Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hooklines

I was talking about hooklines with one of the "Tri M"s the other day, and she suggested I blog about it. Now, I know there are dozens of other, probably better informed, bloggers out there who have tackled the hookline topic, but I decided to give it a go.

*Note: this post is completely composed of my own take on the subject gathered from what I've learned as a reader and what I've gleaned from other writers. As it is largely opinion, I may change it one day, and it may not be the same as other peoples.*

Hooklines: What are they and why do readers want to read them?
A hookline, in the sense I will be discussing today, is typically the first line (or paragraph) of a book. (Of course there are often hooks and hooklines at ends and beginnings of chapters, but that is a totally different discussion.) The hook is the first thing a potential reader finds when she/he opens a book, and hopefully grabs her attention. The best that I've read do at least a couple of the following things:
-Establishes an immediate 'problem' the main character is faced with.
-Makes the reader ask questions.
-Instantly immerses the reader in the setting.
-Establishes the 'voice' of the book.
-Introduces the main character in a unique way.

That's a lot to accomplish with a single sentence! But, like I said, most do some, not all of these things. Lets look at some great examples:

"The moment the door opened I knew an ass-kicking was inevitable. Whether I’d be giving it or receiving it was still a bit of a mystery." -- STRAY, by Rachel Vincent

What do these first two lines do? Well, for starters we are immediately asking questions like "Why is an ass-kicking inevitable?" and "Who will be fighting?" This is also an intriguing problem, because there is a sense of tension and possible danger involved. Thirdly, just in two short lines, the voice of the story--a little sarcastic and a lot of attitude--is established. If you are like me, you are going to go on read on just to find out what happens next.

Example 2:
"I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck." -- HALFWAY TO THE GRAVE by Jeaniene Frost

One line. Just one line, and look how much punch it has. We have our problem there causing tension: there is something in the back of the truck that the MC can't explain, and she's being pulled over by the cops. We immediately want to know "What is in the back of the truck?" and "Will she get caught?" This also gives us some setting, we know the action is happening on the road, in a truck.

(Snips of dialogue also makes a good hook sometimes, and I wanted to find an example of this, but my books are at home where I have no internet, and I can't remember a book of the top off my head with this, though I know there are tons of great ones.)

Grab the readers attention and hang on; make the reader ask questions and immediately become involved in the story, the characters; That's what makes a great hook, and both the above ladies achieve that and more. Starting in the middle of the action, when things are just beginning to spike, seems to be the key. For example, Rachel doesn't set up anything about her character before this opening. She doesn't describe her school or tell you why she may end up in a fight. She starts it right at the moment danger first caresses the character. Then she slows down (just a breath) so you see the scene and the character a bit more before the hinted confrontation occurs. Likewise, the reader doesn't 'see' Jeaniene's character cruising down the road, or even loading the truck. She starts us at the moment when the character has the most at stake, and trusts the reader to catch up. It works, and it works well.

So, very quickly, lets cover some things that don't work quite as well. (And no, there are no examples for this part. You will have to judge the books you find on your own.) Most of these have more to do with what follows the first line than the line itself, but bear with me.
-Too much description. While it's great for the hook to drop you into a scene, this should be almost invisible. If the hook becomes description heavy, I get bogged down because I don't have any reason to care yet.
-A stunning first line that has nothing to do with the story. If a writer sets me up for a fast-paced, attitude ridden story, and by the end of chapter one the pace is slow and cozy, I'm going to feel rather duped and probably not continue reading (or buy anymore of her books.) This of course works in reverse as well.
-An opening that is intentionally misleading or confusing. It's good to be dumped in the middle of the action--It's bad to be so confused by the end of the first scene you consider ripping our your hair.

Okay, so that is a (fairly) quick run down of what I consider makes a good hookline. What do you think is necessary for a good hook? Or in reverse, what makes a hook fall short for you? What are some of the best hooks you've read recently?

1 comment:

purpleprose 78 said...

I just read a good one that started with dialogue...

"Please wait Miss St. Clair." The small neat man behind the reception desk leaped to his feet. "You simply cannot burst in on Mr. Boone like this." - Ghost Hunter, Jayne Castle (aka Jayne Ann Krentz).

I instantly wanted to know who Miss St Claire and Mr Boone were and why was she clearly going in unexpectedly.