I’ve talked before about the opening of a story and some of the things that can go wrong with the all-drama, all-action, all-the-time “hook.” But it occurs to me that I haven’t talked much about what a hook is, or how to do it right. Hence today’s post.
Openings are important; nobody denies that. In my mother’s collection of writing textbooks from the 1930s and 40s, there are chapters and sections on the importance of the opening, complete with admonitions to hook the reader. But something interesting happened along the way from then until now.
Back in those early how-to-write books, the opening, even of a short story, was considered to be the first manuscript page – basically, 250 to 300 words, comprising several paragraphs and quite a few sentences. Over the years, that shrank from the first page to the first paragraph, and then to the first sentence. “The opening is vitally important” became “The first sentence is vitally important.” Sometime between then and now, the emphasis changed again, until these days you can hardly find a how-to-write book or blog that doesn’t advocate writing a first-sentence “hook” that’s dramatic, dynamic, and full of action.
When you stop to examine it, the assumption behind the “dramatic, dynamic, action-packed hook sentence” advice is that drama and action are The Best Way to grab the reader’s attention. The trouble is that a) there is no The Reader; there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who don’t all like to read exactly the same thing, and b) a dramatic, action-packed opening may be inappropriate for a particular book (one that, say, is chiefly about a quiet romance between a shy scholar and his introverted next-door neighbor).
But even the book about the shy scholar needs a first line. So let’s drop all the how-to advice for a minute and look at what a hook actually is.
A hook is an opening that makes the reader want to keep reading. Sometimes, this can be as much as the first chapter, but these days when people refer to “the hook,” they usually mean the first sentence, first paragraph, or the first couple of sentences/paragraphs (usually if the paragraphs are a series of snappy one-liners).
In order to make the reader want to keep reading, a hook has to do three things: 1) it has to catch the reader’s attention; 2) it has to provide a reason for the reader to keep reading; and 3) it has to do both things in a way that is true to the story, characters, and plot that follow. #3 is not strictly a property of the hook, but of the match-up between it and the story. If your opening sentence is “At full speed, the two trains bore down on each other, racing along the track toward their inevitable fatal crash” and then you reveal some paragraphs later that these are a couple of model trains and the story is a sentimental tale of a small-town Christmas in 1940, you are likely to annoy your readers so much that not only will they skip the rest of this story, they won’t pick up anything with your name on it ever again.
Drama and action tend to be eye-catching, which is why they’re so often advocated as important in a hook, but there are a lot of other things that intrigue people. Gossip, for instance – why else are there all those magazines and papers full of stories about the relationships of people most of us have never even met? Mysteries, large and small – things that seem unexpected or out of place, yet there they are. Striking personalities, whether eccentric or merely emphatic. Sometimes a build-up of details will do it, or a sudden twist of prose.
Hooking the readers isn’t about action. It’s about telling them something interesting, something cool, something exciting. (Years ago, one of my writer friends hung a sign over his computer that said “Now I am going to tell you something cool” to remind himself.) And “exciting” is not synonymous with action. People get excited when their favorite singer releases a new album, as well as when they’re on the first downhill rush of the rollercoaster. Some of us got wildly excited last year when they found the first extrasolar planet in the zone where life-as-we-know-it can exist.
The thing to remember is that even the folks who advocate the in medias res action openings aren’t advocating action because they think action is the only right way to open a story. They’re advocating it because they think that action will catch the reader’s attention and give him/her a reason to keep reading.
Too many writers hear all the emphasis on action, and forget about the reason behind it; they end up with openings describing a car crash or a sword fight that isn’t particularly interesting. They comply with the letter of the directions, but not the spirit.
Part of why they do this is that their heart isn’t in it in the first place. They don’t want to open in the middle of a chase or a laser duel, but they think they have to. And while it is very true that sometimes a story will require the writer to write about things that he, personally, finds uninteresting, one doesn’t want to be doing it in the first sentence. Because it is very, very difficult to take something that you yourself find boring and write it so that readers will find it compelling. In the middle of a book, one can manage it by embedding the boring bits in sections of stuff that one is interested in, but in the first line, there isn’t anything else to surround it with. And unless the writer is very good and very advanced, it’s going to show that he’s not terribly interested in what’s going on in the opening.
If you aren’t excited and intrigued by your first couple of sentences – if what you’re saying in them doesn’t make you want to write more, just to find out what comes next – they aren’t likely to grab your readers, either.