Pandora Hope & Sean McMullen|11 December 2014
A hook is a device or technique that intrigues readers and persuades them to read on. Generally it works by appealing to the very thing that got the cat killed. Yes-curiosity! John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’ begins “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.” Want to know what’s going on? Sure you do. My story ‘A Ring of Green Fire’ begins “As I was walking through Westbury Forest, I met a man with a ring of green fire around his penis.” Okay—a penis with a green halo. Have I got your attention?
Use your hook as soon as you can. Why take chances and describe the scenery? A hook in your opening line is a winner. And once you’ve introduced the hook, it is a very bad idea to not use it. If Wyndham had gone on to explain that traffic was being diverted for a movie shoot, the reader would have been disappointed. If the traffic has stopped because nobody is capable of driving any more, I want to know more.
The hook can do double-duty. In George RR Martin’s ‘The Hedge Knight’, the opening line not only intrigues, it provides a sense of place.
“The spring rains had softened the ground, so Dunk had no trouble digging the grave.” A death, a DIY grave and a weather report all in fifteen words. Tell me more!
From the science fiction side of the fence we have “I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all.” That’s the start of ‘Johnny Mneumonic’ by William Gibson. Violence and danger are clearly on the menu, and while in less accomplished hands this might have fallen flat, Gibson intrigues us with humour and a nice dose of cynicism. Yeah, stuffing tennis socks to hide a shotgun isn’t my style either.
On the other hand, a hook can merely intrigue:
‘It’, by Stephen King begins “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” In this case, the reader sees that something highly disturbing is going to grow out of a totally innocuous beginning. How is the author going to inspire terror by means of a paper boat? You’ll definitely keep reading to find out.
How do you develop the killer hook? As always, it’s a good idea is to look at the classics. Most authors admit they spent their formative years copying their favourite writers. It’s okay to copy when you’re developing your own technique and voice. That’s how you learn.
An original hook can come from anywhere and have the most prosaic beginnings. The idea for A Ring of Green Fire came from a friend’s unusual fungal ear infection. I started a story with the line “As I was walking through Westbury forest, I met a man whose thoughts glowed with green fire.” It was about a simple man who was taken seriously because his thoughts seemed to be divinely inspired. While I was developing it, I had a documentary playing in the background about animal reproduction. Pretty well without thinking I changed “thoughts” to “penis.” I suddenly had a killer hook, and I rewrote the story as a cautionary tale about loveless relationships.
It’s all about engaging the reader. Your job as an author is to tell your reader that your work is really worth reading. It’s useful for beginners to show their story to friends, ask them what they found most intriguing, then write a sentence that hints at it. Once you become more experienced, you should be able to identify the alpha intriguing bit yourself.
Good hooks aren’t always in the first sentence. In The Lord of the Rings we have to get through a lot of not entirely exciting material about Hobbits before the exciting bits kick in, but there is a lot more fiction out there today than there was in the 1950s, and modern readers are not as patient with slow starts. The sooner you can get the reader hooked, the better.
Pan Hope and Sean McMullen