Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writing 101 - The Hook

The clock is ticking. A potential customer just picked up your book. You have sixty seconds.

Sixty seconds. The time it takes a casual browser to scan your first page. Sixty seconds to make them want to read more, and for you to make a sale. Your cover and title did their work, and the back cover blurb piqued their interest. Now, in the first few paragraphs, you have to deliver the goods.

Sure, you have a lot of back story to generate in order to properly set the mood and pacing. Your story deserves preparation, and there is a lot to explain. Do it in the first page and you are finished. Your reader just moved on to the next book. You have just learned the cardinal rule – your reader’s expectations come first. Somehow, you have to deliver a scene that has impact and fits with your plot’s central theme, all without any prior setup for your character or story. Welcome to the “hook”.

A hook is just what it implies. It is a short scene designed solely to suck a reader in. Whether a prologue or first chapter, the first paragraph is the sharp point I use to jab a reader’s interest with. Then comes the barb in the following paragraphs to make them want to keep reading. While one can have a hook waiting at the end of a chapter to enhance the feeling of “I can’t put the book down.”, I am primarily going to talk about the hook at the very beginning.

Here are the general guidelines I use when crafting a hook:

1. It must be orientated toward action. This can be either physical action, or thought/dialog that raises enough alarm as to make the reader realize something is about to happen. In short, there must be drama. Too many new writers start out with their character in a safe situation – sometimes waking up in a warm bed. Oh yeah – that is really exciting stuff.
2. It must “show” more than “tell”. Nothing slows pacing like narrative and the information dumps they spawn. I try and keep narrative to a minimum, and concentrate more on showing an exciting setting rather than provide any background material. That can come later. This is another spot where new writers trip up. They are so eager to show this world they built, that the hapless reader is subjected to a long history lesson or grand tour of a land they have not had a chance to care about.
3. The scene and incident within it must conform to the general theme of the story. The reader will expect this. The last thing I want is for a reader to think that what they are reading has nothing to do with the title or back cover blurb that drew them in.
4. The scene must not appear to be contrived. Readers are smart enough to recognize that a scene is a red herring – placed there just to grab their interest. The opening scene, for me, should be the foundation upon which the rest of the story is built upon – not some incidental piece of fluff.
5. Building on both #3 and #4, a hook is not the place for me to show off my character. My intent is to show off my character through interaction with the story they are faced with. Taking the reader on a wild hunt just to show how good a hunter the character is means nothing for me if the hunt is not integral to the plot.
6. The hook is where you put your BEST writing foot forward. Perfect grammar. Perfect spelling. Excellent sentence construction. The works. First impressions are final impressions the moment the reader encounters sloppy work. Your entire pristine manuscript can be damned by one misstep at the beginning.
7. Never do flash backs into the past. Your hook must be in the present. Anything else is old news with no drama (your character obviously survived, right?).

So, there you are. Sometimes the hardest part of a story isn’t trying to find an ending, it is to find a suitable place for the beginning. Writers may find that their real story begins three chapters into the novel. So must their hook, which calls for some difficult decisions as you consign several chapters to the cutting room floor.

A word about prologues. Often, writers only think they need them. In many cases, the prologue is really the first chapter. The same rules for the hook apply if you do decide to have a prologue.

So, do I practice what I preach? Here's my hook for my latest novel - Waiting Weapon:

Jaw sagging, Richard Pinn watched the woman drift out of the crumbling inner wall. The apparition was not human, but one of his own vanished race. She wore a white blouse whose sleeves were richly embroidered with tiny brown and green fish. Me’Aukin Totemic symbols, he realized. The woman’s diminutive slender figure was enhanced by a hip-hugging green skirt that swirled around matching evergreen trousers. She had shoulder-length black hair sweeping around a narrow nose and thin lips. Large doe-like eyes seemed to burn with an inner torment. “Jamie?” he whispered.

“Rick?” Andrea’s voice came from over his shoulder. The freckled archeologist walked next to him, dusting dirt off of her rumpled red plaid shirt. “Um...Jamie’s back up at Kenner’s Basin and you’re staring at a wall.”

“I’m looking at a Me’Aukin woman in her late thirties.” Rick blinked his eyes, but the vision didn’t go away. His hallucination turned, paused, and looked over her shoulder at him.

“Meora Co’Oden,” she whispered. “Tanee, th’repes me’oke, du’tene Weth.” Turning, the image vanished into the wall.

“She just said that her name’s Meora from the Family Tanee of Clan Weth.” He looked at Andrea’s widening eyes. Rick gave an uncertain laugh. “I think I just saw a ghost.”

“I think you’re getting out of here,” Andrea replied with a stricken look.

Rick put a gentle, yet firm, hand on her arm. He felt far more fascinated than terrified. “It’s all right.”

“All right?” She pointed down the hall with her light. “You stand there like you’re in a trance, and tell me it’s all right that you just saw a ghost?”

“I don’t know what the hell I saw,” he replied, moving down the hall after the specter. “I do know that she was heading toward the dome room. It could be a hologram.”

“That I couldn’t see or hear?” Anguish pulled at Andrea’s lips as she stepped in front of Rick and turned to block him. “This place is dead, Rick! No activity... nothing!” Her voice softened. “You so badly want to find them, don’t you?”

He took a deep breath. Andrea stabbed to the heart of his desire with her usual accuracy. “Ok, maybe that’s more of what’s going on here.”

“You think?” Andrea snorted. “Your race slaughtered all the humans trying to share this world with them, then ran off leaving you and Jamie stuffed in a jar for a few centuries. That’s enough to make anyone want to see things.”

Rick gave the wall a skeptical look. “Just the same, I’ve hardly got a history of hallucinating.”

“No, but you do have a history of empathic, and possibly even telepathic episodes.”

“Only in those experiments with Jamie back at the Institute...which I’d like to forget, thank you.”

Andrea nodded slowly. “Well that, at least, makes some sense to me. Ghosts don’t. Jamie’s not another world away now. This could be some sort of subconscious communication between you two. Something new that’s manifested since you two parted ways.”

He gave a thin smile. “The only thing communicating between us is how much we can’t stand each other’s company.” Rick gestured down the hall. “Let’s just head down to the dome room. That’s where she seemed to be headed.”

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