scene (less than 1000 words) and being able to put the book down. This hook is really, really good without being patronizing or condescending to the reader.
It opens with the wife leaving the drugstore. King establishes the narrative voice by indicating the narrator is a writer, and he’s only re-imagining what the scene looked like. He foreshadows the death of the wife being a car accident.
…there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there’s going to be either an accident or a very close call.
It shifts to two old women in their own car and a large truck barreling at them. What’s brilliant here is that Scene 1 set a lot of expectation.
We know the wife dies, but she doesn’t appear to be in the oncoming accident. This is how King creates tension in the scene. He prolongs telling you what actually happened by describing tangential things.
This gives the reader the chance to imagine her own scenarios: truck veers off into wife?
The narrator shifts to the truck driver telling him about the accident. This really ratchets up the narrative drive.
If the truck driver kills the wife, would he really be on friendly terms, talking about it to the narrator? Then bam. The truck hits the car with the two elderly women, and both are fine and the wife is fine!
This is a reversal of expectations.
The wife watched it happen, but then she falls down when going toward the accident. The tension in the scene increases as no one pays attention to the down wife.
This is narrative irony at work, because we, as readers, already know she dies, but we still get mad when people ignore her. It’s as if we think she could be saved if someone tended to her.
The scene, of course, ends with another cliffhanger.
We’ve resolved one mystery: how she died (brain aneurysm). As soon as it gets resolved, another is introduced. At the coroner’s, the narrator reminds us of the other unanswered question.
I told him what she’d purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.
Now we doubly want to know the item, because it prompted the double life comment and a question for the coroner. Dig that hook in deeper.
Because this is such a departure from the first scenes, there is a new, minor inciting incident for the scene. One of the relatives argues with the funeral director over the price of the casket. The narrator argues with this relative.
It gives conflict, but it is mostly a device to direct our attention away from the earlier question. In that conversation, the narrator tells him the wife was pregnant.
This is the turning point of the whole chapter. This reveal is made more shocking by distracting the reader right before giving it.
Our first questions have been resolved.
The unknown item was a pregnancy test, and the question to the coroner was to find out if she was actually pregnant.
But now we’re left with a new unknown: Is the child the narrator’s?
Our guess is no because of the earlier double life comment he made. We’ve also learned they were trying for eight years with no success.
We’re still at the funeral.
Some standard funeral stuff happens, and we get moments of grieving. Earlier, when King strung the reader along, I called this increasing narrative drive, but because of the resolution of the most pressing issues, this isn’t the case here.
This scene serves as a reprieve to the tension of the first three. It offers character development and empathy for the narrator. The main conflict is the narrator discussing with his siblings what to do about their parents descending into dementia from Alzheimer’s.
The scene ends with the brother of the wife not knowing she was pregnant either, and that the baby was a girl. We end with same questions as the end of the previous scene.
We get more dialogue as people leave to go back home after the funeral. This is more character development (we learn how stubborn the main character is and won’t ask for help, etc).
In the middle of the scene, an ominous warning is dropped.
“And be careful.”
“Careful of what?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know Mikey.”
In normal circumstances, we wouldn’t think too much of this, but it’s Stephen King. This serves as the next unknown source of tension. Who got the wife pregnant? And now, what should the narrator be careful of?
The scene closes with more symbolic foreshadowing. There’s a description of dark rumbling thunder in the distance as night falls.
To take stock, we built and built and built the tension and unknowns all the way to the turning point, roughly halfway through the chapter. Then we get two segments where we came back down for a bit.
But now he’s starting to turn the tension back up.
We are again in a totally new segment: the narrator, by himself, after the funeral.
So we get another minor inciting incident to get things moving again. The scene opens with the narrator having a crying fit. He calls it his “second crying fit,” which implies there’s going to be more.
The narrator hires a group of people to scrub his house clean. He keeps repeating that he feels like he’s in a dream.
Up to this point, it seems the obvious way to describe mourning. But now the words have appeared a few too many times to be without significance.
The scene ends by reminding us of the pregnancy test. He wants to rekindle that desire to find out what exactly happened.
New inciting incident.
In pre-cleaning for the cleaners, he comes across an open paperback the wife had been reading: The Moon and Sixpence. Side note: This book is about a man who abandons his wife and children to become an artist. Coincidence? Are we to believe the narrator abandoned his wife to be a writer?
What’s interesting is that every one of these supposed “clues” could be to throw us off. The narrator is grasping for anything to help him figure out what happened. But this doesn’t diminish their role in creating a strong opening chapter hook.
We find ourselves thinking: the book, the crying fits, feeling like in a dream, the pregnancy, the coming storm, what does it all mean?
The book takes on much greater significance, because the narrator looks at the page, reads some of it, recalls time with his wife in college when they first read it. So many words are devoted to this that we can’t help but feel this is the strongest clue we’ve gotten so far.
He goes into another crying fit and falls asleep.
In his dream, he tries to put the book back where he found it, but his wife is there. She calls the book her dust-catcher. She’s wearing what she was buried in. He wakes up. He checks for her, and she isn’t there in real life.
The chapter ends.
The overall structure is two builds with a turning point in the middle.
There is a main hook that takes most of the chapter to develop: what happened for her to become pregnant? But he starts with smaller more immediate hooks to get the reader into the story faster. The main question doesn’t make sense without the context of the characters being developed a little first.
The chapter has an ending payoff when he finally links the ideas of being in a dream and the book and the wife in the last scene.
Since this is King, we also have one extra cliffhanger for the end of the chapter. Was the last event a dream, or did he actually communicate with the dead wife somehow?
I’ve tried to call attention to just how many techniques are used by King to piece this complicated structure together. I think many newer writer misunderstand how to form a strong opening chapter.
It has very little to do with a strong “concept” or “action.” One must drive the reader along with various tension building techniques to an actual turning point and ending payoff. We see one of the masters do this in the first chapter of Bag of Bones.