Sunday, September 11, 2011

Eh... Where the eff is the Hook?
*Gouges eyeballs out*

Good novels, like good short stories, contain:

  1. About 250 words per MS page
  2. Interesting, sympathetic characters
  3. Plot or through-line
  4. A hook!

Yes, that thing is bold, underlined, italicized, & exclamation-pointed for extra sparkly emphasis.

The hook needs to be near the beginning of your story if you care about Impulsive readers like me. The shorter the story, the closer to the beginning.

I've been reading Legends, edited by Robert Silverberg, an anthology including stories by Robert Jordan, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K LeGuin, etc. The Greats. Unfortunately, I'm disappointed by these most beloved authors. At the entree of each new story, I have to grit my teeth and bulldoze through by sheer force of will. Why? I mulled and mulled, and then discovered something (as one is wont to do while mulling).

In Legends, the Greats are at a disadvantage. Their stories are set in pre-made worlds; they have at their disposal more backstory than perhaps Rowling herself had at then end of Deathly Hallows. Sometimes, this wealth of backstory becomes a crutch.

By and large, the Greats rely on their own names, their fame, and their pre-made worlds to hook readers. But in doing so, they allow their story's hook -- that which compels us by desire and intrigue to read on -- to go by the wayside. This, I realized, is why I wanted to stab myself in the eye while reading much of Legends.

The remedy:

  1. Don't forget the hook.
  2. Open with intrigue. Readers are curious and will respond favorably to even the tiniest (arguably, the tinier the better) hint at bigger, stranger, more wonderful things to come.
  3. Two types of hooks. Hooks can be plot-driven or character-driven, as can books. Know what drives your book, and open with the respective hook. (Unless, of course, you knowingly decide to red herring us; then open with the opposite. *grins*)
  4. Hook us in the first paragraph. A little something to perk up our innately curious ears.
  5. Hook us again. At the end of that first scene, plant another hook, hopefully tying in the first and lacing the story with theme.
  6. Hook us again. Yep, you got it. Next scene, a third beat. Another clearly identifiable plot point.

But isn't this too obvious? Too predictable? I ask you -- when you look at a house, do you expect roof, walls, foundation, windows, doors? And if you found these missing? Um... a thing without roof, walls, foundation, windows, doors -- What is that, like, air?

STRUCTURE IS ESSENTIAL. To houses. And stories.

And the HOOK is an essential part of that structure.

I beg you, weave the backstory later -- weave it well -- and open instead with hook and hook and more hook or you will be sued by readers gouging out their eyes.

And because I believe in reward driving motivation & resulting action, I'll put it this way. Can you spot the hook?

Img by Zynga Games

For further reading:
A great post on the hook by @Mooderino: "The Little Hook."

If you know of any other hook posts, please leave them in the comments and I'll list them! Thank you!!


  1. Awesome, awesome, awesome advice!! How do you do that?

  2. Amazing post -- going to re-tweet it all over the place. Most writers have what -- 60,000 to 80,000 words to weave in their back story. there is absolutely NO reason to dump it all in the first few scenes. Hook me first or I don't care enough about your characters to be interested in their back-story!

  3. So to net a reader, we need 2 barbed treble hooks within the first chapter. Gotcha. Probably need some garlic-scented floating cheese balls on those hooks, too.

    I grew up in Oregon.

    We fished a lot.

  4. @Angelina: Haha! A fisher. Do fish like garlic and cheese?? I like garlic and cheese! ... I've only fished with shrimp and worms.

    @Nancy @Trisha: Thank you guys! No hook plus too much backstory is one of my pet-peeves (I wonder if you can tell--ha!) so it sticks out at me when I read... er, and when I write first drafts ;)

  5. I'm thinking you'd make a great crit partner!

  6. Ugh. I hear ya, sister. I bulldozed through the first novel written by someone now waaaay famous and felt kind of "meh" about it. It sounded like another novel I'd read before. Now that's not to say the author isn't WAY BETTER than I am because she is by far. But I didn't like the work as much as some of her other writings.

  7. @Nancy Is that a hint? If so, let me know! ;)

    @AllegedAuthor It's like a loss of innocence when you read something from someone you've always idolized, something that just seems to be cutting corners. Felt... somewhat hollow afterward...

  8. Maybe the hookless stories you mention are unhookable and their authors are in desperate need of a muse. Even Hemingway had his dry moments.

  9. Agreed.
    Must add: avoid overwriting. I'm doing a lot of critiquing lately and it's driving me crazy. Even if you have a great hook, overwriting buries it under so many worms, the reader won't bite.

  10. Hilarious, I talked with one of my critters this morning because I was stuck in my WIP and this is exactly why- I'd lost sight of my hook and replaced it with something much weaker.

    Great advice, Lora. Really can't hear this too many times :)

  11. Great post, Lora! I just attended my very first writers conference, and I learned so much about the importance of hooks that it makes me want to forget my current novel and just dive right into my next novel, in which *I'll do everything right.* Or, perhaps most things. Or, at least I'll know when I'm doing the wrong things. ;)

  12. Great post and excellent advice. I swear, I've thought this many times while I was reading. Of course, when you come across a book with a great hook, it hits you immediately.

  13. @Melodie Overwriting, yeah, is just as bad. That's where savvy crit partners come in guns a-blazing, mercilessly killing those darlings.

    @Juliana I'm glad you found the hook! Especially character-driven books, I've found, are at risk of changing trajectory mid-book and so losing steam.

    @Candy Thanks! So glad :)

    @LisaAnn Ooo I'm so jealous! I have yet to go to a conference. I bet you learned loads! Dive straight in on that novel. Head first. I know you'll do everything right and it'll be fantastic ... after revisions ;)

    @Lindsay So true. Great hook? I'm sold. (And I'll usually read that book in its entirety, even if it's killing me, in honor of the original hook.)

  14. I totally agree!! I read a series that is now up to book #15 or something. Unfortunately, now the author redescribes every character for a few pages. Major snooze. The Sweet Valley Highs did that all the time too - repeating all the differences between the twins. Don't judge, I was a kid and they were just coming out. It was big at the time. ha!

  15. Where have I been lately?? This is a great post and one I will be referring to frequently.Hook 'em, hook 'em, hook 'em...

    *runs away to write* :D

  16. thanks for sharing your to the point thoughts on the need of the "hook." very helpful.