Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The "hook" . . .Why & How

Funny how times change. In the “good-old days”, writers like Hemingway opened stories with detailed description, scene-setting and gradually fleshed out characters who built the plot. Today is different. Many industry sources call for stories to begin with a strong "hook"; capture reader interest quickly. Publishers and agents suggest that manuscripts may be rejected in favor of stories with early hooks, fast introduction to plot and strong pace.


We’ve entered the Age-of-Low-Attention-Spans. Many kids and young adults, indulged by video games, iPod smart phones, texting and a plethora of instant gratification devices, lack the patience to wade through as little as a single chapter of a story before getting to the “fun” stuff. Sure, there are plenty of adult readers who learned long ago that a great novel can grow out of a slow beginning, but younger generations represent the future of publishing. Their needs dictate the direction writers must take if we hope to enjoy long careers. Publishing companies and literary agents recognize such trends and already make decisions for this future market . . . which brings me to the topic. What characteristics make for the great “hook” that the industry demands?

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I have no idea who first coined this expression, but it makes sense for writers today. If future fans want immediate hooks, quick gratification and intense plots (yeah – the written version of videogames!), then we need to heed the message. Accordingly, the “hook” sets a story on its course. The "hook" is your FIRST chance to make a FIRST impression with readers who may only last a couple pages before becoming bored.

How do we do this? Do we use narration or dialog, action or description? Most advice I’ve read about building a good hook, involves pace. Tension must be present within the first few paragraphs. Then, it (the pace of the initial hook) must grow. How do we create tension? Conflict is the primary source of tension in stories. It doesn’t matter if the initial struggle is terribly important to the plot or is used as a means to connect the reader with a character. The goal is simple. Get the reader caught up in the moment and wanting to read more.

Example:  Let’s say your main antagonist hates firemen. His mother burned to death while firemen refused to enter the collapsing building. His flash backs, described later in the story, explain why he grew up to be a psychopath who hates firemen and engages in a string of murders of fire fighters. During the book, the brutal memory motivating him as a serial killer gives him flashbacks of standing in front of his home, listening to his mother’s screams while no rescue was possible. Intense headaches accompany each memory with his mother’s screams inside his mind drowning out all other sounds around him. He suffers these flashbacks in growing frequency and intensity as the story unfolds.

So, how do we open this story? Perhaps the childhood flashback might be a good opening hook. Maybe . . . but it’s better to save backstory for later in the novel. Perhaps some intuitive investigator (main protagonist) stumbles onto an old newspaper story about the burning home. The article might even have a picture of the flame-engulfed house with a small boy silhouetted (our bad guy) in front of a backdrop of firefighters covering their faces against the searing heat. This could be the break needed by investigators as they develop motive and profile of the serial killer. Sure, it’s a great ah-ha moment in the story, but it’s a lousy hook because the rest of the story would then lose some of its important tension after the reader already knows who-dunnit.

How about another approach? What if we open the story with a firefighter trapped inside a collapsing building. He’s talking on his comm radio to his commander, desperately calling out for help and describing his location inside the structure. Fellow firemen bravely enter the building, wearing special high-protection rescue suits. Just as they reach their friend, someone watching from shadows nearby pushes the “Call” button on a cell phone. Explosives strapped to support pillars in the basement detonate, collapsing the inferno into fiery chaos and death.

Notice this “hook” creates immediate tension, growing action, introduction to plot, and even gives a brief glance at the sinister main antagonist, without revealing his motivation or identity. It leaves many questions for the reader to wonder about. This entire scene can be written in as little as two or three pages, complete with compelling radio dialog and unsuccessful, post-explosion efforts to save the men inside. It is a strong introduction for the writing style of the author, and readers are far more likely to anticipate excitement that could be just around the next literary corner.

Tension, rising pace, character introduction, mix of dialog and narrative; these things work together to present a reader with the excitement and anticipation they expect in a modern story. Build a strong “hook” and you will attract more than readers . . . you’ll catch literary agents and publishers as well!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

One Million Hits and Counting!

My daughter is a Christian missionary in Costa Rica with her family. She's also a prolific writer who challenges the establishment-Christian view of the world. Her refreshing and controversial views have drawn a huge following--over one million hits on her blog! I'm told, a minister in Germany even contacted her for permission to quote her blog in his sermon.

Now, don't get the wrong idea. She's not a religious finger-waiver; quite the contrary. Some consider her language crude and offensive. Others love that she has the courage to speak in "real" terms, complete with profanity on occasion, rather than the pastor-approved Pablum dished out for politically correct sheeple.

Why mention that here in my writing blog?

"Jamie - The Very Worst Missionary" (as her blog is titled) provides a valuable lesson for writers. Her following includes those who love her, AND those who hate her message. Likewise, successful storytelling relies on impact with readers. Good writers master the ability to create emotional connection. Anger, joy, sadness, hope, fond memories, curiosity, titillation, horror . . . feelings created in a reader mean that the writer connected; that his or her prose impacted, as it should.

Is there a secret to achieving such effect?

Again, I refer to my oldest daughter's writing as an example:

Notice that she writes from the heart. It's almost as if she and the reader are sharing a cup of coffee and sitting in the shade at a sidewalk table while she spouts off between sips, slurps or, yes, un-lady-like gulps. Her passion comes through using ordinary language and phrases, not pretentious words found only in national spelling bees. Hemingway had this gift; the ability to write for the common person. Again, the lesson for those of us who aspire to successful storytelling is simple. Effective writing is about creating emotional connection with readers.

Vocabulary choices, sentence structure, building plot and vivid character development serve only one purpose. That is to reach inside a reader's heart and mind, and to wrench them from their current reality into the subject of the storytelling. Jamie does it. We should too.