Writing Hooks (Not
By Kat Feete
The concept of a hook is one most
writers will be familiar with. It refers to the first line, paragraph, or
page of a story, or sometimes a hazy entity encompassing all three. It's the
first impression a reader has of the story and the first impression an
editor or agent has of a submission: for both, it may mean the difference
between buying this story and buying something else. It's the part of the
story which draws the reader in, which says to them, "This is the one you
want to read." In today's world, with so many stories flooding the market, a
good hook is essential.
A crook is a hook that lies. The
most blatant version of the crook has been used by some of us -- probably by
many of us. We are educated writers, knowledgeable about the market and its
demands. We know how important a hook is. We know that editors and agents
rarely read past the first page of a manuscript and that readers generally
flip to the first page to see if they'll like the book. And so we write a
hook that is full of conflict, bursting with excitement, a hook calculated
to have the reader hanging off every word, begging to know what's next. We
know there's nothing worse than a boring hook.
So we open our stories with something like
"My baby! Won't somebody please save my
poor Lucille!" Maryann sobbed.
The problem is, the majority of us have not
written the story that goes with this opening line. We've written another
story, a good story, but not a dramatic, suspenseful, conflict-laden one.
We've written the perfect opening, but that's not going to help us when, a
page or two later, we have to admit that we're telling a different sort of
story entirely and Lucille is the cat and she's rescued by page two, and
never plays a part in the story again.
That's a crook: when you bait the reader
with one story, and then swap it for another; when you create a set of
circumstances that have nothing to do with the story you're telling just to
create a "good" hook. It is a new variation on the same shell game played by
con artists, insurance brokers, and used car salesmen all over the world,
and with exactly the same purpose: to get money out of people who wouldn't
otherwise have spent it.
I would argue that there is one thing worse
than a badly written opening, and this is it. Not only is it a trick, but
it's not likely to be a successful one. No one likes being conned, not
readers and not editors; nobody likes a crook. Conditioning your audience to
distrust you is a terrible way to start a relationship.
More than that, you've just lost your true
audience, the people out there who don't enjoy suspense and conflict that
much but who might enjoy a story about a ditzy cat-lover. These people
didn't bother reading beyond the first line, because you, the author, were
telling them not to. They may be a far smaller audience than the first, but
they're yours, and your shell game has distanced you from them.
But a dull hook attached to an exciting
story is another kind of crook. It, too, deceives the reader into thinking
the story behind it is something other than it is -- that is, that the story
is dull. How can you get past this? How to write a good hook that isn't a
The Story's the Thing
Where most of us go wrong is focusing on
that ideal conflict-laden opening, the one guaranteed to bring in readers
and sales. Forget conflict, excitement, and sales for the moment. What the
hook does is represent the story. It tells readers what to expect from the
story as a whole. If the reader likes that kind of story, that will be
excitement enough to draw him in... and if he don't like that kind of story,
you didn't have much of a chance anyway.
So the first step is to identify what is
most important about your story. All stories contain four main elements:
people, plot, setting, and style. In most stories, one of these four will be
more important than the other three. What element of your story do you
expect people to be most drawn to? Which sets it off from other, similar
stories? What do your first readers compliment you on the most?
Some of this will be genre-dependent.
Romance novels will mostly be character-centric, mysteries likely to focus
on plot; only speculative fiction and historical novels can easily get away
with being setting-centric, while literary and comedy are the genres where
style-based stories are most acceptable. Within those generalizations
there's much room to move and many, many exceptions, and within those
general categories you must still narrow things down further. It may be that
characters that are the best things about your story, but there is one
character -- your protagonist -- who is the best character of all. It
may be plot that people read your stories for, but there is one plotline
-- the main one -- that they really want.
That strongest element, whatever it is,
must be present in the hook. The hook should encapsulate what readers
will find in your story. If your main character is a swaggering,
sharp-tongued hoyden with voice coming out her ears, don't start with
a two-paragraph description of the setting. If your story centers around a
fascinating race of dark-eyed, six-armed aliens, don't start with the bland
and faceless human scientist who studies them. If your story is mostly about
the events that cause a war, don't start with long-winded political
Only in the last case would it be
appropriate to start with a bomb going off, unless the bomb shows something
interesting about the hoyden or the aliens. I don't mean to suggest that
the other three elements of your story shouldn't appear at all. But the
supporting elements exist only to define your main element. You aren't
interested in the bomb going off; you're interested in the hoyden demanding
to know how it got there and who set it while she fearlessly defuses it, or
the aliens doubtfully noting that this human device seems to be unstable,
perhaps it has been left here by mistake?
Even then, you must be careful not to
upstage your central story. Bombs, knives, and dead bodies are as dangerous
in fiction as in real life; readers have a disconcerting tendency to focus
on them to the exclusion of all else. Nor will they be happy to discover
their mistake. If the element they thought was the most important is
dismissed within a page or two, never to return, then the reader, too, is
not likely to return. If you introduce a dramatic attention-getter in the
hook, then you had best be certain your story can stand up to it.
But note that focusing in on your central
element does not mean telling everything about it. In the hook, less is more
and detail is dull. Even if you're writing a character-centric story, it is
a bad idea to tell people in your hook that she's six feet tall and blonde,
was born in Indiana, and has two brothers and a sister, and her mother died
two weeks ago. People are not yet interested enough in your story to read
all that detail. Even if they read it, they won't remember it.
This is where conflict comes in handy.
There's nothing better than a fight, a bomb, or a little action to make
things interesting. But conflict, as has been noted, has its own problems,
and direct conflict may not fit your story. "Conflict," Ursula LeGuin
writes, "is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any
human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering,
parting, changing." She adds, "Change is the universal aspect of all these
sources of story." If you're struggling to introduce conflict into your
story, try focusing, instead, on change. If your hook seems dull, see if
anything changes in it, or if you aren't describing the world as it was
before change began. It doesn't have to be a big change; it doesn't even
have to be the main change, though it should echo or lead into the change
that is the story. The most famous fantasy story ever written starts not
with a battle but a birthday party. Tolkien was not writing about a great
battle, although that, too, occurs; he was writing about a great journey and
a leave-taking, and so he starts with a small one. Motion and change: those
are the seeds of any story, and the hook is the seed of the story that you
plant in a reader's mind in hopes they will want to let it grow.
Avoiding the Crook
People, plot, setting, and style exist in
every story. Change exists in every story. Writing a hook is the process of
finding them and using them to attract the attention of your readers.
Time-consuming, yes. Headache-inducing, yes. Impossible to create a good and
fitting hook? Never.
There is no need to invent things to create
a good hook. What's more, when you do invent them, you're not writing a
hook. You're writing a crook. It doesn't matter how good the crook is: if it
is tacked on to make your story attractive to editors or publishers or some
vague, nebulous "market," if it doesn't represent the real story, then it
will be attractive neither to the market nor to actual readers.
Finally, always remember: the best hook in
the world gets you nowhere if it's not attached to a good story. Don't spend
months agonizing over the first three paragraphs of your story. Until you've
reached the end, you won't be sure how the story begins anyway.
LeGuin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft:
Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the
Mutinous Crew. The Eighth Mountain Press, Portland 1998. ISBN