On Hooks and Promises

We hear the term hook thrown around a lot. Your story needs a good hook. No one will read past the first page if you don’t have a good hook. What’s your hook? And so on and so forth. But what exactly do we mean by this?

Hooks are, simply put, the interesting bit in the beginning of your story or your novel or your screenplay that…well, that hooks the reader into the story. I think, however, that we get used to talking about hooks in terms of “what’s the new exciting thing that will engage the reader” and less in terms of “what does this hook say about my story,” and the more I think about it, the more I think we need to be talking about that.

Because while a hook is certainly grabbing and engaging and interesting, it also makes a lot of promises to your reader—promises that they’re going to expect you to uphold and fulfill. So let’s talk about the larger scope of hooks. Not the opening line or even the opening paragraph—but the opening scene (or scenes) that set the tone for your work and tells the reader exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

image from rebeccaberto.com

The bulk of my formal writing education was taught by people who write different sorts of books than I do. While I write fantasy and have had the privilege to learn at the feet of some of the great fantasy writers of our time, a lot of the writers I’ve looked up to in the recent years write action-packed fantasy, full of rule-based magic systems and grand adventures. I enjoy reading those books, of course, but I tend to write…quieter stories. Fantasy that is focused on clashing cultures and social structures and political strife—and while there’s still plenty of action and adventure that happens in my books, the climaxes of my stories are more likely to happen in a single room than on a grand battle front.

Neither of these types of stories are better than the other and there’s an audience for both, but the sort of hooks that work in big action-packed epic fantasy aren’t going to work as well for the sort of things I write—and it took me longer than it should have to realize that.

First of all, hooks don’t have to be action sequences. I realized that I kept trying to start off my books with explosions and chase scenes when my books weren’t really about explosions and chase scenes, and by trying to set my books up with those as opening scenes, I was making a promise to my readers that I had no intention of fulfilling. When a book opens with a fast-paced fight scene, that’s what the reader is going to expect throughout the rest of the story. Almost every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens with a scene of Buffy taking out some big bad demon and that sets the tone for the rest of the episode. It says, “Hello, viewer, in this show, you are going to get cool fighting choreography and witty banter.” But if you take the opening scene of Buffy and attach it to, say, an episode of Gilmore Girls, the people who tuned in for the cool fighting choreography are going to be disappointed (though the people watching for witty banter will probably be pleased).

A hook needs to set the tone for what you’re writing. That’s its main job. Pride and Prejudice opens with the arrival of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennett’s assertions that he will make a fine husband for one of her daughters. That hook promises romance and some fun commentary of class and social mores of the time. One of the first scenes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix involves Harry and the Dursleys being swarmed with owls from everyone from Albus Dumbledore to the Ministry of Magic, all carrying conflicting messages, which makes the promise that while Voldemort is certainly a problem in that book, the Ministry of Magic is going to be an even bigger and more immediate problem. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with Captain America and Black Widow embarking on a mission for SHIELD. The scene makes the promise that this movie will have lots of cool fight scenes, that it will focus on Captain America and Black Widow and SHIELD, and that Captain America’s ability to trust the people he’s working with will be a major plot point.

Which brings me to the next point: your hook should do more than one thing. It does more than set the tone, it also introduces characters and plot points and setting—and The Avengers: Age of Ultron did a remarkable job of that. (Warnings for mild spoilers of AoU. I know it only came out over the weekend, but the opening did too good of a job to pass up.) The movie starts in media res as the Avengers storm a Hydra Research Facility in Sokovia, a country in Eastern Europe, where they hope to reclaim Loki’s Scepter. The whole gang is there, but the characters who seemed to get more screen time than the rest were Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye. Later, we’ll find out that each of these characters have personal issues that will become substantial plot points. (Which is especially nice because the other characters get entire movies to themselves to sort out their personal issues.) By focusing on those three characters in the beginning, the movie promises that these three will be big players throughout the rest of the film.

And that’s not all the intro did. It introduced us to Sokovia. Which happens to be where the final battle takes place, and which happens to be where Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are from—and oh yeah, Pietro and Wanda are also going to be big players in this film and they also get screen time in the opening fight scene. In the opening scene, we see Iron Man’s preoccupation with protecting innocent civilians through the use of his Iron Legion program and that particular preoccupation is what launches the whole story forward. The intro also focused on Loki’s Scepter, although at risk of unleashing major spoilers, I’m not going to tell you why this is important to the rest of the film. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

In the opening sequence, they set the tone for the movie (lots of action! Captain America and Iron Man bickering! More fighting!), they showed us which characters were going to be important (Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Hulk, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff), they introduced us to an important location (Sokovia!), and they hinted at important plot points (Loki’s Scepter, Iron Man’s Iron Legion program)—and all of that was done in about fifteen minutes of a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours long.

When you sit down to write or revise the beginning of your story, look at what parts of the story you’re focusing on and think ahead to what sort of promises those are making. If in your first draft, you opened with a light-hearted romance scene and then the book ends up being about a woman dealing with a mental illness…well, then you need to revise your hook. Readers who are hooked by the light-hearted romance might not be looking for a book about mental illness, and the people who do want that book might be turned off by the opening romance. As a writer, it’s your job to make sure the beginning of the book sets the tone and makes the sort of promises that are necessary to tell the story you want to tell.

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