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Apr 3, 2009


My next post was going to be on Endings. However, the thoughtful comments to my post on Beginnings made me want to linger a bit longer on the subject of Hooks.

We are told all the time, "You must hook your reader!" But what about the quiet set-up, the story which opens like a wide-shot of the landscape which shapes the story, or a close-up on a character? Must every story start with action and danger?

In short, must every book begin with a sentence as dark and striking the first sentence in Neil Gaiman's  The Graveyard Book:
"There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife."
In a word -- no.

Not every book has to begin with darkness, knives, or the slaughter of the protagonist's family.

Every story needs a hook. But not every hook involves action or physical threats.  A hook which is understated, subdued, focused on character, is perfectly acceptable in a book which is focused on character. Take the first two lines of The Kite Runner:
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the ally near the frozen creek.
The first line tells you that this will be a book primarily about a man's soul. By the end of the first paragraph, and more strongly by the end of the first chapter, we learn it will be a story about redeeming a man's soul. 

The second line further tells you that the book will explore a world of crumbling mud walls, far from the experience of most American readers.

The hook is strong because it makes the reader ask what single event made this man who he is? What was so terrible about it that he must find a way "to be good again" as it says at the end of Chapter One? And if it was so terrible a thing, how can he change or make up for it now? The hints and details in Chapter One -- mud walled alleys, kites, Kabul -- deepen the mystery by promising that to understand this man, you must also come to understand the world which shaped him.

The bait on your novel's hook depends on the kind of reader you hope to reel in. If you are the kind of reader who likes books with which run silent but deep, this is probably also the kind of book you're writing, and you will bait your hook accordingly.

Of course, it's not a rule that you can't begin a book about character with a description of the setting, or begin a book in which the world-building is the primary reward (much sf and fantasy) with a character, or a character book with a bomb. I suspect, though, it's easier to Begin As You Mean To Go On, and focus the camera as soon as possible on the theme of your novel. As for your hook,  I suspect it wouldn't work at all unless it was aligned with the rest of the book.


lisa and laura said...

I think the perfect opening is very difficult to come by. We always end up rewriting our first 250 words about a million times before we settle on something and I'm sure that if an editor ever got a hold of it, they'd want even more changes. I always love reading the first sentance of a book because I know a lot of thought and heartache went into writing it.

Janet said...

I always manage to comment after Lisa and Laura - and usually come up with the pithy response of 'ditto' :)

The first sentence, first paragraph, first page has taken on such importance as agents' inboxes are fuller than ever before. And since discovering MSFV, I realize that the hook at the beginning of the book is different for each reader.

But, for me, that first page must set the tone for the rest of the story.

I'm glad you continued your discussion of beginnings, Tara. Thought provoking as usual.

PurpleClover said...

The hook is something I struggle with myself. I appreciate your post about this. It can make a big difference when trying to captivate a reader and like you tend to write the types of books you read and therefore the hook will be accordingly.

Hooking is definitely an art. ...and I mean the book hooking...not the other one. Although I don't know. Maybe it is. I'm not a hooker so I can't say. buwahahahaha. (that was my steve colbert impression by the way)

Janet said...

Forgot to ask - is that an original Tara mermaid adorning your post today? I love it.

Davin Malasarn said...

Great post. I agree with you completely. The God Of Small Things comes to mind. I think that starts with a rather long description of the rain.

Tara Maya said...

Yes, it's one of my mermaids. :P

SunTiger said...

How about THIS for a "hook" in the beginning . . .

Tugging the wire with a pair of pliers only aggravated the accidental piercing further. Edwina began to howl. How did she ever step behind the fisherman at the precise moment he would throw back his cast and catch her cheek with with his fishing lure?

{Not my best writing . . . but I loved your suggestions and thought it might be fun to put a literal HOOK into it.}

IF you don't mind and it's not too off-topic for your blog . . .
You are now tagged. You must now blog at least 3 suggestions for saving money. It’s not because we all have LESS money than we did two years ago. We just all want to save money where it doesn’t hurt so we can SPEND more cash -- or donate it – on much more worthwhile projects and experiences.
Ideas can range from using half as much toothpaste and just see if your teeth don’t remain just as pearly white as before to saving cash by shopping for coffee on Amazon. We don’t care WHAT your three ideas for money-saving is all about (just that you share it).

Brightest blessings. Look forward to reading your “save money” content soon.

scott g.f.bailey said...

This is an excellent post, and got me thinking about my first chapter, which I revised about a month ago and am about to rewrite because you brought up the fine advice to "Begin As You Mean To Go On." This gave me a Bright Idea (and an email this morning from Young Mr. Bowman also gave me a push) and now I must make notes.

But first, yes you are right. You must focus on the theme of the story right away. You don't need action or excitement, but you do need to begin telling your story by Telling Your Story. Your mention of "The Kite Runner" is a great example of this, and also I think points out why it's hard to write beginnings: too often when we start out, we don't yet know what the story is about, so we don't know what we're beginning. Which gives me the opportunity to say yet again that we should Know How Our Stories End Before We Start Writing Them. I know people think that sucks all the creativity out of writing. Those people are mistaken.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Ah, yes, I received a comment on Authoress's blog that said something about the beginning being boring because the character was just standing there thinking. I assume the reader thought it was boring because I then went on with a fight scene. I have since changed that because the focus was in the wrong place.

The "hook" has to be a hook for what the book is, not just a hook to reel the reader in to something that isn't there. If that makes sense.

Great points made here!

Ban said...

oooo, another good one. love the painting btw, saw your other works so i just assumed it was yours. i like a lot of what was said. was told myself, recently, that i should rethink my opening as it didn't start where the story started ... had to ponder that awhile but i realize it was good advice. i was spending too much time 'setting up' the story. that is probably because i first started writing for my benefit not a readers'.

Tara Maya said...

Lisa and Laura - Yes, the first page and the last page are the two I sweat over the most.

Janet C. - I think agents are even harsher judges of the first page than ordinary readers.

PurpleClover - I'm snickering. Not gonna go there! LOL

Davin - I had in mind the two possible opening you shared with us a while ago. Both of them, it seemed to me, had a hook, even though one involved boys playing and the other a murder.

SunTiger - Oh no! A literal hook. LOL. And, hm, spend LESS money? That's going to take some Deep Thought. Now if you had asked me to suggest three ways to waste MORE money...

Scott - I completely agree, you have to know the ending before you can find your true beginning. Which is why, for me, the beginning of a book, the REAL beginning is often the last thing I write. I start a book somewhere, just to start writing, but I know I won't know if this is the real beginning of the story until I've written the end. That's why my next post will be on endings, even though I haven't written my book yet. :)

Lady Glamis - It makes perfect sense. That's just what I was trying to say.

Ban - I agree, your story draft starts in the wrong place; you don't need to give all the background you do up front. But don't feel bad. As I mentioned above, you often don't know where your story really ought to start until you write it. In revisions you can find your real beginning and work on slipping your lovely world building into other parts of the novel, bits at a time.

Ban said...

thanks for the 'second' i feel much better now :)

Unknown said...

I love to think that my first sentence and my last sentence in my my book are the best. But that's just me :D

Danyelle L. said...

Very nice post. I think writers sometimes drive themselves crazy trying to hook everyone with the same hook. As you pointed out, it won't work out. We're all different types of readers, so it's important to know who you're aiming the hook at. :)

Unknown said...

So ironic--I literally just started reading Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book TODAY, about three hours ago, and I thought to myself, "Wow, what a great hook."

Perfect timing!

scott g.f.bailey said...

Tara Maya:

Yay, endings! I am seriously considering writing my next book from back-to-front. That will require a pretty solid outline, but that's the point.

Traci said...

Great post! I agree with brings us back to doing what is best for our book. It is our creation after all. I can't even count the number of amazing books that I have read that did not hook you in the first sentence. Or even in the first chapter at times.

I have been studying lit for years and writing seriously for just a short time. Sometimes I am quite surprised at the rules that are in place for writing a good book. Especially when I can name many SUPERB books that didn't follow these rules.


Sherrie Petersen said...

Beautiful mermaid, and great point about the hooks. I think we all stress about the opening because people are impatient and you really need to give them a good reason to stay with your story. It's a lot of pressure!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Hooks are so important. I am doing a post on this very topic for my Writing a Novel series on Monday. I was interesting to get your take on it. Thanks for the post!

Jessie Oliveros said...

I spend way too much time on hooks. In the end it is going to change so many times, it should probably be the last thing I write.