The Hook

Last week I provided an overview of story structure and the many models available to use in constructing a novel. I listed the components of the Three-Act structure and promised to describe each component in future blog posts.

Act I consumes the first 25% of the novel and reveals our protagonist in his ordinary world doing the things he normally does. These early scenes provide an opportunity to reveal the protagonist’s personality and inner thought life, including his beliefs and needs.

We learn he is to some degree dissatisfied with his life, or something happens to create a problem or some sort of imbalance. Properly constructed and illustrated, this dissatisfaction or issue-spawning event, triggers our readers’ curiosity.

Act I is comprised of three story beats, the Hook, the Inciting Incident, and the First Plot Point. Let’s start at the beginning with the Hook.

It’s highly improbable you’ll catch a fish without a hook. It’s the same with readers. Both species have to be captivated by something alluring, or they will wander off. Or, God forbid, they reach for another book in their TBR (to be read) pile. Yes, fish read books too.

While fish-hooks are made of high carbon or stainless steel, reader-hooks require something much stronger— emotion. Thus, the first thing a novelist has to do is create an emotional response in his reader.

Here’s a visual example I found at Beemgee, my favorite story development tool: “The famous screenwriter William Goldman describes a scene in a detective movie he wrote, in which Paul Newman[] in the first seconds of the film wakes up in his office bleary-eyed, picks a used coffee filter out of the dustbin and pours hot water through it, because he has no fresh coffee.”

The article writer at Beemgee.com gave his analysis: “This simple action tells a lot about the protagonist without any dialog, and makes the audience go ‘oooh yuch’. Emotional response achieved.”

In sum, our hook needs to accomplish three things: 1) it must introduce our protagonist; 2) it must reveal a representative picture of his everyday life; and 3), it must show him dealing with something that troubles him and conflicts with his normal world. All three of these, combined, offer only one conclusion: to some degree, our protagonist is on a trajectory of change, where his life cannot stay as it is. And, as we all know, change doesn’t come without conflict.

Here’s an example I borrowed from blog.reedsy.com: “In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is introduced as a responsible, determined teenager who hunts illegally to feed her family, which suffers under the rule of the Capitol.”

Stop a minute and reread this example. Use your imagination to visualize what’s coming, what conflict (s) may arise in this story. First, consider the novel’s title. I suspect hunger is going to be important, as hunting food is one task Katniss, the protagonist, spends her ordinary world-time doing. What else do we learn about Katniss? I suspect she’s not the typical teenager I know (not to knock teenagers). Katniss is “responsible, determined.” What about conflict? She hunts illegally. Talk about actual and potential conflict, and that doesn’t include thoughts about “the Capitol.”

Obviously, this is going to be a dystopian story. The genre I usually ignore, along with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. But, truth is, Collins’ one-sentence logline, has me hooked. How about you? Confession: I’ve read the book and it’s fabulous. I encourage you to read it.

Here’s another way to look at the Hook. K.M. Weiland, of the website helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com, writes, “stripped down to its lowest common denominator, the hook is nothing more or less than a question.” Actually, what Weiland proposes in order for our hook to grab readers and spark their curiosity is two questions: the first, general, the second, specific. In order, they are: “What’s going to happen?” and, as an example from Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, “What scary reptilian monster killed the worker?”

“The important thing to remember about presenting this opening question is that it cannot be vague. Readers have to understand enough about the situation to mentally form a specific question. What the heck is going on here? does not qualify as a good opening question.”

K. M. Weiland

Here’s my attempt to craft these two questions after considering my current work in progress. I hope my readers ask, “what’s going to happen?” after learning Yale law school professor, Lee Harding, receives an early Saturday morning call from his out-of-town in-laws offering to buy him breakfast, and requesting he help them with a legal problem back home in Alabama (Rachel, their daughter, Lee’s wife, committed suicide a year earlier).

Further, after reading my first chapter, I hope my readers ask, “did Rachel commit suicide because of her high school abortion, or her knowledge concerning the disappearance and presumed death of Lee’s best friend, both secrets she’s harbored for over 50 years?

Author and writing coach H.R. D’Costa (scribemeetsworld.com/)goes deep in Story Outlines with her description and analysis of the hook. “A hook can be a lot of things. It comes in all shapes and sizes, such as: setting, character, origin of material, tone, title, book cover, reputation of the content creator, star power, word of mouth, [and] irony[.]”

Let’s look at character for example. D’Costa contends our protagonist can provide the necessary hook to grab and retain our readers. Of course, she’s not talking about a stick figure or a one-dimensional hero. Rather, our protagonist must be a life-like creation, in many ways like you and me, one with a mix of good and bad personality traits, one who struggles with external and internal issues. In essence, he’s a captivating individual, the type a reader would love to follow around for three or four hundred pages.

I don’t have time or space to explore each of D’Costa’s hook originators. However, if you want to go deeper with the Hook, I encourage you to buy Sizzling Story Outlines, noting particularly the section where D’Costa discusses use of multiple hooks to grab your reader.

I’ll end this post with a challenge. It involves a little reading. You are a reader aren’t you?

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Stephen King

Now, to that challenge. I encourage you to pull a novel from your shelf or open one on your Kindle. Start at the first page and read the first chapter. Determine if you are hooked, meaning, “I would like to continue reading to learn what happens next.” If you aren’t hooked, then repeat the process. Keep going until you are solidly hooked on a novel.

Once you are hooked, describe (preferably in writing), in a sentence or two, WHY you are hooked. See if your ‘WHY’ response includes something analogous to Weiland’s specific question she created from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park: “What scary reptilian monster killed the worker?”

Thank you for reading this post. I hope you enjoy this ironic hook:

“Do you want to keep your knee, young man?’

‘No’, I said.

‘What?’

‘I want it cut off,’ I said, ‘so I can wear a hook on it.”

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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