On The Hook
May 28, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Jennifer Silva Redmond
I was recently asked how writing/publishing has changed in the past decades, especially as it pertains to “hooking” readers. Writer friends mention that they keep rearranging their books’ openings to satisfy those gatekeepers who say every author needs to “get to it” more quickly.
I can only report from my own point of view, as an editor who works in many different genres and whose clients’ books are successful with readers, get excellent reviews, and win awards. In addition to overdoing exposition and description in the first pages and chapters, one of the chief reasons agents and editors pass on otherwise fine manuscripts is the lack of a “hook.”
Yes, today’s writers often hear that they need to hook people on page one, that only action or drama—or laughter, of course—will do that, and that it all has to happen right away! Something must grab readers in the first few pages (often on page one), and keep them reading.
In days of yore, authors could take time to “bait the hook” as it were, to spend pages, often chapters, getting to the crux of what the book was about. (Some of this is because Victorian authors—some of whose works I adore—were paid by the word, so why not go on and on?)
But shorter and quicker is not always better. A big literary surprise in recent years was the success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which many people (including some reviewers) found tedious and slow, but which I loved. I think the first line of the book hooked me because it is so mysterious:
While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.
I kept reading to figure out how that happened and why.
People read books about people, we don’t read novels to learn about ideas and concepts and philosophies, we read to hear about—and perhaps better understand—people. So, a hook needs a character, hopefully your main character, doing something that reveals or illuminates that person to us. Perhaps the character is still living in the “Eden State” of a story—before the inciting incident—but it had best be an active, visual, and somehow exciting one.
What hooks us in almost every case is the same, in my humble opinion: characters doing or saying things that hint at what is lacking in their life (as in the Goldfinch example), or what is so perfect about their life—right before it all comes crashing down. So, if we want to show cruelty in a person, we don’t have to show them hurting someone on page one, but we could show casual cruelty: crushing an insect under their boot heel, or throwing something at their pet.
One of my favorite works of creative nonfiction, Bruce Berger’s Almost An Island, opens with a paragraph that includes the line, “Longer than Florida, longer than Italy, Baja California is an eight hundred-mile dead end” and goes on to describe it as “a shaft of desert surrounded by the substance whose scarcity defines deserts…” But after describing the peninsula’s ever-popular coves and beaches, he concludes with “…my idea of a good day at sea is to lie on a hot rock reading Conrad.” Berger’s opening intrigued me with poetic visuals of the natural world, but it truly hooked me with its humor, letting me know with a personal aside that the book wouldn’t read like homework.
The prologue of Marilyn Woods’ just-released memoir The Orange Woods includes the sentence:
This is not a story about grief or art or making wine or Mother Nature, although all figure prominently throughout. This is the story of a peaceful pastoral paradise where I lived for twenty years.
Those ideas and images are pretty darn irresistible to the right reader, so she didn’t need to manufacture any artificial drama.
Clearly, every genre has “rules” that need to be followed. With genre comes expectation. You can’t write romance and not introduce your main character in a way that tells us why or how she is “looking for love” or definitely not looking for love, which might amount to the same thing. Some genres have to open with a murder, or at least a dead body. But the hook should also relate to a book’s theme or story, in some way, no matter how obscure.
The question to ask yourself is this: What is my book about? If you can “pitch” the book in a sentence or two, you know what it is about. And if you know that, then the opening should be easy to decide on, because it will be a scene that tells us the most clearly who the book is about, and why we should care.
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, specializing in memoir and nonfiction adventure travel. She has worked on books including The Dining Car by Eric Peterson, Wheels Up: a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel and Soil-Man by Oz Monroe. Find out more about “Jenny Redbug” and her work at jennyredbug.com.