Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Writing Hooks (Not Crooks)

By Kat Feete
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 this:

"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 crook?

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 exposition.

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.



Works Cited

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 0-933377-46-0.