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Writing - The Hook

Open with a bang, hit 'em like a hammer
It's a question we ask, how to grab a reader
Know it when you see it, it's got The Hook...

(With apologies to Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson)

Hello again. And welcome to another episode in an intermittent series where I talk about something some of you know already :-). And in ‘Writers Jargon 101’ this week? The Hook.

Er… the what?

Hmmmm. A good question. But before I even try to answer it, a word from our sponsors. Or rather, from me. As usual let me say I don’t claim what follows is the only way of looking at the mysterious and deadly force called The Hook. It’s just my view. Or one of my views. Or one of my views of one my views. Or…

Hmmm :-). Again :-).

Recently I was involved in a discussion. Another writer was wondering about Hooks. Or rather, The Hook. They were wondering whether some types of Hook had become so over-used as to become meaningless and lose impact. Things like ‘The unexpected visitor’. ‘The mysterious phone-call’. ‘The strange case of the dog that didn’t bark in the night’. OK. True. They didn’t mention the dog that didn’t bark :-P.

Before things get too confusing (and possibly some time after they already have), what the heck is this Hook thing anyway? Well, here’s my poor view. Whatever you write or read, fantasy, romance, murder, mayhem or mystery, it’s two things. At least. And it might not be ‘The’ Hook. Writers put Hooks into their Query Letters, the thing they try to use to grab an Agent’s interest, and they use Hooks in Books, to try to grab and keep a reader’s interest. A Query Letter is small. It really only has room for one Hook. But a Book? However good my Page 1 Hook might be, I’d probably better have another one on Page 84 if I want to keep you reading. And Page 162. And Page… well. You get the idea :-P.

If I try to look at a book, a common view (and who am I to argue) is that The Hook is the thing that makes you swallow the bait. Keeps you reading. So, taking that as an assumption, I’m looking for 'something to keep you reading'. The second purpose of the hook is to hang what comes next upon it. To give the start a few running steps to get to the middle. Over-simplifying, it’s the thing I use on Page 1 to try to ensure you’re still reading on Page 315, and it’s the thing on Page 1 on which I hang the whole of the rest of the story. It’s the starting gate for our rabbit of a tale as it runs off, pursued (I hope) by the greyhounds of you as readers. So I'll try to bear that in mind :-).

OK. So now, at least for the purposes of our being here, we have an idea what a Hook is. Or do we?

There is a view, or can be a view, that The Hook is some sort of magical single event, or some incredible single line. Which it can be! Consider the opening line of Moby Dick. ‘Call me Ishmael’. It’s not an event, no. But try not to get bitten. Why should I call you Ishmael? Is that really your name? What are you trying to hide? It's a Hook. 'On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was Organon, Repetition and Astrology.' Whether readers understood Latin or not, whether it made sense, the words immediately set an environment, a world, in a way that led those readers wanting to read more. Or so the popularity and sales of T.H. White's 'The Once and Future King' would suggest.

A Hook can be a hard sharp knockout punch - 'My father was dead. I just wished he would stop talking to me.' Or it can be a softer, repeated set of jabs, a page or so of this and that, a hint here, a clue there, hoping to lead to a sudden 'aha' moment that makes you as a reader feel smart, clever - and want to be smarter, cleverer. By reading more. Both approaches work.

One approach (and not necessarily one with which I disagree) is to try to achieve your Hook in the first few paragraphs. To try to introduce your Main Character, establish your setting and tone and then Move the Story Forward. To start at the first bit of action you can. But - and isn’t there always a but? - But :-). That’s just Rules. And sometimes the Rule about what you have to do is just the one thing you have to ignore to do it right. For instance, one of the Rules of Writing is 'don't do the weather report'. That ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is a cliché to be avoided at all costs. Yet, in Duncton Wood (William Horwood), the first four pages describe a storm. Yes, two moles meet. But the first few paragraphs? Bracken isn't even introduced until paragraph four :-)! In the Prologue for 'The Colour of Magic' (yes, I know Prologues are not exactly fashionable right now, but they can still serve and still Hook I think), the first two pages are all scene setting, all an introduction to the good Mr Pratchett’s style of writing. The story doesn't move forward at all really. Young Terry uses his style to suck you in. But then you have a book like Red Storm Rising (Tom Clancy). Yes, the action starts straight away, but with a bunch of characters who all end up very dead very quickly. Not a Main Character in sight until page 22.

To stay on topic, though I seem to wander far and that fault is all mine, I'd agree entirely. The Hook is what makes someone reading page 1 want to read page 2. To make someone reading page 5 want to read page 10. It can be an event. It can be a style of writing. It can be a Main Character, it can be a twisted maze of passages, all alike. It may be that the further the book’s world is from the one we know, the more a writer has to hook with its delight and mystery, with scene setting. But whatever the Hook or Hooks, whatever the writer thinks readers will open wide for and swallow, there’s one thing common to all of them.

Good ones are a real bugger to write :-).

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