When my dad goes fishing, he nips the barbs off his hooks to give the fish a "more sporting chance". I don't do that. Dinner is too important. Neither can I afford such a luxury when I write the opening of a novel. Can you?
The opening hook of a story has to be sharp, able to grab readers and hang on to them despite any temptation luring them to spit it out and let it go.
Maybe you've already re-written your opening a dozen times, each time defining it to make it sharper, stronger, more compelling. But if not, here's what you need to do.
Start by asking yourself questions.
- The hook must first and foremost establish a connection between the reader and a character. It's fine to open with a whiz-bang thrill ride, especially if you're writing an action adventure, but if you don't establish the humanness of your introductory character right away, the action is just noise. Compare it to your real life introductions. When you meet a person for the first time, you either connect with them on a bit of a personal level or you don't. You either want to get to know them more, or they become immediately forgettable. It's the same thing when you introduce your character. Does your character have flesh and produce feeling? You might be able to crawl into this character's skin, but can your reader?
- The conflict introduced in the hook must imply a future black moment worth waiting for. Does it have to be as big as a volcano about to swallow the earth in lava? No, of course not. But the conflict should be compelling either because it's universal, dramatic, desperate, or different. Is yours? Now, here's a problem. I see some writers trying to make their hook so explosive that they center too much on the physical problem, and too little on the character connection. Watch out for that! Remember point #1: readers must care about the character before they care about the problem.
- Do questions yearn -- no -- do they beg to be answered... or not really? Hooks by virtue of their name must have a barb, despite my dad's fishing habits. If you want to net a reader, you have to ask, does my story's hook contain an adequate cliff-hanger? This doesn't have to be a life or death moment. It might be much more subtle than that, but it absolutely must create a question that demands an answer. Physical, mental, or emotional readers must want to ask what will happen next. Will she make it? Is he trustworthy? Who is that masked man? There's nothing wrong with creating a stirring list of worthy questions in a reader's mind. Remember though, you do know what's going to happen. Your readers don't have the luxury of that context. Look at your opening with clear, unbiased eyes. If you didn't already know what was coming, would you care?
- Is the opening of your novel burdened with back-story? Back story should be non-existent in the hook, or worked in with such tiny, subtle strokes that the reader absorbs it without noticing. It's better if necessary back-story is worked naturally into the story later on. But ask first, is it really necessary?
- Is your hook showing what's happening in real time? We writers have been fighting the nemesis of "telling" for a long time. "Show, Don't Tell" is a mantra pasted on our brains. But if we should happen to slip, we'd best be sure we don't do it in the opening. This is where a study of deep point-of-view comes in handy. Make your action immediate, personal, and without telling. Use dialogue that matters. Well... do that all the time. Don't describe the sunset or the weather or a dream.
Plot is woven when something bad happens, and then it gets worse. That building of suspense heightens throughout the course of the story, climaxing at the blackest moment of all. I would suggest that more than one, single stage of "worse" should happen right in the hook, as well as creating more questions. In my book The Green Veil (A COTT champion for Best Hook) it worked this way.
- Something terrible has happened. Colette has been hurt. She's bruised and in pain.
- To make it worse, she's obviously been thrust into a situation that has her feeling dirty and used. She abhors the way men looked at her last night.
- As an earlier conversation plays through her mind, we discover she had a different past, one that seemed bright and filled with promise. Now she lives with horrible regrets about the choices that led to this place she's in.
- Lastly, we discover that it's her husband who has put her in this place.
Do you see the questions arising:
- Who has abused her? Why?
- Why does he call call Colette "Vashti"?
- Can she ever recapture the past? (What else happened in that past?)
- What were the choices that brought her to this place?
- What could have happened to make her marry this man?
- Is the marriage going to make it?
Here's a more subtle example.
In my novella, Heart Not Take we meet Sean. Right off we know he lives in a cabin on a trout stream and that he's a teacher. Someone is arriving to interrupt his play of a nice fish on his line. He thinks it's one of his three sisters. Conflict arises when the interloper tells him she's been hired by his parents to "make a few improvements" on the property. Throughout the course of the opening, several questions start to arise.
- Why do a few proposed changes cause Sean to bes o rude and irritable toward this woman?
- Who is Jay and why does Sean resent him?
- Why does Jordyn, who is normally strong, professional, and used to dealing with all types of customers feel like crying so easily today?
- How does both Sean and Jordyn's stumbling faith, damaged by personal assault, play into future possible romance between the two of them?
- What other secret does Sean harbor about his past?
I hope that by asking yourself these questions and by re-examining your opening with a clear, unbiased eye, you will discover ways to sharpen your prose and set your novel's hook.