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