Narrative / Plot Hooks. How, When, Why, and How Not?

4 03 2008

A hook is a narrative device to hook (harr, geddit?) your reader and reel them in. Traditionally percieved as something with which one opens a story, I’m afraid it goes much further than that.

You see, once your reader is hooked and reeled in, what’s to stop him jumping out of the keep net?

Why, more hooks, of course!

A hook is useful to get your reader reading your story. But you must maintain interest, or you’ll lose him before you’ve reached the end together.

Some authors make their living through judicious application of hooks. Dan Brown, for instance, has made a fortune with the very simple structure:

Chapter 1: Hook, narrative, hook.

Chapter 2: Second character narrative. Hook.

Chapter 3: Back to the first character. Resolve hook. Narrative. Hook.

Chapter 4: Second character. Resolve hook. Narrative. Hook.

Continue until end of book is reached.

Grabbing an audience, then, can be said to rely on the hook that you use. And some hooks have been overused to a point beyond cliche. Honestly, how often have you seen, read, or played a variant of:

The character(s) is(are) in a drinking establishment. A strange (often old and shrouded in darkness) man approaches him/her/them and speaks the fateful words: “I have a job for you.”

That’s not to say a cliche can’t be refried and served as something new. The best variant of this I ever heard of went something like this:

“A man enters the tavern, takes a seat, and slaps a six foot lizard down on the bar.”

The best hooks ask nothing but questions. They give no answers. They are unusual and startling, and force the reader to continue to sate their now-aroused curiosity. One of the most famous examples of such a hook comes from the masterful Iain Banks’ novel The Crow Road:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

The questions this immediately poses are many, including the identity of the narrator, who his grandmother was, how the heck she detonated, why she exploded, why he’s speaking of the event in such a calm manner, and what else happened that day. In one sentence.

If you want to hook readers, you need to be that masterful, that clever, that good at wordcrafting. If you want to sell your fiction, or even just entertain an audience (such as roleplayers, the harshest of audiences short of eight year old children), you can’t just say “So I was sitting in the crematorium and grandma’s pacemaker went pop.”

Let’s see if I can give you some more examples.

Citizen Kane.

Another masterful hook. After lots of panning and zooming, of seeing the extent of Kane’s vast wealth, we enter his huge and rich bedroom, and hear one word.

Rosebud.

Then his nurse covers his face with the sheet. This man we thought the film was about has just died. Who or what is Rosebud? Why is it so significant as to be his dying word? How did he get to be so wealthy? Why is a nurse all he has at his bedside? Where are his family?

American Beauty.

A fabulous example of a longer hook.

My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.

Lester seems to tell the audience all they need to know about him, but in fact all he does is ask questions. How does he die? How is he already dead? Is something extraordinary afoot in this very ordinary suburb? What will happen to such an average, normal person to cut their life short at the age of 42? Could it happen to you, too?

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

What is the Colonel being executed for? What has turned this young man into a military man, then into an executable criminal? Where does he live that he has to “discover” ice? Does he live in an environment where it doesn’t occur naturally?

Earthly Powers – Anthony Burgess.

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

Who is the narrator? In what society is he living? Is bedding a young boy acceptable in his era? How does the narrator come to be in a position whereby an archbishop may stop by? Was the meeting scheduled? Is the narrator deliberately in bed with the catamite to annoy the archbishop? Who is Ali?

I’m sure you see what I’m getting at by now. So let’s see what you need to avoid:

  1. Cliche. If you can’t tell whether or not your opening line is cliche, you don’t read enough.
  2. Waffle. I swear to you if you ever want to entertain others with your writing, you do not start off with three paragraphs of thesaurus abuse whilst dithering about when your story should actually begin.
  3. Mundanity. Nobody wants to read a story that begins with the protagonist’s half-hour attempt to find a parking space because he wants to buy a newspaper.
  4. Redundancy: Don’t have the plot hook be a pointless waste of time (you know the drill: Cargor the Wolf Hunter asks you to kill a wolf, even though you woulda thunk that were his job).

From there on it’s down to you. Don’t just put a lid on the keep net and hope that’s enough. Fill the damn thing with barbs as long as your arm!

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12 responses

4 03 2008
Tommi

From roleplaying PoV (may not apply to writing): I have found it beneficial to let players craft their own hooks and to focus on things they find interesting. Trying to get them into a specific situation through a series of hooks is likely to backfire if they care about the direction of the story at all.

Also: Cliches work as long as the game is engaging. They are cliches for a reason. Nobody cares too much if what follows is fun (and comes soon enough).

I have, of course, taken the road of totally avoiding hooks. Starting in media res works, too.

4 03 2008
kevmoore

I shall arm myself with your words of wisdom and plunge anew into my literary endeavours! It strikes me (and you can ridicule me for this) that I had never really seen the similarity in novel/prose construction, and song construction, despite a lifetime as a musician, and (amateur) writer. Yet, plainly, the same rules apply. the need for a repetitive hook to snare the reader, a comfortable, subtly repetitive structure to keep the reader tagging along. I understand they even teach in college, the strict formula that is responsible for Britney spears hits. It’s a pity the psychiatric profession don’t have a similarly successful formula to mend her sanity, but hey, you can’t have everything. I’d like to think i can apply judicious use of hooks in order to spice up my writing, but I tend to be a stream of conciousness kind of guy, and anything else just doesnt feel natural. particularly where my poetry is concerned, it just comes out. to tamper with it in any meaningful way, would render it something of a sham. AM I WRONG? He asks, and is this why I can’t finish a novel?

5 03 2008
tanaudel

Plenty to think about there. Especially the “must maintain interest” part… the line that follows the hook?

6 03 2008
Narnie

This is fantastic! I love hooks… I love the challenge of ending the chapter with a ‘…’ to keep them begging for more. I just love it. When I test my work out, the one thing I want to hear them say is ‘where’s the rest of it? why haven’t you written it yet? when will it be ready?’ haha…

This is a fabulous article. Im so pleased I stopped by.

7 03 2008
Trudi Topham

Tommi: Letting players generate their own hooks only works, I’ve found, if you have mature players who can cooperate on such things. If your group is fractious and argumentative, their hooks will pull them in different directions and you end up with as many games as you have PC’s, rather than one cohesive whole.

And yes, clichés can work, particularly if you put a new spin on them (hence the six-foot-lizard example), but over-reliance on them just leads to mediocrity.

The trick, Kev, is to appear natural without being natural. That’s where the craft of writing comes into play. Think of how dull dialogue would be if it were realistic (“Um, er, so… Do you wanna, um… Oh, hey. Did you see that thing? You know… The thing… Um.”) and how uninteresting to a reader plot hooks would be if they were realistic (“Claire opened her mail to find the electricity bill. She had set aside enough money for it in this month’s house budget, and it came the same time every month, so there was no surprise…”).

Tanaudel, one could contest that every line must include a hook of some kind. Your job as a writer is to pull the reader along, refuse to let them go, and give them a truly enjoyable and memorable experience. If they can bear to put your book down, it won’t be that memorable.

Narnie, you’re onto a winner right there. Readers should be demanding to see the next instalment 😀

7 03 2008
kevmoore

Trudi, perhaps you’ve misunderstood me. You seem to be referring to the avoidance of realism, and the mundane, which is not something I’m having a problem with. Clearly, electricity bills or teenage “um” speak are not something worthy of the reader’s attention. Writing “naturally” doesn’t immediately imply that it won’t be interesting, nor that it will be devoid of hooks and boring. I feel too much dissection is bad for the soul…

14 03 2008
Tommi

Trudi: I see little value in playing with nonmature people, then. Agreed about the cliches: poweful, as long as used well. Otherwise boring.

15 03 2008
Tasmaniac

“A man enters the tavern, takes a seat, and slaps a six foot lizard down on the bar.”

You’ve left me intrigued, What happens next???
It’s like the beggining of a joke, but you left us without the punch-line, please tell me I have to know!!!! 🙂

16 03 2008
Trudi Topham

Maybe one day. After all, giving an audience what they want is a sure fire way to satisfy them and give them no reason to return 😉

3 09 2008
Ideas for a hook - Page 2 - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

[…] Re: Ideas for a hook All I can say is this: Narrative / Plot Hooks. How, When, Why, and How Not? Hello Spacegirl […]

30 09 2008
Whoknowswhat?

Very, very good description of the hook! I was completely baffled when I found out that I had to give the narrative hook, but after reading your “monologue”, I knew exactly what it was. No matter how childish, I have to find “Banner in the Sky” and locate its hook. Thanks very very much for enlightening me on the use of hooks and “barbs”. You rock!

9 10 2008
Trudi Topham

You’re more than welcome 🙂

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