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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How to Plot for Dummies (by a Dummy)

Our blog is called The Plotless for a reason. Not that I can speak for my co-bloggers, but plotting is the single hardest thing about writing. Characters spring out of my brain like multiple personalities come to life. Dialogue comes naturally enough. I can write a descriptive paragraph in my sleep. But plotting…it’s a wily devil. Complicating matters is the plethora of plotting methods floating around in my brain. I’ve been around the writing advice block a few dozen times. Not that writing advice is bad, but you know the saying “your mileage may vary”? Yes. My mileage is very poor. Like 1 MPG poor. Writing advice just doesn’t really work for me. I focus so much on someone else’s method as a means to avoid the hard work and copious amount of time it takes to figure out your own writing method.

With that complaint about myself sufficiently logged, I want to share the best plotting methods I’ve found plus one I’ve come up with myself.

(1) Brandon Sanderson’s sense of progression.

I’m a huge fan of Writing Excuses. Podcast host Brandon Sanderson also teaches a college writing class that I’ve taken. In both he’s spoken about his primary method of plotting; he plots using a sense of progression. It’s an interesting idea, but a little vague, you know? But when I’m reading a book I understand what he’s talking about. Having listened to more of Brandon’s advice about writing than your average human being, I have also gathered that he thinks of the most spectacular ending he can and then plots backwards. What steps will it take to get to that spectacular ending? With those milestones in place, you can then write scene to scene with the idea that your characters just need to be moving (not always forward, either. Characters aren’t always supposed to succeed. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes failures take them exactly where they’re supposed to be).

The latest Writing Excuses episode that references this plotting method here.

(2) Seven-point story structure.

Dan Wells, another Writing Excuses podcaster, gave a great presentation on this popular structure.

Part 1 of the series here.

The disclaimer here is that this method is often better used to analyze what you’ve written rather than to plot a novel from scratch…but if you’re desperate for a little structure to help your plot gel, then this is a great method. It focuses on conflicts, (the pinch, the turn, etc.) It also helps you focus on arcs, for both plot and characters, more than other plotting methods I’ve seen. Where your characters/plot end up should be the opposite (or close to it) of where they/it started.

As a lazy discovery writer who should probably be a plotter  (an explanation of pantsers vs. plotters here) I find this method interesting because it lets me think of my plot in the fuzzy way that comes naturally to my brain. It allows me to come up with twists and turns as I go. Character A is going along trying to achieve Goal A and all the sudden BAM! Conflict.

(3) The dubious plotting method of Megan Gadd.

Don’t get your hopes up that my plotting method is brilliant or anything. It’s just a nice, friendly way for my brain to approach plotting without freezing up like a deer in the headlights.

To be honest, I can never quite figure out how to pull off the Brandon Sanderson method of plotting. And the seven-point story structure always leaves me feeling like the characters are dead on the page between “points.” I desperately need my own method.

As a reader, my favorite plots are those that feel like Rube Goldberg machines. You have no idea where it’s going to end, but each step leads brilliantly to the next.

Recently I was reading a book and I could NOT put my finger on what was bothering me about it.

As it turns out, a fellow reader was able to help me out. I read a review of the novel, and in the comments someone pointed out that it had no sense of cause and effect. The characters act (an essential part of plotting to be sure) but their actions led to no consequences. Without that sense of consequence (complications or conflict) your characters might still be moving forward, but not in the concentrated, focused way that good storytelling requires. I mean waking up everyday to face normal everyday conflicts is all well and good, but it’s not that great a story, you know?

So. Cause and effect. To effect something you have to act (or choose deliberately not to act). There can be more than one effect to an action, perhaps an immediate consequence and one that comes into play down the road. I love this method because as a writer sometimes I write without an end in mind (a pantser) and sometimes I write with an end in mind (a plotter). I think this method can work for both plotting modes. A pantser can have a character make a decision and can decide the consequence on the spot. Lather, rinse, repeat, and see where that takes the novel. A plotter can use this idea to sit down and plan out the Rube Goldberg machine step for step.

This kind of chain reaction plotting sounds very linear, and I guess it is. For right now that’s how I’m going to approach my writing. As Michael Scott says to Dwight, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

NaNoWriMo is nigh and I’m excited to use this method to keep me writing every day. I’ll report back afterwards and let you know how this plotting method works out for me.

Read a Lot. Write a Lot.

stephen_king

“[R]ead a lot. Write a lot.” –Stephen King

*This is the Monday post you’re looking for*

Without further ado (who am I kidding? I love ado!) this Tuesday’s Monday’s post!

Continuing on a claim I made in my last post—that I’ve read 150 books so far this year—let me say that I had a reason for reading so much. Since last year I’ve been writing in the new-to-me romance genre, and I wanted to get a feel for it.

But reading so many books is expensive. Erasmus might be able to spend his money on books first, but I like to wear clothes and eat decent meals too. Over the years, I’ve come up with some ways to read a lot on a budget.

(1) The library, duh.

You might not have heard of a library, but it’s a wonderful place where you’re allowed to borrow books for free! It’s book paradise.

But seriously. I know many people who love to read and don’t ever go to their local library because the library never seems to have the books they want. If you have a little know-how and patience, you could read virtually whatever you wanted using only your library. All copies checked out? Place a hold. The title you want isn’t carried by the library? Put in a purchase request. That’s right. Depending on the library, they might go ahead and buy the book for you. (Your mileage may vary).

(2) The online library.

This option is for those who perhaps don’t have the ability or wont to go to the physical library. Increasingly, libraries offer digital media, and as with all technology, the interfaces are becoming slicker by the year. Many libraries’ online catalogs let you download audiobooks and ebooks. For example, the Provo City Library uses One Click Digital and Overdrive. I’ve used both.

Even more exciting, more and more library catalogs have “one-click” downloads that allow you to check out and download the book directly from the catalog without navigating to an external site. But even if the library catalog redirects you to an external site, the process for downloading your books to your computer is extremely easy for even the non tech-savvy.

Companies (like Overdrive, the one I’m most familiar with) are also developing mobile apps that are continually improving. Once you have an account set up (based on your library card information) you can check out and download books straight to your phone or tablet.
All for free!

(3) Online retailers.

Amazon? But this is an article about saving money!

True. I will admit that sometimes I have a hard time finding the titles I want to read at my local library (and sometimes I don’t have the patience to wait for a hold). Perhaps it’s because libraries often carry the most popular books, and I’m to the point where I’m reading in niches and subgenres that don’t make sense for the library to carry. Libraries are the best, but I’m also not averse to buying books if it supports the author. The key for me is balance. I check some out from my library, I buy some from Barnes and Noble or Amazon or wherever.

But here’s a cool idea. Go to your local library’s website and see if they have a program called Buy It Now. This is a fairly new program that some libraries have that allows you to enter Amazon’s website through the library’s Buy It Now portal. For anything you buy, including items other than books, a percentage of the proceeds is given back to your library!

Here’s an example, again from the Provo City Library.

buy it now

Full disclosure: I work for the company that developed the Buy It Now program, but they’re not asking me to pimp it. I just think it’s really, really awesome.

(4) Free ninety-nine.

Try a self-published book or a book from a small digital press.
They often cost much less than a book from the Big Six. I often buy books for as little as $0.99–if you’re braver than me, you can go for the free books.

I’d recommend taking the time to find a blogger or two you like who review indie-pubbed books in addition to books from big publishers. You’re more likely to avoid the low-quality offerings and go straight for the good stuff. In the romance genre, sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches Trashy Books review indie-pubbed books, and through experience I’ve learned I trust their reviewers’ opinions. Some of the best books I read last year were indie-pubbed and I learned about them because of these two review sites.

For YA and Fantasy, my favorite bloggers are called The Book Smugglers. They will also occasionally review indie-pubbed books. Let me know if you can think of any others.

(5) The book round-up.

The two sites I mention above do a daily deals feature, and they nearly always include books deals for all the major online retailers and from all major and minor publishers. Even if Amazon isn’t your cup of tea, Barnes and Noble and Kobo deals are also featured. Here’s a little secret for the people in love with Amazon’s low prices—Barnes and Noble more often than not price match Amazon. If Amazon is running a great deal on a book, B&N probably is too.

(6) A final note.

For print-only readers I have fewer suggestions, and unfortunately they’re all pretty obvious. Use the library. Borrow books from friends. Swap or trade books at a used book store.

Any way you slice it, writers need to read. We need to know what is happening in our field. All writing is a conversation, and we need to know what’s already been said in that conversation so our contributions can build on the whole and add something unique.