Monday, March 21, 2005
THE HOOK: HOLDING THE READER
I jolted to a state of full alertness. I'd been resting -- half-sleeping -- in my favorite blue leather recliner, polished to a patina that only years of diligent use could give it. The chair was my chrysalis in which caterpillars that were my writing dreams became butterflies of prose. My dream was that someday, I could polish my writing to the same sparkling level of patina my special chair had. Time to stop dreaming and write about beginnings.
The paragraph you have just read is called a "hook." If it captured your attention, and at the same time, foreshadowed the writing to follow, it did its job.
A few years ago, I edited a professional newsletter. The publisher, a wise and crafty veteran of the magazine industry, told me, "If a story doesn't capture you in the first sentence -- no make that the first half-dozen words -- toss it. Our readers don't have time to fish for the theme. The writer needs to grab them before they have a chance to think of other things they could be doing. It needs to tell the readers why it's important for them to read your piece, and the writer had better do it in a way that makes the readers want to read on."
I listened to every word he said about great beginnings. He was also the man who told me, " . . . write spare. Treat words as if they are rationed and make every one of them count for something."
Instead of quoting great beginnings of other writers, I decided to put modesty aside and tell you about the beginning of one of my books. By using myself as an example, I can talk about motivation and purpose as well as present the words that made up the hook.
I am a practicing psychotherapist. In deciding to write a book for clients who might benefit from learning more about solutions to their problems, I wanted to create a powerful hook both to draw the attention of the editor, and tell in as few words as possible, the focus and purpose of the manuscript. By the time I made the decision about the hook, I had already the body of the manuscript. I called the beginning a prelude instead of a preface to create a lyrical quality to match the tone of the writing.
The single problem standing in my way was that I had no acceptable beginning. So, I wrote first lines; the first few emerged and they were -- judge for yourself:
"This book contains the stories of . . . ," which evolved slowly to: "I am a therapist who practices with abused women . . . ."
Would those slugs stop an editor in her tracks? Would she continue eating her salad or put down her fork? A better question might be: after reading those Perma-Pressed beginnings, would she still have an appetite for her salad?
For a brief time, I remained stymied. I contemplated. Who was I? What was I trying to accomplish by writing this manuscript? What themes was I trying to convey? By adding one additional focus, I solved the puzzle for myself: What is my personal motivation for writing this material? The answer led me to my hook. Abused women have no voice. Often the first time they told their stories was to me, or if they told them before, they got no satisfactory responses that allowed them to take control of their lives.
I wrote the manuscript because I had to write it. Writing was a reaction to the years of accumulated pain that my clients communicated to me and the prior silence that condemned them to a life of violence, fear, pain and chaos. To know my opening line, I found it necessary to narrow the focus of my question. Realizing that the focus of my manuscript was to give a voice to the voiceless. To be heard and understood is the beginning of freedom and acceptance. So, after a few more false starts I boiled the ideas down to the essence and began the book:
"Sometimes, I hear voices."
The editor later told me that he couldn't put it down after that beginning. I'll leave it to you to judge for yourself whether my four words and a comma rate as a hook that leads off a great beginning. To demonstrate how much effort and planning went into the choice of four words and a comma, I chose to take you through the thought processes that got me there. I agonized for most of a day over whether to use the comma.
As a result of my choices, the other 101,764 words comprising the manuscript were accepted for publication as well. Nine years later, I still receive correspondence from readers, and not a single one contained a letter-bomb!
Here are five of the rationales for creating a Great Beginning:
1. A hook draws the attention and interest of the reader.
2. A hook gives the reader a mental image of the plot.
3. A great beginning gives the editor and the reader a reason to continue reading.
4. A great beginning gives you a charge that will carry you through to the last word of the story.
5. A hook forces you to sum up what you are writing in a brief statement.
To conclude, a hook is the first statement, paragraph or page of your story. In a book-length manuscript, your beginning may be somewhat longer than in a short story and contain somewhat more description. To paraphrase my publisher one more time, "If you don't catch the reader within a few words, you've lost her." I don't write over a hundred thousand words and spend six months of my life crippling my hands on a keyboard or straining my eyes to read the ten point print in the thesaurus just to foul it up by being too lazy to make the beginning ring like a silver bell.
The best beginnings are written last. That is because by the time you have written the manuscript, it is likely that there is no resemblance between what you set out to write and what appears in the finished draft. The hook sums up everything you are going to write, but you can't know what you are going to write until you've written it.
Is writing a hook complicated? It is until you realize that writing is five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent discipline. The editor will open the manuscript to page one. Unless you have a beginning that pulls her right through the page into the story, she will not turn to page two.
A great beginning greatly improves the possibility that there will be a happy ending -- for you, the writer. I'm going back to my chair now to cogitate about my next piece of writing . . .