I always liked the word hook, as writing terms go. Maybe it’s because I did fish as a kid…
(I realize that the fish should be turned sideways, so that it’s recognizable, for this photo to be any use as proof. Still. That’s me, and my first kill.)
It’s one of those metaphors that really works for me. Hook embraces the idea of the title as that first glimmer of a lure… and then the opening words or sentence, the first few paragraphs, get that opportunity to either grab the reader or let them get away.
No matter what term you use for it, a well-crafted opener is a must for fiction of any length. It’s the first thing a reader sees, and that’s true whether they’re reading purely for pleasure or because they are your dream agent and they want to consider representing you, you, you.
(Sure, there are people who will chew on through a few paragraphs of sawdust because they’ve liked your other published work, or because they’re completists who’ll finish anything once begun, or they’re your mom, or Harriet Klausner, or because it’s easier to keep going than to decide to switch to something else. But reaching the smallest possible subset of your potential readership isn’t the goal, right?)
So, how do hooks work?
Well, we’ve already established they make the reader want to read on. And want–desire, in other words–is an emotion. This is a lot of what fiction-writing is. You are trying to make the reader feel something.
Midway through a book or story, you can do something terrible to a character and that desire to read on will come from empathy. The reader will by then have befriended your characters, and they’ll want to see what happens next because they’re in a relationship of sorts with them. But early on, that emotional investment isn’t there. Imagine someone you’ve just met, who asks you to meet them for a coffee. If you aren’t pretty damn sure you like ‘em, you’ll put them off.
That said, it’s not impossible to evoke empathy for a stranger. If you start a story with “The two homeless kids…”, you’re probably going to find a fair number of people who’ll go a little further.
And why is that? Partly, it’s because homeless children evoke a strand of sympathy just by being big-eyed starving moppets. But mostly it’s because some part of the reader is thinking: the two homeless kids… what?
And that’s the emotional essence of a veritable ton of hooks: curiosity. That sense of What? is a comparatively easy emotion to evoke. You can take that pair of disadvantaged children, for example, and crank the mystery right up:
The two homeless kids…
…were down to their last bullet.
…fought in the dark over the leprechaun.
…had been dead for at least a day.
…definitely weren’t human.
…not only were identical, but bore a creepy resemblance to young Elvis Presley.
…broke into the magic shop at moonrise.
…flat out refused to talk, even after we threatened to charge them with espionage and insulting the dignity of a police horse.
…had silver eyes and arsenic-tipped fingernails.
You see what I mean. If you get a person wondering, they’ll read on. And then you can move into engaging other emotions–be it friendly feelings for the characters or the surprise of “Hey! I wasn’t expecting that!” Once that happens, you’re well on your way to reeling them all the way to the end.
Here’s a favorite curiosity-inducing opener:
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
And another, very prettily written by Stephen Barnes in Zulu Heart: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America:
In the verdant grasslands a brisk hour’s run from the coast, close enough for to spice the air with the ocean’s foam, thirteen solemn men sat circle, speaking of death.
Curiosity isn’t the only way to go, of course. There are other strategies, like…
Dialog is seductive to beginning writers–I see a lot of student manuscripts that open with speeches. The allure is that it lets you open with a character and a scene in progress. Someone’s saying something… to whom? The curiosity is almost built-in.
But, again, we don’t yet have a relationship with that character. So whatever it is that they say needs to be remarkable enough to catch our attention. If you want to open with two guys jawing over the weather over the back fence, either the weather should be life-altering or your way with voice better be as sure-footed as that of a mountain goat. “Well, Earl, we got the planting done and now it looks like rain,” just isn’t going to cut it. Though Jane Yolen comes close with Briar Rose:
Gemma, tell your story again,” Shana begged, putting her arms around her grandmother and breathing in that special smell of talcum and lemon that seemed to belong only to her.
(I looked hard for something really revolutionary, dialog-wise, on my shelves, and came up dry. Dialog hooks are hard! Help me, please, if you know of a good one? And hey–no “I” protagonists talking to the reader. That’s different.)
Here’s what happened, now I’ll tell you how: the classic example is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of the hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.
Running, Fighting, Chasing Each Other through the Trees: Another near relation of curiosity is suspense–opening with action. If the homeless kids in the above example are on the run, we’ll hang with them for a little while to see if they get away, and who’s after them, and why. A chase or a battle is inherently compelling. We want to know who wins. And, if over the course of that clash we come to know the players a little, to feel something for them and have a stake in their predicament, we’ll have three chapters read before we remember we meant to put the kettle on. (I’m going to talk about getting readers to like your characters soon, by the way, in another post).
Here’s a bit of action:
Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson: Roscommon came and laid waste to the garden an hour after dawn, about the time I usually get out of bed and he usually passes out on the shoulder of some freeway.
Start with character–Wherein you give us a look at someone, or better yet a glimpse into their soul:
The Rift, by Walter J. Williams:
He was a god to his people. He lived high above the earth, in the realm of his brother the Sun, and his rule stretched from the world of life to the world of spirits.
Expendable, James Alan Gardner:
My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance.
Not last, and certainly not least, you can set a hook with the aesthetic appeal of your prose. Setting out an authoritative and cool storyteller’s voice, something we just want to listen to… it’s a powerful thing, and powerfully hard to do, too. Here’s one of my favorite voice-y openings:
In the Woods, by Tana French:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the batts shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of hook types. I couldn’t possibly come up with them all. My hope is that by now you’ve got the general idea. Open any book you love, read the first two paragraphs, and analyze whether, how and why it gets your interest. Then compare it with your opener. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Try it: Here’s Roots of Evil, by Sarah Rayne:
It’s not every day that your family’s ghosts come boiling out of the past to disrupt your ordinary working day.
Why does it work? You tell me.
When in doubt, remember–you can put more than one worm on a story hook. So, my final hook type is this… Multibait! None of these tactics is mutually exclusive. A great hook is probably going to play on several reader emotions, and combine more than one interest-grabbing strategy.
But if you’re stuck, I recommend starting with curiosity. Dangle something shiny and mysterious, start the reader wondering, and get your tale underway.