Six impossible things

The Opening

It has become a truism in writing that one should always open a story with a “hook” – something that grabs the reader and pulls them into the story, forcing them to keep reading. The problem with this is that what “hooks” one reader will annoy or repel another, and this is seldom acknowledged by the advice-givers.

So you get one set of folks advocating “start with action,” because getting dumped in medias res is what hooks them. You get another set saying that one should always start with dialog, because it’s active and brings the characters onstage right off, and that’s what hooks them. You get how-to-write exercises like “write ten one-sentence hooks,” on the theory that opening with one exciting or intriguing line (like “The elephants blocked the highway from nine until noon; after that, the ostriches took over.”) is enough to carry the reader through whatever comes next.

The truth is that the opening generally needs to fit the story more than it needs to be wildly intriguing. A false hook – an exciting swordfight opening on a contemplative political story; witty, character-centered tea-party dialog opening up a slam-bang horror/action novel; an intriguing incident or setting opening on any story in which it plays no other part – will alienate both those readers who don’t like that sort of opening (but who might very well like the rest of the story as it actually plays out) and those readers who very much like that sort of opening, but who are then disappointed by the rest of the book or story.

In the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of any book, the writer is making a series of implied promises to the reader: These are the people you will see more of. These are the kinds of problems they will have to solve. You can trust me to pose interesting questions, and you can trust me to answer them satisfactorily. This is the sort of story you are reading, and this is how I am writing it. Every time the writer breaks one of these promises, it pushes the reader away from the book. Push hard enough, or too many times, and the reader puts the book down and never comes back.

One of the classic bad examples of a hook-gone-wrong was the slushpile story that opened “Blood spurted!” then dropped into a flashback for several paragraphs, a combination that made it look like the opening of a horror novel…only to reveal on the second page that the viewpoint character had just cut himself shaving, and move from there into a piece of contemporary realism. Making a story look like something it isn’t is not a good way to hook either readers or editors; it is more likely to earn the writer a reputation for being untrustworthy and/or not worth reading.

This doesn’t mean you can never, ever write a story with a misleading opening; it only means that doing so is harder to pull off than writing a story with an opening that fits. There needs to be a reason for the misdirection, some payoff to the reader that will make them chortle in glee rather than growl in outrage. And the bigger, longer, and more misleading something is, the bigger and more compelling the payoff has to be to justify it.

And I find the whole concept of the “hook” to be a little over-sold anyway. Take a look at some first lines from real-life published novels:

“The youthful gentleman in the scarlet coat with blue facings and gold lace, who was seated in the window of Lady Worth’s drawing-room, idly looking down into the street, ceased for a moment to pay any attention to the conversation that was in progress.” – An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

“It is said that fifty-three years after his liberation he returned from the Golden Cloud, to take up once again the Gauntlet of Heaven, to oppose the Order of Life and the gods who ordained it so.” – Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

“The queen waited.” – The King of Attolia, Megan Whelan Turner

“The music room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.” – Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

“Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat.” – Princess Academy, Shannon Hale

Few to none of these examples would get a passing grade if they were turned in to a creative writing teacher as part of that “write ten hooks” assignment, yet the books were not only published but have lasted and/or been celebrated. They’re interesting sentences, but not exaggerated. Most of them provide at least a hint of a character or a place or both, and that’s what’s a bit intriguing. Which is all one really needs.

  1. Great post. I do feel like the internet and writing blogosphere has overemphasized the “rules” of writing, of what you should and shouldn’t do. The advice is often well intentioned, but you end up by necessity creating this overly simplified idea of what is acceptable and good, and you end up with young writers obsessively checking and rechecking their manuscripts to see if they match up to this standard, rather than thinking about what suits their story.

  2. “Hook” has always seemed to me a very… journalistic way of looking at it. A storyteller surely wants less a hook, than a lure.

    The hook does not bite until I’m lured into the tale, and care about something within it.

  3. Thanks for clarifying this and giving a modified view on the writing rule of “the hook”. Lots of food for thought.

    Like you and Livia pointed out, it’s better that the opening and the style of the story fits the theme and the overall atmosphere than having a typical hook opening.

    After having seen a lot of blogpages recommending the hook, I checked the opening chapters of several published works in my genre, and found out that it wasn’t right for my WIP. Hence I went with a first chapter that felt right but didn’t have a typical hook. (Only a small one.)

    Your blogpost verbalized and clarified that process for me.

  4. With the right type of story, that elephants and ostriches opening could really work. (A humorous `Arabian Nights’ parody, maybe?) đŸ™‚

    Some of my favorite novels (like Watership Down) have the slowest opening, and somehow that just makes them more perfect.

  5. Your post reminds me of a talk given by the mystery writer Nancy Pickard.

    She had come at the topic from the opposite direction, looking at best sellers and great books trying to find out what made a good first line. In every case, they had three things in common. A sense of the person, a sense of the place, and a change in the person’s state. All of your examples illustrate this — even the non-obvious ones. The non-obvious ones (“The queen waited.” to pick one example) play with readers expectations and assumptions.

    After listening to her talk, I’ve noticed that the three things rule applies to all fiction genres. It’s not so much a hook as it is a “come hither”

  6. Wow, I find your posts very helpful. Today you’ve cleared up the confusion for me of hooks.

  7. Wonderful post. I’ve always hated the “his sword slashed at the globble and drank deep of the purple steaming gore” opening line. I prefer dialog or simply a character going somewhere. If I’m going to spend time with characters I want feel some connection with them. They can hack dragons into giblets after we’ve been introduced.

  8. @Victoria – I love the three things needed idea. I’m going to start using this in my (mostly) weekly book reviews (where I read Kindle samples and decide if I want them or not). It’ll really help focus my opinions. Thanks!

  9. It really does work for the story. My last fantasy was a quest, with lots of travel and happenings at every turn. It was kind of mellow-toned, though, and so I just started out with who my characters were. It had almost a page of introduction before anything really took place, but it worked. And that’s what mattered to me. It also really took you into the setting of the story (characters, type of people surrounding main characters, etc.). There’s lots of different types of beginnings. Choosing the one that’s right for your story can be difficult, but if you ignore the mental creative writing teacher who hangs over your shoulder and says, “That’s not a hook!!!”, then you have a much better chance. Sometimes the story NEEDS a hook, but some others defy ‘beginning laws’. Mine surely did!

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