Hooking a Reader
Many years ago, writer Roger Zelazny told me a funny story about narrative hooks.
Roger had been asked to speak at one of the big-name writers’ workshops. This workshop was one of the multi-week ones that had two different sets of instructors: the regular faculty who were there for the whole six weeks or so and the guest speakers.
Roger was one of the guest speakers. He came in early in the course and therefore was asked to talk about starting a story. As he told me the tale, he began by explaining to the class how important it was to start a story with something that would grab the reader. Only after the reader was invested in the story should the writer go on and provide the background necessary to understand the events.
He paused, and his co-instructor, a member of the regular faculty, nodded enthusiastically and said, “By all means, let’s talk about narrative hooks.”
As Roger told it, he looked at her quizzically and said, “All right. What are those?”
He always laughed when he told the story, but I think he also was making a point. No matter how many writer’s courses you take, no matter how many trade terms you soak up or how good you are at slinging the jargon, a writer needs to understand the art from inside, not superimpose it from the outside.
Narrative hooks can take many forms. They might pose a confrontation – whether intellectual or physical. They might drop the reader in the middle of a conversation. They might set the scene – although these days, given the short amount of time most people give a new book, too much artistic scenery description is a good way to lose the reader, unless that reader happens to be in the mood for word paintings.
I’ve been told that my novel Marks of Our Brothers has a great narrative hook. For ease of reference, here it is.
My martial arts instructor says that I’m a hopeless cause.
“‘Do you really want to learn this or is this some kinda joke?’ she growls.
I don’t answer except by hopelessly screwing up another attempt at a breakfall, but I really do want to learn. There are six people that I have to kill and I figure that some idea of how to defend myself might come in handy.
Five, I remind myself as I leave the dojo, stiff in body and fatigued from the instructor’s impatience.
I smile and straighten despite my sore muscles.
Why is this a good hook? Well, first of all, it sets up a puzzle. Who is this person and why does she want to kill six other people – even though she is clearly not a professional assassin? The final twist – that she has already succeeded in killing one of her targets – shows that she is very serious about attaining her goal.
One of my personal favorite narrative hooks is from The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe Lansdale:
When I got over to Leonard’s Christmas Eve night, he had the Kentucky Headhunters turned way up at his place, and they were singing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and Leonard, in a kind of Christmas celebration, was once again setting fire to the house next door.
I wished he’d quit doing that. I’d helped him the first time, but he’d done it the second time on his own, and now here I was third time out, driving up. It was going to look damn suspicious when the cops got here.
Does this predict the book’s future action? No, but it certainly tells you a lot about the two main characters and their interaction. Right off you know they’re close friends. Not only is Christmas Eve the sort of occasion usually shared with dear friends and loved ones, but our narrator admits that the first time Leonard burned down the house, he helped.
This opening also poses an interesting puzzle. I, for one, had to keep reading to find out why Leonard kept burning down the house next door – and why he apparently didn’t think he needed to hide his actions. By then I was invested. I kept reading.
Although writers and writers’ workshops often present narrative hooks as if a good hook is going to work with every reader at all times, this is far from the case.
I have a good friend, a very intelligent woman with three small children, a family business, and a lot of outside interests. She is also an avid reader. She admits that, at this point in her life, she wants to read books where at least one character is in control of the situation. She doesn’t care how wild the ride gets as the story unfolds, as long as she knows that this “control character” will, in the end, set things right.
I admit, I can see her point. If your life is full of chaos, why add more in your down time? I know that in such times, rather than seeking “control characters,” I tend to re-read instead, but the impulse is similar. I know where I’m going. Uncertainty is diminished and so is artificial stress.
Recently, I came across a great example of a narrative hook that would work when I was in one sort of mood, but not in another. It was in the prologue to Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey: “The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.”
I read this, then sat and stared at the page. On the one hand, that sentence caught my curiosity. How could someone be “ready to be shot”? Odd phrase, odd circumstances. On the other hand, the promise of violence, of someone in distress and maybe beyond rescue, made me a little edgy – and I was already in an edgy mood.
Initially, I put the book aside, but a few days later I came back to it and finished the prologue. This ended with what might be considered its own narrative hook.
An outcropping of the thing shifted toward her. Compared to the whole, it seemed no larger than a toe, a little finger. It was Captain Darren’s head.
“Help me,” it said.
Well, with that I decided to keep reading. I’ll admit, neither of these hooks were what kept me reading to the end of a long novel. My growing interest in the main characters kept me going. Without that, not even the very interesting puzzles presented would have been enough.
However, James S.A. Corey clearly grasped an important part of writing a novel – one hook is not enough. Ideally, each chapter should hook the reader on to the next.
So, how do you decide which sort of narrative hook you want to use? My advice is to be true to the content of the novel. If you start with a sword fight and the rest of the novel is parlor intrigue, you’ll disappoint the readers who want action followed by more action. Worse, you’ll never attract the readers who thrive on tales based around intricately constructed interpersonal relationships.
If you bait your hook to catch the sort of fish who will swim in your waters, neither you nor they will be disappointed.