Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Monday, April 4, 2011

Act I, Scene 1 - On Hooks

Last week I started writing a rant on the topic of writing advice I consider worse than useless: the do and don't lists on how to start your novel. This list from the Guardian went around the Twitter aspiring-author community like wildfire last year, and to some extent it still haunts the mental landscape.

Given the weekend to cool off, I no longer feel quite so ranty. (Never internet while angry.) I do feel like this is a topic that needs more attention and thought that can be provided by a series of checklists. I don't know if I'm the person to provide that, but I may as well give it a shot.

I am a technical writer by trade, and I am going to try looking at the First Paragraph from a functional perspective. Art is dynamic; it needs to do something in interaction with the audience (otherwise you may as well stare at the wall). The First Paragraph in a work of fiction has one overriding purpose: to make the reader read the second paragraph. One way to do this is by stimulating the reader's curiosity, and one way of doing that is with a "hook." As far as I can tell, a hook is a simple sentence that contains something startling.

I am not sure that the hook is essential. There are other ways to excite curiosity. I find myself wondering if, given all the crap they must have to wade through, agents and publishers don't end up putting an almost unnatural weight on that opening sentence, that opening paragraph. Speaking as a reader, I've read the jacket copy; I am prepared to believe that this book I am holding contains an interesting story. It does not actually need to grab me by the lapels and fling me into an action scene in order for me to believe that, any more than every movie has to start with a James Bond sequence. I am generally willing to give a book at least a few pages before I get impatient.

Which brings us back to function. Your first paragraph does something--an infinite number of somethings--to provide the reader entree to the story, to pique their curiosity. It can also serve to identify its intended audience and the story's overall tone. To illustrate, I am going to quote the first paragraph of one of my favorite books of all time, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint.

By way of contrast, the book I am currently carrying around with me is Kameron Hurley's God's War.

These are very different openings. Is one approach good and the other bad?

I think we can all agree that God's War has quite a hook--it formally declares itself as such by setting the first sentence off in its own paragraph. More than inciting curiosity, however, it also sets a tone. This is going to be a book that treats its characters and its readers roughly. The language is bald and challenging. The place names along with the desert provide a hint as to the setting's roots. This is effective, compact use of language.

As for Swordspoint... Oh. My. God. Weather! And nothing is happening. It has no identifiable hook, and current wisdom, it seems, suggests that no reader would ever get past that paragraph. However--there is more going on in it than "it's winter." Description piles up (like the snow) in a series of contrasts to create tension that can only be eased by reading on:  feather-puffs/ruined, jagged/rounded, cozily/shattered. It builds a picture in your mind, promises more but makes you wait for it. The language tells you what kind of story this is going to be, that it is literary, romantic, indirect.

I think there is room in this universe for more than one approach to the opening paragraph. What do you think?


Anita said...

I agree w/you wholeheartedly! Both kinds of beginnings work to lasso in the kinds of readers who will like those particular books.

BTW, my fave of the two paragraphs was the first. Such lush and evocative writing! I could almost feel the snow crunching under my feet and the wind chilling my neck.

Also, I thought the last sentence of that paragraph--with its darker imagery--left you on the edge of a hook, with a sort of unsettled feeling, making you want to read on.

It's so interesting you posted this. I did a blog a week or so ago about the same thing, but using the writer's rule of three to help your beginning hook a reader. http://tinyurl.com/3n4e33g

Great post! Thanks for giving me so much to think about. :)

Anita said...

BTW, I tweeted this post along w/mine again. Hooks are always a good subject.

RJS said...

Hi Anita! Thank you for commenting. I am a big fan of Kushner's use of language.

I loved your post, and you got some great responses; I'm going to give some thought to my openings in light of that "rule". There's lots of room for exploration in this subject.

Thank you for the tweet! :)

shrinkers said...

Readers look for one thing. Editors look for another. Editors and slush readers want something in the first three words that demands their attention. Readers have already bought the damn book based on the sexy cover art, and are willing to push through the first 15 or 20 pages to make sure they haven't wasted their money.

I really think the only possible solution is to write the opening you think the book should have. Then keep that opening in a closet, don't let it see the sun for a while, and write an opening that stabs the slush reader in the eye. When you get into edits, take the real opening out of your closet, dust it, give it a kiss, and silently replace the campy explosion with what should have been there all along.

RJS said...

It might be worth a try! :) Hmm... yet another potential topic - over-the-top opening lines?