Tuesday, September 23, 2014

And there...dangling bloody from the door handle....was THE HOOK!

Seriously, can I get a show of hands? How many people actually remember THAT old campfire tale? 

That's not what I'm talking about today though. I'm talking about a different kind of hook. The writing kind.

In writing terms, the hook is the first line, or paragraph that catches your reader's attention and draws them in. It makes them want to read the rest of the story.

Now, despite what some authors think about hooks. I think you're okay with a little leeway. After all, nobody is going to read the first line or paragraph of your book in a complete vacuum. They'll have seen the cover, read the description, know the genre, and possibly even the author's name and style a little bit. Depending on their interest, they might even have read some of the reviews.

That doesn't mean you can slack off. You need to pull people into the story as quickly as possible so they want to know what happens next. Many well-read people will give a new book a couple paragraphs, a page at most to catch their interest. If you can't manage to stir something in them by then, they'll put the book down and possibly even mark you as an author to avoid.

The question then, is what makes a good hook. The answers vary as wildly as books and genre's do. Honestly, it's actually easier to talk about what doesn't make a good hook, than the things that do.

So, things to avoid.

If your story requires the reader to have knowledge of how the magic or certain technologies work in your world, that's fine, but don't start the whole book with a chapter explaining the intricacies of your system. It's boring, and tells us nothing about why we should keep reading. Some people may like it, but then, some people actually enjoy reading legal documents too. Of course, there will always be exceptions, and if your book is targeted specifically at those readers of legal documents, feel free and be happy. The general public, however, is likely to read a couple pages, get bored, and pass the book off on the first person they see.

Slice of Life vignettes
Some people get carried away with character introductions. They have us meet their main character or two, and follow them around on a regular day before the events of the story actually begin. While it does make some sense from a writer's point of view, to introduce the character and immediately try to make us connect with them, it's usually pretty boring. It's usually much better to work in references and remembrances into the story a bit at a time later on. This segment right away, especially if it goes on for a while, doesn't give the reader the impression that much is going on.

Lengthy Descriptions
Just like if you were on a date, unless it's immediately relevant, for the love of God, don't talk about the weather or the environment. If lengthy descriptions of your character and how they go about their daily lives are bad, talking about the weather and the environment for paragraphs or pages from the get-go is even worse. Environments change much too quickly for such a description so early, that incredible view your character has from the roof of their apartment? It disappears as soon as he goes back inside, and it's unlikely they're going to have that view from street level too. So all that description, all that work, pointless unless you're trying to portray your character's love of sunsets. And even then, see above.

What you do want to start with is action or conflict, or at the very least, the implication of one of those. Not necessarily in the first line, but definitely on the first page, which is generally no more than 200 words.

The bestseller Jurassic Park, doesn't start right away. It's hook is down close to the bottom of the first real page, but check it out.

And then she caught it, another sound blended with the rain, a deeper rumble that build and emerged until it was clear: the rhythmic thumping of a helicopter. She thought, They can't be flying in weather like this.
Makes you wonder, if the weather is that bad where they wouldn't expect anyone to be flying, what must be going on where they would risk it?

John Everson's book Violet Eyes starts you in from the very first paragraph.

Things had pretty much gone South with their vacation for good a couple hours ago when Jess had been making out on the beach with Mar, and had managed at just the wrong moment to slip her hand into a human skull just below the surface of the sand.

Well, that's not good. (Seriously, check it out if you haven't. An excellent work.)

Then you have Stephen King, the master of one-liner hooks.

Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son - Salem's Lot

I'm not honestly sure what it is about King's hooks. They're always so simple, they seem ordinary, but they're worded so perfectly that you can sense the tension just beneath the surface.

For more examples, just look at whatever books you have lying around. Most of them have very good hooks that encourage you to delve deeper from the first page onward.

Plus keep in mind, websites like Amazon allow readers to check out the first few pages of a work before buying, so if you're lacking any significant sales, it might be a good idea to go back and see if you need a better hook somewhere on the first page or two. At the very least, it couldn't hurt.

Before I end off for the week. I just want to point your attention back up to the top. There's a couple good giveaways coming up the first week of October, so check it out, mark it on the calender and snag a few copies of my work.

Otherwise, thanks for coming around. I'll catch you all later.

~ Shaun

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