The HookBy: K.M. WeilandReaders are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel themin, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish,readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your storyunless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.Our discussion of story structure very naturally begins at the beginning—and thebeginning of any good story is its hook. Unless you hook readers into your story from the veryfirst chapter, they won’t swim in deep enough to experience the rest of your rousing adventure,no matter how excellent it is.The hook comes in many forms, but stripped down to its lowest common denominator,the hook is nothing more or less than a question. If we can pique our readers’ curiosity, we’vegot ‘em. Simple as that.The beginning of every story should present character, setting, and conflict. But, inthemselves, none of these represent a hook. We’ve created a hook only when we’ve convincedreaders to ask the general question, “What’s going to happen?” because we’ve also convincedthem to ask a more specific question, such as “What scary reptilian monster killed the worker?”(Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton) or “How does a city hunt?” (Mortal Engines by PhilipReeve).Your opening question might be explicit: perhaps you open with the character wonderingsomething, which will hopefully make readers wonder the same thing. But more often, thequestion is implicit, as it is, for example, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “Lizzie Leigh,” whichopens with a dying man’s last words to his wife. All he says is, “I forgive her, Anne! May Godforgive me.” Readers have no idea whom the man is forgiving, or why he might need to begGod’s forgiveness in turn. The very fact that we don’t know what he’s talking about makes uswant to read on to find the answers.The important thing to remember about presenting this opening question is that it cannotbe vague. Readers have to understand enough about the situation to mentally form a specificquestion. What the heck is going on here? Does not qualify as a good opening question.It’s not necessary for the question to remain unanswered all the way to the end of thestory. It’s perfectly all right to answer the question in the very next paragraph, so long as youintroduce another question, and another and another, to give readers a reason to keep turningthose pages in search of answers.339Beginnings are the sales pitch for your entire story. Doesn’t matter how slam-bang yourfinish is, doesn’t matter how fresh your dialogue is, doesn’t matter if your characters are so realthey tap dance their way off the pages. If you beginning doesn’t fulfill all its requirements,readers won’t get far enough to discover your story’s hidden merits.Although no surefire pattern exists for the perfect opening, most good beginnings sharethe following traits:● They don’t open before the beginning. Mystery author William G. Tapley points out,“Starting before the beginning…means loading up your readers with backgroundinformation they have no reason to care about.” Don’t dump your backstory into yourreader’s lap right away, no matter how vital it is to the plot. How many of us want to hearsomeone’s life story the moment after we meet him?● They open with characters, preferably the protagonist. Even the most plot-driventales inevitably boil down to characters. The personalities that inhabit your stories arewhat will connect with readers. If you fail to connect them with the characters right off thebat, you can cram all the action you want into your opening, but the intensity and thedrama will still fall flat.● They open with conflict. No conflict, no story. Conflict doesn’t always mean nuclearwarheads going off, but it does demand your characters be at odds with someone orsomething right from the get-go. Conflict keeps the pages turning, and turning pages arenowhere more important than in the beginning.● They open with movement. Openings need more than action, they need motion.Motion gives readers a sense of progression and, when necessary, urgency. Wheneverpossible, open with a scene that allows your characters to keep moving, even if they’rejust checking the fridge.● They establish the setting. Modern authors are often shy of opening with description,but a quick, incisive intro of the setting serves not only to ground readers in thephysicality of the story, but also to hook their interest and set the stage. Opening lines“that hook you immediately into the hero’s dilemma almost always follow the hook with abit os stage setting,” and vice versa.● They orient readers with an “establishing” shot. Anchoring readers can often bedone best by taking a cue from the movies and opening with an “establishing” shot. Ifdone skillfully, you can present the setting and the characters’ positions within it in aslittle as a sentence or two.● They set the tone. Because your opening chapter sets the tone for your entire story,you need to give readers accurate presuppositions about the type of tale they’re going tobe reading. Your beginning needs to set the stage for the denouement–without, ofcourse, giving it away.If you can nail all these points in your opening chapter, your readers will keep the pagesturning into the wee hours of the morning.340FIVE ELEMENTS OF A RIVETING FIRST LINEBecause your ability to convince the reader to keep reading is dependent on your hook,it must be present as early as possible in your first scene. In fact, if you can get it into your firstline, so much the better. However, the hook must be organic. Teasing readers with a killeropening line (“Mimi was dying again”) only to reveal all is not as seems (turns out Mimi is anactress performing her 187th death scene) not only negates the power of your hook, it alsobetrays readers’ trust. And readers don’t like to be betrayed. Not one little bit.The opening line of your book is your first (and, if you don’t take advantage of it, last)opportunity to grab your readers’ attention and give them a reason to read your story. That’s agargantuan job for a single sentence. But if we analyze opening lines, we discover a number ofinteresting things. One of the most surprising discoveries is that very few opening lines arememorable.Say what?Before you start quoting the likes of “Call me Ishmael” and “Happy families are all alike,”take a moment to think about the last few books you read and loved. Can you remember theopening lines? The very fact that these unremembered lines convinced us to keep reading untilwe loved the books means they did their jobs to sparkly perfection. I looked up the first lines offive of my favorite reads from the last year:When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the childsleeping beside him. (The Road by Cormac McCarthy)It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. (TheName of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss)They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. (My Cousin Rachel by Daphne duMaurier)On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for hissleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speakingrelentlessly of this world. (East of the Mountains by David Guterson)What makes these lines work? What about them makes us want to read on? Let’s breakthem down into five parts.1. Inherent Question. To begin with, they all end with an invisible question mark. Why isthe other side of the bed cold? Why are these characters sleeping outside in badweather? How can silence be divided into three separate parts? Whom did they hang in341the old days—and why don’t they hang them anymore? And why and how has BenGivens appointed the time of his death? You can’t just tell readers what’s going on inyour story; you have to give them enough information to make them ask thequestions—so you can then answer them.2. Character. Most of these opening lines give us a character (and the rest introducetheir characters in the sentences that follow). The first line is the first opportunity readershave to meet and become interested in your main character. Guterson ramps thisprinciple to the max by naming his character, which allows readers that many moredegrees of connection.3. Setting. Most of these lines also offer a sense of setting. In particular, McCarthy, duMaurier, and Rothfuss use their settings to impart a deep sense of foreboding and to setthe tone of the book. The opening line doesn’t have to stand alone. It is supported byand leads into the scaffolding of all the sentences and paragraphs that follow.4. Sweeping Declaration. Only one of our example books (du Maurier’s) opens with adeclaration. Some authors feel this is another technique that’s fallen by the wayside,along with the omniscient narrators of Melville and Tolstoy. But the declaration is stillalive and well, no matter what point of view you’re operating from. The trick is using thedeclaration to make readers ask that all-important inherent question. “The sky is blue” or“a stitch in time saves nine” are the kind of yawn-infested declarations that leadnowhere. But if you dig a little deeper—something along the lines of William Gibson’s“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—you findnot only a bit of poetry, but also a sense of tone and the question of why? that makesreaders want to keep going.5. Tone. Finally, in every one of our examples readers can find the introduction of tone.Your first line is your “hello.” Don’t waste it. Set the tone of your story right from the start.Is your book funny, snarky, wistful, sad, or poetic? Make sure we find that core elementin your opening line. Don’t hand them a joke at the beginning if your story is a lyricaltragedy. Opening lines offer authors their first and best opportunity to make a statementabout their stories. Play around until you find something that perfectly introduces yourstory’s character, plot, setting, theme, and voice. Your opening line may be as short asSuzanne Collins’s. It may be longer than David Guterson’s. It may be flashy, or it may bestraightforward. Whatever the case, it needs to be an appropriate starting line for thegrand adventure that is your story.342Examples from film and literatureNow that we’ve got a basic idea of what a hook is and where it belongs, let’s consider a fewexamples. I’ve selected two movies and two books (two classics and two recent), which we’lluse as examples throughout this series, so you can follow the story arc as presented in popularand successful media. Let’s take a look at how the professionals hook us so successfully wenever realize we’ve swallowed the worm.Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): Austen begins by masterfully hooking us with herfamous opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession ofa good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The subtle irony gives us a sense of conflict from thevery first and lets us know that neither the wife in search of the fortune nor the man in search ofthe wife will find their goals so easily. Austen deepens the pull of her hook in her openingparagraph by further highlighting the juxtaposition of her opening statement with the realities ofher plot, and then deepens it still further in the entirety of the opening scene, which introducesreaders to the Bennet family in such a way that we not only grow interested in the characters,but also realize both the thrust of the plot and the difficulties of the conflict.It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): Capra opens with a successful framingdevice that hooks the reader with a sneak peek of the climax. The movie opens at the height ofthe main character’s troubles and immediately has us wondering why George Bailey is in such afix that the whole town is praying for him. Next thing we know, we’re staring at an unlikely trio ofangels, manifested as blinking constellations. The presentation not only fascinates us with itsunexpectedness, it also succinctly expresses the coming conflict and stakes and engages thereader with a number of specific need-to-know questions.Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): The opening line to Card’s acclaimed science-fictionnovel is packed with hooking questions: “‘I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened throughhis ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.’” Just like that,Card’s got us wondering how the speaker is watching and listening through someone’s else’smind, who is the one, what is the one supposed to do, and why are they settling for a “one” whois less than perfect? He then successfully builds his killer opening into a scene that introduceshis unlikely hero, six-year-old Ender Wiggin, just as his life is about to change forever.Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): As a brilliantadaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Aubrey/Maturin series, this movie is unusual in anumber of areas, not least in its non-formulaic tone and plot. Nevertheless, it follows therequirements of structure to a T, beginning with its stark opening, showing the morning ritualaboard the man of war HMS Surprise. Aside from arousing our natural curiosity about theunique setting, the hook doesn’t appear until a minute or so into the film when one of the sailorsspots what might be an enemy ship. The film never slows to explain the situation to the reader.It carries them through a few tense moments of uncertainty and indecision, then, almost withoutwarning, plunges them into the midst of a horrific sea battle. Viewers are hooked almost beforethey see the hook coming.343Takeaway valueSo what can we learn from these masterful hooks?1. Hooks should be inherent to the plot.2. Hooks don’t always involve action, but they always set it up.3. Hooks never waste time.4. Hooks almost always pull double or triple duty in introducing character, conflict, and plot—andeven setting and theme.Our hook is our first chance to impress readers, and like it or not, first impressions are usuallymake or break territory. Plan your hook carefully and wow readers so thoroughly they won’t everforget the moment your story first grabbed them.NOTE;Separate essay by themesYou must have a way to read this in class
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