Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hooks and the cart that goes before the horse

Hooks-- too many opening hooks seem designed not to open the story but rather just to have a hook-y first line.

But we all know that hooks sell.

The problem is, often the hook just confuses, because it's meant not to let the reader in on what's going on, but to be clever and cute and use buzzwords, or set up some ironic contrast, or... well, hook the reader.

Too often I read first lines that are "hooks" and then the story actually starts, and that hook just serves to confuse. It doesn't lead into the opening of the scene, or set anything up beyond the hook itself.


The first time Aragon saw his future mistress, he was knee-deep in naked women. (Hook) The victory celebration was held in the Headless Pig tavern on the outskirts of town. When Aragon entered, he saw two of his friends from the regiment standing at the bar, glasses raised-- (Opening)

Now notice that there's a break in continuity-- presumably the hook event (meeting mistress) happened AFTER the opening event (Aragon entering tavern). That's not necessarily bad (the hook might be sort of a topic sentence previewing the point of the whole event. But the discordance of sequence might matter, might confuse the reader, and so that should be something you notice -- there are always tradeoffs, and a common tradeoff to starting with a hook is that you mess up the chronological sequence of the scene.

Also how would you feel if you were the reader and you read that hook (where there's "mistress" followed immediately by "naked women") and assume sensibly that "his future mistress" means the woman who is to share his bed... but it turns out the "mistress" is actually his future boss (the mistress of the estate where he becomes head gardener or something)? Would that be fun for you, or annoying? Again a tradeoff-- misdirection can work to set up a theme of deception, or it can, um, annoy the reader by being deceptive. That is, you might think about whether this is amplifying or setting up something beyond just the cleverness-- and again, what are the tradeoffs?

Another danger is that you design the opening scene NOT to introduce the protagonist, set up the situation, hint at the conflict, all that good book stuff, but to provide an "answer" to the "cute question" the hook has set up. For example, that "knee-deep in naked women" is a good phrase, but if the scene is designed mostly to get the women in the bar to take their clothes off and lie down on the floor, the hook has actually harmed the coherence of the story. The opening scene should do more than develop the hook.

I think most of us can tell when a hook is designed just as a hook, when it isn't integrated into the story. That can work for some comic stories where you want to keep the reader off-balance. It might also work for some thrillers (oddly, I keep realizing that in many ways, thrillers and comedies are similar in structure, I guess because both are meant to provoke an involuntary response). But "begin as you mean to go on" is usually a good guideline. If the rest of the story isn't provoking, dislocating, deceptive, comic, clever (and most aren't, and aren't meant to be), a hook might be false advertising.

The best hook might not be self-consciously clever, but a first paragraph that intrigues in a more subtle way. (BTW, those of you who like to write in deep POV, hooks are seldom in deep POV. They tend to be more omniscient because they are often sort of an ironic comment on the situation-- and irony tends to be omniscient.)

If you must have a hook....
I'd suggest trying to write the opening scene to set up the situation, introduce a major character, start the conflict-- the usual opening purposes. Then, once that's done well enough, then read it over and let the hook derive from the scene. What's a major device in the scene, for example? Hooks often play off some opposition or conflict or unconventional take on the situations. Like if your protagonist is quite old, but will be acting like a baby (whiny, adorable, whatever), the hook might be something about: Tom was the oldest baby in the nursery. Okay, hooks are NOT my forte, so don't expect much in that line from me. :)

Sometimes you have a great hook and just can't help but use it. Heck, I've known writers who have come up with a hook-y first line, and then written the book around it. A couple thoughts then-- write the hook. Put it away. Write the book. Go back to the hook and make the hook and the book fit together. That is, make the book work without the hook, then make it work better with the hook.

Also, the hook, if you insist on using one, has to be honed. It's actually a bit of poetry, isn't it? It's impressionist rather than expressionist. Also, a hook will usually involve (like poetry) some word play, some language-pleasure, a pun or a twist on a cliche. You can't waste a single word in a hook, so experiment with different constructions and word orders. and don't forget the connection of "hook" with music (a lot of pop songs have a hook)-- balance and rhythm have to be perfect for a hook to work.

But you know, just as you have perfect pitch or you don't, you probably can either write hooks or you can't. Don't force it. Most stories are not going to benefit from a hook opening, so first make sure that the book should have one, and then make sure you're capable of creating one. (No shame in not being able to... hook-writing is a minor talent, not a major one.)

One other thought-- hooks can sometimes be used in query letters and the synopsis, even if they don't work in the opening scene.

Just never lose sight of what really counts- the story, the characters. Don't let any aspect, especially a hook, detract from that.


Anonymous said...

Nathan Bransford did something on first pages a while back. Every submitted a first page to the blog, and he quickly saw a pattern. Many people thought to have a hook, you need a body on the first page--which often came off as gratuitious and unnecessary.

I remember reading a book where it opened a thief (the main character - thriller) who was rapelling a wall and saw something like a naked woman being tortured through a window. He didn't save her; he instead tried to escape and got arrested. The hook felt very gratitutious, even after the writer made a second passing reference to the woman being tortured later in the book. It just was never that important in the story and always felt like a gimmick to me.

Anonymous said...

Is the violent prologue followed by the dull first chapter featuring different characters and setting an extended form of this same kind of problem?

I see that combination in a lot of the books posted in public crit sites.

Anonymous said...

I have become really leery of obvious "Look at me!" first lines. I tend to like an opening line that invites the reader in, rather than waving its arms and trying to impress. I think that's why "Call me Ishmael" is still cited as a good opening line--the narrator is sort of holding out his hand to the reader.

At the moment, my very favourite opening line is "Look out, mama, there's a white boat coming up the river." I'm already worried about the speaker and his mother and I don't even know who they are yet.

Wes said...

A great post that is timely and needed. Can't this statement be expanded? "......and irony tends to be omniscient"...... Wouldn't irony work just as well by having a character point out the incongruity of a situation?

I'm also concerned about the apparent need to have a hook in the first line of a query. It seems to me that in some genres such as historical there should be latitude to spend a sentence setting up time, place, historical situation before using a sentence like "Tom Smith faced the challenge of his life when........". What are your thoughts on the opening para in a query for historical fiction?

Julie Harrington said...

I like opening hooks that share a unique observation (I think it helps establish a tone and what you can expect from both the characters and the writer), find a unique way of saying something (no cliches), but always is relevant to the overall story. Some of my favorite books don't open with amazing, astounding OOoOh wham-bam action or anything. They start simply, straightforward, but most importantly? They start in the right place. I think that's where most people get confused with what a "good" opening hook means. It's not about car bombs or chases or naked whatever. It's about dropping the reader into the story at just the right place, at the right time, and making it matter.

I still recall a book I read where I loved the opening. I read the first page and bought it on the spot. It sold that book for me. Then? Later? Halfway through? The book just completely lost me. Sigh. I still feel reader-bitterness about that.


Wes said...

Yes, JT, you are exactly right........ "It's not about car bombs or chases or naked whatever. It's about dropping the reader into the story at just the right place, at the right time, and making it matter."

Riley Murphy said...

Ah the old: ‘is the hook a crook?’ Forgot who coined that...Alicia, do you know? I heard the term from my son one evening when he sent me a text. He was in his favorite place (the bookstore) and wanted me to check the reviews of three different books before he put the money out to purchase one of them (frequently, he reads the first few paragraphs of a novel to get the feel and tone of the book...and even being this careful he's been burned a few times - hence the text for back-up). So, every time I hear someone talking about the necessity of needing ‘a hook’ I think about my son - there in the bookstore, lurking...waiting for me to tell him if one of those books was going to live up to their spellbinding hooks.

It was a good lesson for me. Readers are smart. If you have a good hook that sets a certain reader expectation or experience and then doesn’t deliver? (As in, bait and switch) You open yourself up to distrust and this could be the kiss of death for any ‘would be’ successful writer - even if you never used a ‘hook’ again.

This was a great reminder Alicia! I especially liked when said: Put it away. Write the book. Go back to the hook and make the hook and the book fit together...cause then your readers won’t peg you as a crook and will want to buy your next book!:)

Happy St. Paddy's Day everyone!!!!

Riley Murphy said...

Wes, I never thought about it but, I think you are right on point about a hook for historical fiction in a query...unless of course your hook started with a time period identifier like:

Jenson Marlow wiped his brow, pulled up the blood-soaked sheet with one hand and placed the wilted bouquet of posy to his nose with the other, absently wondering as he counted the weeping black spots that dotted his beautiful dead wife’s skin, how many more were going to die today...?

Kinda of morbid, but gives you a hint at time frame, right?

And JT said:

I read the first page and bought it on the spot. It sold that book for me. Then? Later? Halfway through? The book just completely lost me. Sigh. I still feel reader-bitterness about that.

You see? That hook was a crook. You need a reviewer connection - want me to ‘hook’ you up? No pun intended..:)

Edittorrent said...

garridon, yes, that sounds like an invented scene, just to establish a hook. If it doesn't matter to the plot, should it be in the opening?

Anon, yes, I think that violent prologue/dull first chapter is similar-- "Begin as you mean to go on." There might be some tone change... but how would that best be handled, a real change between the prologue and the first chapter? I had that problem in a book-- action-filled prologue (not violent), then a quieter, maybe dull opening, and I love the book, but still wonder if readers felt cheated!

coney, I do think hook-y first lines get attention. Reviewers often quote them. But I think you're right that they do best if they're more than a hook, if they actually lead into the story. One I remember is (Elizabeth Peters, actually the title, I think): The last camel died at noon.
Establishes the setting (somewhere with camels, at noon), and the dilemma (desert, no camels, high noon). It's also clever.

Wes, irony on the book scale tends to be (but doesn't have to be) omniscient, because it's an overall comment on the whole situation, probably including the character. But a character can do it too. First person POV often uses irony (or its poor stepsister, sarcasm), though the true irony (comment upon the narrator) is often subtextual.
Hooks in queries-- they can work, but I think the same rules apply-- that is, the hook has to be consistent with the tone and type of book. And "cleverness" especially isn't going to be a good teaser for a lot of books.
JT, that's so true-- there's a good way to start this book. What is it? Where is it? When is it? Often the scene does this, but the hook might get in the way almost, even a good hook.

Murph, that's interesting... like even doing a hook well can cause trouble.

Julie Harrington said...

I once heard about an author who asserted that, as long as you had a solid hook and gimmick and first 3 chapters, you stood an excellent chance of being accepted because the publisher could then have a good back cover blurb, excerpt, and opening to pull the reader in and make them buy... and that the rest of the book wasn't that "important" because the reader had already purchased said book.

All I could think was, well, yeah... but if they're like me? That reader has a handy list of author names to avoid the next time they're in the bookstore so they don't get burned like that again.

I want to tell a good story, sell a good story and gain a readership following because I do those things. Sure some ideas and stories might be more marketable/pitchable/gimmicky, but the gimmick just gets you in the door. You still need to deliver a solid product. But then I guess maybe that's where the business of publishing and the art of writing might fork off?

I mean, here we are talking about writers who pull the bait and switch with their hooks. If I put the shoe on the other foot, why do publishers "allow" (for lack of a better word) it? Why don't they have the writer revise the opening to more accurately reflect the book? Is there a business perspective here to go with the writers pov?


Edittorrent said...

JT-- Good question. I will front page, though I direly suspect I have not answered the question.