Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Hook

I've got one completed (relatively) WIP, and I keep finding the completion to be rather illusive, as I've mentioned in the past. What I'm struggling with right now is where to begin the story, as my critique group is counseling me that I've not started the story in the right place.

As a result, I've been paying particular attention to the beginnings of some of the books I've read recently and thinking about books I've read in the past. I remember when I first read Stephen King's Salem's Lot. My husband and I were both active duty Army stationed in Germany. He had CQ duty and had to stay awake all night on assignment, so a friend loaned him this book. The way he described it to me was something like 'it started out kinda slow but then grabbed me by the throat and dragged me the rest of the way through.' (That book scared the crap out of me, by the way. I tried to read it and had to give it back. I'd just had a baby and decided I couldn't be a responsible adult if I was afraid to walk down the hallway when I was home alone at night with the baby. And then I decided I wanted to read it after all and couldn't get hold of it until we returned to the States--months later.).

But it begs the question. Is our need to provide the 'throat grabbing' right in the very first paragraphs of a book a reflection of changing tastes in our society? Have the high action films (and books) that thrill viewers (and readers) addicted us to the adreline rush, so we're no longer satisfied with a story that takes time to develop the characters and the plotline?

It makes me wonder how some of the classics would do in the modern publishing world? Can't you just see Jane Austen or Herman Melville or even Milton querying for an agent?


  1. I think it's more of a grab you by the throat with interesting goings on. Not necessarily action, death, excitement, and all. But just something that is WAY more interesting than a girl waking up, or some guy taking a shower, getting ready for work. It MUST be interesting for some reason. Something must be grabby with the beginning, make people want to know more, and want to find out how the story developes. But that's just one opinion. Action openings do seem to be making a round lately though.

  2. i love this post. i've thought about this a lot too. it kind of bugs me that we are expected to start books in such a "grabbing" way. we should be able to start it the way we want to start it! but at the same time i think its true that we live in that kind of world now where people want to be entertained. and of course they have the freedom to put our book down and never pick it up again if they aren't. (sigh) its a dilemma. good luck.

  3. The opening of the first chapter can be one of the toughest parts of the WIP. I agree with Colene in that it doesn't necessarily have to start with action as long as there is something intriquing that will keep the reader reading and the writing is good. As far as the story not starting in the right place, I've heard this before and actually critiqued pieces where I saw a better place to start and pointed that out. Sometimes it was because there was too much backstory, or what was in the beginning wasn't relevant to the story at all. What I've heard recently (from that Webinar) is that the inciting event should be within the first few pages. So they want to see the life changing event happen to that character soon. I think this is a result of our societies ever shortening attention span. :)

    Okay, whew, I blabbered on - sorry for the long comment.

  4. Good points, Colene, Natalie, and Kimberly. A couple of my Facebook friends responded there, and they made excellent points.

    Mary said:
    Donna, I am one of those that don't have the patience to see if a book is going to (get) good. If the first Chapter doesn't tell me something that will keep me interested I am done with it. I may have cheated myself out of some good books..., but there are many many books to be read and I don't want to waste my time with bad ones. Example is The Tommyknockers (stephen King) I read more than half the book. (don't remember much about it to this day) It went nowhere, in my opinion. I gave up 3/4 of the way through. The hook was actually there but then nothing. I won't give a book that much time without getting more in return.

    Bert (college English professor) said:
    That depends upon what you are writing, what purpose and audience you have in mind.

    Usually, the term "hook" applies to fairly modern short article writing. The idea is that one should write a magazine article or newspaper article in a manner that if a reader picks up the writing during a television commercial, when the pr...ogram comes back on, the reader is more likely to want continue reading rather than watching the program.

    Here's the kind of opening line one would expect from such writing: " 'Sh**t' said the Duchess." There is a "hook."

    If that is the only kind of writing that is going to be read, say goodbye to Dickens, Austen, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc., etc. Even J.K. Rowling wouldn't survive if we insistent on being enthralled in the first 200 words.

    I'm learning to understand the need for meeting what the public needs now, but I also agree with Bert.

  5. A hook doesn't have to be action. Look at TWILIGHT--Bella gets ready for school. It's only interesting because of WHY she's in the new school (which we don't know right away)--and because Meyer is an awesome writer that makes us care about her.

    Classic non-action books also have strong hooks-- "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife." Who wasn't hooked by that? No action, no one in danger--just a bunch of fortune-hunter women trying to get hitched.

    Deciding where to start a story is hard, though. Conventional wisdom is to start just before your MC's life changes. Skip the background. Robyn Carr told me once that her editor routinely hacked off the first several pages of her books--she was always starting too early. She says that's a mistake many new writers make.

    Meyer didn't explain in the first chapter that Bella is a mini-adult who sacrificed herself to live with her father in a town that she hates so her mother could be happy touring the country with her new baseball-playing groom (because that would have been boring): it took several chapters to get that information out. Instead, Meyer started with the interesting stuff: a teenage girl starting at a new school in the middle of the semester. We don't know all the reasons why, but we relate because we've all been a teenager who wanted to fit in.

    Austen didn't start with an explanation that the Bennets needed to marry well because their father couldn't pass on his estate and THEN relate the news that the perfect man had moved in. She started with the inciting incident--the place the story really started to roll. A single man of great fortune moves in. Mrs. Bennett decides he must marry one of her girls. The WHY comes later.

    I'd suggest you look at your WIP and see what is conflict and what is explanation and characterization that you're assuming must be understood by the reader before they can understand why the confict is so horrible. (If that makes sense.) Cut off everything that isn't conflict, chop it up, and sprinkle it through your early chapters. You don't have to start with the main story conflict, but you should have your MC striving for something from page one.

    The more the reader can understand what the MC wants and can root for the MC to get it, the more the reader is hooked.

    While I'm at it, I have to mention The Way of Kings--Kaladin rides in a slave wagon. We don't know where he's going or how he got there, but we know he USED to want to be free. Probably still does. We want him to be free--more, we want him to WANT to be free. Knowing that, we're willing to ride with him through a lot of boring country. Kaladin's main inciting incident (on the edge of the cliff) doesn't happen for a few chapters, but we care deeply about him before we know much about him--because we can see his internal conflict. Even though he's leading with the internal conflict, Sanderson doesn't explain Kaladin--he lets us watch him and try to figure him out ourselves.

    Hope that helps.

  6. Great comment, Robin. Dang, but I love Kaladin's character. I was always disturbed when we moved to the women's storyline.

    It's just interesting how many people read WIP #1 and felt they were hooked. So now I'm trying to figure out how to make a jigsaw puzzle of it.

    I remember a comment made by Orson Scott Card's (publisher? Bova?) who sent back 'Ender's Game' for some tightening. He said it's one of his greatest concerns because some authors (1) aren't humble enough to make changes and/or (2) actually make the problem worse.

    Methinks within #2 lies the challenge.


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