Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Anatomy of a Hook

This morning, I was thinking about Six Word Stories. You know, the writing exercise inspired by Earnest Hemingway's famous short, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."  After lying dormant for decades, these literary bon mots surged back into popularity a few years ago. Here are a few of my favorites from the Wired Magazine collection:
"Longed for him. Got him. Shit." - Margaret Atwood
"Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so." - Joss Whedon
“I couldn't believe she’d shoot me.” - Howard Chaykin
"Tick tock tick tock tick tick." - Neal Stephenson
"Epitaph: He shouldn't have fed it." - Brian Herbert
Personally, while I enjoy reading Six Word Stories, I always objected to calling these things stories. With the exception of Margret Atwood's spectacular entry above, none of them have plot or characters. Nothing changes, no tale is told, therefore, I put forth that these short pieces (however clever) aren't stories at all. They're hooks, and when done right, they represent a perfect encapsulation of what makes us want to know more about a story.

"Hook" is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in writing about writing. You can't even search about "how to get an agent" or "how to write a book" without someone telling you that you have to hook your reader, often from the first line. And for the most part this is true, good advice, but when you use a word, especially a metaphor, so often and so exclusively, its meaning begins to leach away. That in mind, I thought I'd take a few words to stop the dilution cycle and talk about what the hook does mechanically in a story.

What Does the Hook Do?
As its namesake implies, the purpose of a hook is to "catch" a reader's attention. The starting point for all narrative is interest. Even before they've read a word, readers can be attracted by an evocative cover or a clever title, but the real kicker with hooks is that one is never enough.

This is where the fishing metaphor breaks down. Readers are not trout. You can't just have one powerful hook to pull them into the boat and leave it at that. Rather, you're enticing them to climb into the boat of their own accord, first with a good title, then with a good first line, then with good tension, then with plot twists. It's never done, it's always hook hook hook until they've reached the last page, and then you've got to hook them again for the sequel.

I actually wrote about this eternal hooking process in a post called Story Velcro. The basic idea is that if you want your reader staying up all night and turning pages, you have to keep sinking hook after hook into them until they're stuck to your book like velcro. And, of course, with so many hooks, you need to vary it up to make sure the reader doesn't get bored and the hooks become less effective as a result. So, let's take a look at what types of hooks we have to work with.

Because I enjoy dividing things into categories, I like to separate my hooks out into 3 broad classes: Big Ideas, Suspense, and Wit.

Big Idea hooks are exactly what they sound like: big ideas that capture the imagination and then use that thrill, that inspired curiosity, to make you read more. Because of their inherent Wow! nature, Big Idea hooks are often high concept, like the opening line to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan novel, Peter and Wendy, "All children, except one, grow up." This hook immediately sets out an impossible situation that makes the reader want to know "Why doesn't this child grow up? What's going on?" It also, coincidentally, meets the criteria for a Six Word Story. See how that works?

But the Big Idea hook doesn't have to be highbrow or complicated. It can just as easily be straight and to the point, like the exceedingly simple and highly effective "Snakes on a Plane," which is quite possibly the greatest hook of our generation. (Seriously, they sold the entire movie, millions and millions of dollars, on that line alone. Now THAT's a hook!) The essence, however, is the same. We hear a big idea, and we immediately want to explore it.

Sometimes the Big Idea is the core of the novel as well as the hook, the central spoke that everything else radiates off. Other times, the Big Idea is just one of several cards in the writer's hand. However it's used, though, the Big Idea hook packs the biggest bang for your buck. As Snakes on a Plane showed, people will put up with some pretty awful drek if they love the Big Idea enough. That said, Big Idea hooks rely on execution (i.e., how well you actually explore and use that Big Idea to tell a story) and can overshadow the narrative they're supposed to be pulling the reader into if used incorrectly (see the final two Matrix movies for an example of how Big Ideas aren't everything).

Long story short, the Big Idea is the Dirty Harry gun of hooks, and should be treated accordingly with respect and caution.

But while the Big Idea hook is the most flashy of the three, the Suspense hook is by far the most prevalent and omni-useful. The Suspense Hook is a line that rouses curiosity by implying an interesting situation without giving away the details. Going back to our Six Word Stories, Joss Whedon's "Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so," Howard Chaykin's “I couldn't believe she’d shoot me,” and Brian Herbert's "Epitaph: He shouldn't have fed it," are all examples of Suspense hooks. Each one is a tiny peek into a much larger, more complicated situation, a tantalizing hint of a vastly interesting story, and we as readers can't help but read the next line to find out what happens next.

"What happens next?" is, in fact, the core of what makes the Suspense hook work. You are hooking interest via that most powerful of human drives: nosiness. We always want to know what's going on, what are people doing, even if those people don't actually exist. A good Suspense hook grabs that curiosity and turns it into a page turning engine.

This sort of thing is the bread and butter of the Mystery and Suspense genres, but human curiosity exists everywhere there are people. So long as your reader is human, you can count on enticing them with a leading, suspenseful hook. Keeping them, of course, will require actually making that suspense pay off.

(On a side note, "Weather Report" openings (i.e., "It was a dark and stormy night") also fall into the Suspense category since they are there to create atmosphere, interest, and general What's going on?-ness in the world at large. That said, they tend to do this badly, because unless there's a hurricane bearing down on our heroes, weather is not in itself very interesting. There's a reason these openings get a bad rap, so unless you're dead confident you can knock it out of the park, I'd avoid trying to make weather into a hook.)

Finally, we come to my personal favorite hook: Wit. Wit hooks are exactly that: bits of writing so charming and interesting and well done that we will keep reading just for a chance at more. Jane Austen was a master of the art, and several of her Wit hooks are now well known lines everyone repeats. Even people who haven't read Pride and Prejudice know that "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." That's how good her hooks are, they hook themselves out of her book and into our cultural consciousness.

Of all the hooks, Wit is the hardest to pull off. It's a delicate and highly creative art that's insanely easy to mess up and depressingly dependent on individual taste. What one reader considers witty, another might consider overwrought or cutesy. That said, when done right, it can win you readers like nothing else. Even if they're bored stiff with the actual story and characters, people will keep reading so long as the text is packed with enough witty hooks to overcome the rest, which is a claim none of the other hooks can make.

That said, wit is not the same as good writing. Granted, many good writers are witty, but there's so much more to storytelling than being a good wordsmith. Your story should stand on the strength of its characters and narrative, not just because there's enough wit in the language to keep the pages turning. There are plenty of successful authors who survive by wit alone, but I wouldn't call them good writers, and I don't tend to keep their books past the initial burst of witty pleasure (or finish them at all, actually).

Special Addendum: Mixing Hooks
Just like in Food Science where the best recipes rely on mixing fat, salt, and sugar into ever more complex concoctions, the absolute best hooks come when you mix two or more of these hooks together. My absolute favorite novel opening of all time is the beginning of Deanna Raybourn's, Silent in the Grave.
"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."
This is an absolute perfect mix of suspense and wit. I want to know every single thing about what's going on here, and I am still grinning like an idiot over how charming it is. I bought the omnibus of her first three books on the strength of this line alone. A highly effective hook.

But as with everything in writing, the more you try to do, the better you have to be to pull it off. Mixing hooks is a delicate alchemy, and can easily blow up or fall flat if you don't get it just right. But again, as with everything in writing, the more you know about what you're doing, the easier pulling it off becomes.

Hey girl, this sounds great and all, but who appointed you grand poobah of putting things in boxes? Why do hooks have to be categorized, anyway? You're one of those crazy people who labels everything, aren't you?

... Maybe...

While I confess to a slight obsession with dividing nebulous ideas into workable categories...(What? Nebulous ideas defy examination by their very nature, and without examination, how can we improve? I must catch this cloud and pin it down...FOR SCIENCE!!!)

Ahem, anyway, the point here isn't that these three branches I've outlined above are some kind of Holy Trinity of Hooks. Quite frankly, while I of course hope that you like my categories and find them helpful, I don't really care one way or the other if use mine or make your own or say screw it all together. The point of all this, my dear reader, is to take the washed out, overused, high-school-lit-class-vocab-word hook and turn it into something useful again.

Though hooks are one of the most important concepts of writing, constant flogging has robbed the term of all its meaning, and the only way to get that meaning back is to divide, dig in, and examine. If this article has done nothing but make you pissed at how wrong I am about all this, then it's still done its job, because you were thinking critically about hooks, and that very act pours meaning back into a vital term that deserves so much more than an off the cuff, "everyone knows what this is" comment on a writing blog.

It's hard for me to express how angry I get when I see so many people talking about hooks, and yet saying nothing. "Something that hooks the reader" isn't enough. You can't define a term with itself, especially when that concept is the make or break point for a novel. It doesn't matter how good your book is, if you haven't mastered your hooks, no one is going to get past the first page. If there was one thing I would tell new writers to master above all, it would be the hook, because the hook opens the door to everything else.

Whew, that got long and technical, but still, I trust, enjoyable. If you're a writer, I hope this breakdown of hooks helps you find new, more effective ways to use them in at your own writing. If you're a reader, I hope this insider knowledge helps you realize when you're being tricked into reading a bad book supported by hooks alone (because who has time to read bad books?). Thank you as always for reading, and please feel free to leave your thoughts, good and bad, in the comments!

Yours as always,


Judith Smith said...

Of course, your categories are hooks, themselves. Three? What are they? Why three?

Mike Reeves-McMillan said...

I bought the first Eli Monpress largely because of the first sentence, but I kept buying them because of the everything else.

Alyssa said...

I got the Eli series because stealing something no one would miss... like the king. That's quite the hook.