Hooking A Reader

Last week, I promised you a funny story about narrative hooks.  I was told this

A Reader Hooked

one many years ago by Roger Zelazny.

Roger had been asked to speak at one of the big-name writer’s workshops.  I think this one was in Iowa, but don’t hold me to that.  In any case, this workshop was one of the multi-week ones that had two different sets of instructors: the regular faculty who were there for the whole six weeks or so and the guest speakers.

Roger was one of the guest speakers.  He came in early in the course and therefore was asked to talk about starting a story.  As he told me the tale, he began by discussing how important it was to start a story with something that would grab the reader.  Only after the reader was invested in the story should the writer go on and provide the background necessary to understand the events.

He paused, and his co-instructor, a member of the regular faculty, nodded enthusiastically and said, “By all means, let’s talk about narrative hooks.”

As Roger told it, he looked at her quizzically and said, “All right.  What are those?”

He always laughed when he told the story, but I think he also was making a point.  No matter how many writer’s courses you take, no matter how many trade terms you soak up or how good you are at slinging the jargon, a writer needs to understand the art from inside, not superimpose it from the outside.

Last week, we talked about novels that were ultimately great reads but didn’t necessarily have the best openings – those books we might have missed if we didn’t give them more than a few sentences.  I thought it was only fair to talk about the openings that have grabbed us – and whether or not the book measured up to the expectations that had been raised.

I’ll put myself on the block first.  Last week, Dennis Herrick very kindly mentioned my novel Marks of Our Brothers as having a great narrative hook.  For ease of reference, here it is.

“My martial arts instructor says that I’m a hopeless cause.

“‘Do you really want to learn this or is this some kinda joke?’ she growls.

“I don’t answer except by hopelessly screwing up another attempt at a breakfall, but I really do want to learn.  There are six people that I have to kill and I figure that some idea of how to defend myself might come in handy.”

Within in the next couple of sentences, you find out that the speaker has already succeeded in killing one of her six targets, so you know she’s serious.

This book was published in 1995, written some years earlier, but even so, I’m too close to it to look at these lines objectively.  I can tell you this.  While this was a great hook for some people, for other readers – those who like a book to stay predictable – it did not serve.  They wanted the narrative hook to be the equivalent of the thesis in a term paper, a neat spelling out of the book in miniature.  They wanted to read a book that would have ticked off murder by murder in neat order.

Well, this is one of my books, so that’s not precisely what happened.  However, the issue does remain at the heart of the book, although not in the manner either the reader or the main character would have imagined at the start.

Narrative hooks are too complex a topic to deal with conclusively in a few hundred words.  Besides, I don’t think I have all the answers.  However, before I sign off and open the floor to discussion, I’d like to share one of my favorite narrative hooks ever.  This one is from The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe Lansdale.

“When I got over to Leonard’s Christmas Eve night, he had the Kentucky Headhunters turned way up at his place, and they were singing ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett,’ and Leonard, in a kind of Christmas celebration, was once again setting fire to the house next door.

“I wished he’d quit doing that.  I’d helped him the first time, but he’d done it the second time on his own, and now here I was third time out, driving up.  It was going to look damn suspicious when the cops got here.”

Does this predict the book’s future action?  No, but it certainly tells you a lot about the two main characters and their interaction.  I, at least, had to keep reading to find out why Leonard kept burning down the house next door – and why he apparently didn’t think he needed to hide his actions.  By then I was invested.  I kept reading.

I’d love to hear what grabs you in an opening.  Are you looking for a plot summary?  A taste of the characters?  An interesting puzzle?  Something entirely different?

I’ve got a mug of coffee and I’m ready to listen.

13 Responses to “Hooking A Reader”

  1. Peter Says:

    What grabs me in an opening? All of the above, plus…what shall I call it? A *stylistic* hook, perhaps, as opposed to a narrative one. Not something that necessarily tells you anything about the characters, or the world, or the plot, but that says something about the *author*. Best example I can think of off-hand:

    “Snow, tenderly caught by eddying breezes, swirled and spun in to and out of bright, lustrous shapes that gleamed against the emerald-blazoned black drape of sky and sparkled there for a moment, hanging, before settling gently to the soft, green-tufted plain with all the sickly sweetness of an overwritten sentence.”

    It doesn’t set up the narrative or the characters the way “He awoke and remembered dying.” or “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” do, but it serves a similar purpose – it sucks in the reader (or did in my case) and it gives a taste of just what kind of ride we’re in for for the next few hundred pages.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I’m a bit like a trout. If the barbs on the hook are obvious, I’m not that interested, because that tells me that the author is more interested into manipulating me than telling a good story.

  3. Dominique Says:

    I guess I really don’t know exactly what a good hook looks like exactly, or even if there is just one kind that appeals to me. I just know a good one when I read it. :)

  4. Emily McKinnie Says:

    I prefer a good hook that makes you want to look a little further since something that just starts off explaining complexities takes away from the first impression. It doesn’t have to be a battle scene or a completely wild conversation, but it does have to be enough to make me ask “Why is this happening?” After a good interesting starter, the writer can add some details.

  5. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Some thing interesting.

    It’s pretty much that simple. Give me something that makes me think “what’s going on here?” Or entices me to think something juicy is coming.

    One of your own books actually, I think it was the third or fourth Firekeeper book, has a great example. The line went something like “Firekeeper stood and looked over her destiny”. (that’s not it, but I can’t find the right book to get it right.)

    For a, by then, longtime fan, I wasn’t just hooked, I swallowed the boat. Something good was coming, or so I felt. That’s what I look for. Interest, excitement, drama, or maybe just a tease to my curiosity. Give me a reason to wonder what’s coming while making me think it’s something I’d want to read/watch.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I happen to have that book near at hand…

      The opening you’re referring to is from “Wolf’s Blood,” the sixth Firekeeper novel.

      It reads as follows: “Firekeeper stood, feet planted slightly apart, head held high, and looked from her past into her future.”

      I think this is one of those that works better for people already invested in the series. By this point, I’d written something between four and five thousand pages of manuscript. Firekeeper — although only in her mid-twenties — definitely had a past.

      The question was, what would her future — especially at this delicate juncture — bring?

  6. Louis Robinson Says:

    “His name was Mahasamatman, but his friends called him Sam”

    Which is probably misquoted, but it gets the point across – I remember this sentence because it drew me not just into a book but into an entire body of work. Rather unusually, at that, since I doubt that even one book in ten has me decide ‘I’m going to read this’ before well into the first chapter, at least. In fact, if I haven’t read a couple of chapters, I often have trouble remembering the title or author. I’ve been trying to think of others, but the only one that comes to mind is “Mother taught me to be poilite to dragons. Particularly polite, I mean; she taught me to be ordinary polite to everyone.” And that was quite different, because I already knew perfectly well who the author was, I just hadn’t seen her on the shelf for a long time.

    Other than those few, a book has to hook me every page. I have a couple around here that I drifted away from 2/3 of the way through book 3 of a trilogy.

  7. Alan Robson Says:

    I like it best when the narrative hook is just a single sentence. Peter has already mentioned “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” which is the opening sentence of Iain Banks’ wonderful novel “The Crow Road” and I find it hard to imagine anything to top that, though I do have a sneaking fondness for “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.” which is the first sentence of “Tarzan Of The Apes”.

    Perhaps Edward Bulwer-Lytton got it right after all. It was a dark and stormy night…


    -Alan

  8. janelindskold Says:

    I never thought about a narrative hook as a hint to style, but it’s true that when I read a book I’m looking to find out if I want to stay with that person’s writing.

    Thanks for the insight.

    Overall there are some great comments here… Like “heteromeles” I prefer not having my chain jerked in a obvious fashion. Actually, I rather hate that.

    And something touched on in the comments last week but worth bringing up here is that something the reader’s state of mind is as much an element in how successful a hook will be.

    I could talk more about that at length if anyone wants to encourage me.

  9. heteromeles Says:

    Great idea Jane. Feel free to continue expounding…

  10. Paul Says:

    Two votes.
    One of my favorites is from a Louis L’Amour titled “Flint” although it is a little wordy:
    “It is given to few people in this world to disappear twice but, as he had succeeded once, the man known as James T. Kettleman was about to make his second attempt.
    “If he did not succeed this time he would never know it, for he would be dead…”
    Then there was the mystery novel which started out something like, “The naked redhead ran by me and jumped into the pool.” We then learn there is a shark in the pool. The narrator spends the rest of the chapter trying to save the girl-on-drugs from the shark. The second chapter gives the backstory on how he came to be there. I don’t remember the author or title, mainly because the rest of the book didn’t live up to the opening for me.
    I guess I tend to use a combination of reading the opening plus the back cover and inside page for paperbacks, or back cover and inside cover for hardbacks, to decide if I might like a book. The opening helps me decide if the book will live up to the cover hype.

  11. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement…

    I promise I’ll come back to how readers play a role in narrative hooks, but I just got some good news that’s going to bump it’s way to the head of the line!

    And I now need to go find a copy of FLINT…

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