rewind: hook me in.

| Friday, March 19, 2010
Today's Tune: Wash Away

I'm going to be super lazy today and repost an entry I wrote months ago, because I'm tapped for ideas at the moment and busy with a Big Project (not writing related). So, here's something about hooks!

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Hooks, as we all know, are the gateway to our story. They're the opening line or lines - the collection of words that are supposed to pique interest and suck the reader into reading beyond the first page. There are a ton of books (probably literally) on hooks and how to write them, what makes a good one, etc., and I thought I'd give my own personal spin. I've selected several hooks that spoke to me personally, and I'll be musing on why exactly they captured my attention.

I'll start with a big one: dropping your reader into the middle of an action already in progress. In media res. Here are some examples I particularly enjoy.

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
- The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

"Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door."
- 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a classic hook. Your reader is placed right in the middle of the action, and left with questions they want answered. Who is the man in black? The gunslinger? Who's holding the knife, and why? WHO'S AT THE DOOR??? It's a highly successful way to draw the reader in and get them to keep going. They want to know what's going on. So now that you've got them, you have to keep the interest high, or else they may become bored or frustrated.

The next hook is one I like to think of as the "Fairy Tale" hook. It has a "Once upon a time..." quality to it. Examples:

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun."
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

"Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing."
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

I know, right now you're thinking "lol Catcher in the Rye, what." But it has the feel of what I'm going for with this type of hook. They all give a feeling of storytelling - the narrator is settling down and is going to tell us a story. At least, this is what they say to me. "Once upon a time, there was a whiny phony named Holden..." Anyway. This hook works because it's familiar. We've all been told a story at some point or another that started this way. "Gather 'round and I'll tell thee a tale." We assume it's going to be something interesting, so we stick around. The question is, "Why are we following this man from Spain with the lance and shield? What's special about him?" Read on to find out.

Another hook that often sucks me right in is a hook that immediately shows me I'm dealing with a world nothing like my own.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
- The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
- 1984 by George Orwell

"Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen."
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Right away, I'm thrust into a new world, and I want to know about it. Fantasy novels often start like this. Being as into fantasy as I am, I am interested in hearing about this new place. What is a hobbit? Why does he live in the ground? Why is the clock striking thirteen? Clocks only go to twelve in my universe! Why does Lyra have a daemon, and what is it for? These hooks are often grounded in the familiar, but throw in an element that lets us know we're dealing with something otherworldly, and they do it right away.

Last one I'm going to talk about is the one I think of as the "Lead In." It bears some similarity to the others, but isn't quite as fleshed out.

"The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman

"All children, except one, grow up."
- Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

"It was a pleasure to burn."
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

These are the hooks I read and then think, "Okay, you got me, I'll bite." They raise the immediate question of Who? What? Why? Who is the child that doesn't grow up? Why is it a pleasure to burn? Why are you telling me about Buttercup and the most beautiful woman in the world?

In writing all that out, I've come to a conclusion as to what hooks speak to me personally: those that make me ask a question that I want the answer to. "Who is that? Why are they doing that? What story are you going to tell me? What's happening here?" Now, these aren't the only sorts of openings that reel me in. I will start and keep reading a book that doesn't have a great hook, but great hooks really stick in my mind. And then I write blog posts about them.

Also, I'm not every reader. I like to read, and I'll try just about anything once, even if I end up hating it. Other people aren't that open. They want their attention grabbed and kept. You need a powerful hook to do that. You want someone who picks up your book to open the first page to see if it grabs them, and then not put it down. These are some effective methods of doing that, and are some that I often try to incorporate into my own work.

Think of the hooks that grabbed you, and ask yourself why. Then try a similar tactic with your own writing. What hooks speak to you?

3 comments:

{ Shelley Sly } at: March 20, 2010 at 10:58 AM said...

Thanks for reposting this. A decent hook is vital for me when picking up a book, because I don't have the best attention span. I prefer a hook that either throws me into action, or makes me ask questions about who, what, or why. I realize I'm only one reader, but describing the setting doesn't work for me -- unless, as you said, it's a fantasy setting with elements that we don't have in real life.

{ Portia } at: March 20, 2010 at 6:24 PM said...

These are great! I particularly like The Raven. I remember reading it again and again when I was a kid (and probably going through a "goth" phase).

{ Paul } at: March 30, 2010 at 3:31 PM said...

Nice examples. I'm hooked.

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