Six impossible things

Following a trail instead of a hook

A lot of attention gets paid to “writing a killer hook” for one’s story, to the point where I’ve known people to spend more time writing their very first sentence than they spend working on the whole rest of their story. Not all at once, of course. They write something, then change it, change it again, settle on something for a day or two, then come back and fiddle with it some more. They ponder the value of something more dramatic, compared to a more intellectual tease. They fiddle with word choice, looking for more unusual phrasing and more striking details. For weeks. For months. In the case of some novelists, for years.

All of this is in the name of getting the reader involved. No, not just involved; chained to the story with bands of iron. These authors are searching for a magic sentence that, once read, means the reader can’t put the book down until they finish it. The trouble is, there’s no such thing.

A terrific first sentence will not keep very many readers reading through a mediocre first page. Most writers realize that “hooking” the reader doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t deliver on whatever that hook promised; what too many of them forget is that they also have to keep the reader interested long enough to get the delivery. A killer hook that sets up a brilliantly clever payoff in Chapter Twenty is not going to work if the chapters in between are pedestrian, not even if their pedestrian-ness is revealed to be a total lie, camouflaging a far more weird and wonderful reality, because the kind of reader who appreciates this kind of card trick rarely has the patience to plow through nineteen chapters of what appear to be ordinary, every-day events.

The first sentence of your story is not a fishhook that has to be set to catch your reader. It’s more like the first M&M in a whole line of M&M’s that your reader is picking up, not realizing that in doing so they’re following a trail deeper and deeper into the woods, until suddenly they look up and realize that now the only way out (or at least, the only satisfying way) is to keep going and finish the story.

Which means that the whole first part of your story – say, anywhere from a quarter to a third – has to be that trail of candy. It’s not one particular sentence or clever revelation; it’s a whole series of sentences that coax the readers in the direction you want them to go. It’s not a single memorable image or situation; it’s a whole line of situations and images that add up to something memorable, like pixels creating a picture.

The terminology is not really important. It doesn’t really matter whether you call that first section Act I, a hook, or the setup – it still has to do the job of coaxing the readers slowly into the swamp. Also note that it’s your trail; you can lead the reader anywhere you like. It doesn’t have to be a swamp. It does have to be interesting, both in terms of the journey and in terms of the eventual destination, or you’ll lose readers.

You also probably want a certain kind of consistency. If you are laying a trail of M&Ms, and suddenly you switch to peppermint hard candy, you’re likely to throw some people off. Or, to unpack the metaphor, if you are luring your reader along with fascinating character bits and then after two or three chapters suddenly switch to cool techno-action bits, some readers won’t follow the shift. You can lead them along anyway, either by alternating for a while to ease readers into the change, or by embedding the stuff they’d got used to in the new, larger bit (like starting with a trail of M&Ms and then switching to M&M cookies…very few people I know will complain about that).

What you don’t want to do is let your guard down. There is no point in the book where you can think, even in the deepest darkest recesses of your subconscious, “There; I have the reader hooked, so now I can coast a bit.” Because I can just about guarantee you that that is the exact point at which your readers will get an emergency phone call from their teenager, or the dental assistant will come out and say it’s time for them to come in, or hear their spouse say “We need to talk…put that thing down and look at me!” Because you can’t predict these vagaries of your readers’ everyday lives, you have to keep the whole thing interesting.

In the end, I find this a lot more appealing to me, as a writer, than trying to hang the success or failure of my work on one “killer hook” of an opening sentence. I’m writing a 100,000-word novel, not 6,000 lovingly polished haiku.

  1. The book I’m reading right now was like this. It had a great hook, but after the first couple of pages, the writing went down hill fast and basically changed what type of book it was. M&Ms to peppermints, indeed. I’m still half way through and haven’t picked it back up in a few weeks, not sure if I will.

  2. The first sentence doesn’t have to sell the whole book; it just has to sell the second sentence. And the second has to sell the third, and so on….

    Also, I find that super-grabby first-line hooks tend to put me off, not draw me in. As a reader, I don’t like being grabbed at by a total stranger, which a book is at that point. I’d much rather be offered a friendly handshake, or even a wave from across the room.

  3. FWIW, the original script for E.T. the Extra-terrestrial had Elliot lay down a trail of M&Ms, but the Mars company did not want to be associated with a movie about aliens (d’oh!), so the switch was made to Reese’s Pieces.

  4. Good advice!

    I’ve read books that started with an incident that was a complete throw away. The author put in a high tension scene that made a promise the rest of the book didn’t serve up.

    The best advice I’ve read is that the first page/chapter is a promise to the reader about the type of book it will be. Romances shouldn’t start with battle scenes and Thrillers shouldn’t start with teenage angst. Don’t make the reader wait to figure out where the book is going. Which flows right into the advice to make every scene count.

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