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Old 09-04-2008, 11:30 AM
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Default Hooks - An Informal Study

Originally posted by HoiLei:

Before arriving here, I had never heard of a hook. Why was everyone so worried about grabbing the reader by the throat, leaping straight into the action, and other unpleasant things? I'd never noticed that stuff in my favorite books. Maybe hooks were only for thrillers and spy novels, I thought. People who read to be excited might want instant action, but people who read for pleasure and relaxation would never abide it! Ultimately, hooks sounded gimmicky to me.

A few things have changed my opinion. First, I've looked over my own old writing, and found it extremely slow to start. Indeed, if it weren't mine, I probably wouldn't read it! Second, I've done a brief, personal study of the opening chapters of several books. My selections are not representative of literary criticism, but of my own favorites. It is those observations I'd like to share with WritersBeat.

Classic novels
Many classic novels become famous for their first lines, which argues for the effectiveness of a carefully crafted first chapter:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." (A Tale of Two Cities)
"Call me Ishmael." (Moby Dick)
"Marley was dead: to begin with." (A Christmas Carol)
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina)

Other classics don't have memorable first lines, but they still draw us in, usually with dialog or an interesting situation:

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice starts very nicely, with a wry observation about marriage: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Then Austen leaps straight into dialog, using the words of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to tell us about them, rather than boring us with description. The whole first chapter is dialog, except for the last paragraph, which tells us about the character of the couple. Of course, that is not necessary, since she only tells us what we've already figured out from the dialog!

Louisa May Alcott starts Little Women with dialog, too:
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
Our first reaction today may be to wish she'd just said "said", but there's no doubt that she gets right into things.

And who can put down a book that opens with: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect"? Way to go, Franz Kafka! Not only do you get a cookie, you get an adjective: "Kafkaesque"!

However, not all classics have a hook. Though I've always loved Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, the first chapter does nothing to recommend it. I spent over three years in elementary school occasionally picking it up, being bored out of my skull, and putting it back down. He spends pages describing the woods around Cedric's manor, though it has no bearing on the plot. As hooks go, this one sucks:
In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.
The Three Musketeers commits what I'm told are cardinal sins of opening chapters: the opening line is dull; there is description of place and back story; and the little action we get is painfully described, with long sentences and convoluted syntax. (That last one may be the fault of the translator.) Yet these failings never stopped me from reading and loving it.

Stephen Crane short story "A Grey Sleeve" was always a favorite of mine for its tension. So I was surprised, upon checking it for this "study", to find it begins with the most uninteresting prose:
"It looks as if it might rain this afternoon," remarked the lieutenant of artillery.
"So it does," the infantry captain assented. He glanced casually at the sky. When his eyes had lowered to the green-shadowed landscape before him, he said fretfully: "I wish those fellows out yonder would quit pelting at us. They've been at it since noon."
I mean, seriously, who starts a story with adverbs and small talk about the weather?

Victor Hugo even has an annoying habit of starting a book with a needless detail, then saying that it's needless! The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells us that bells are ringing, then says "there was nothing notable in the event". Les Miserables starts with a history of the Bishop, which Hugo admits "has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate".

My more modern favorites
This section will be smaller, since I don't read much modern stuff, and since copyright issues make it hard to find/copy the first lines using only the internet. I suggest you look closely at your own favorites and see how they compare!

The novel Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) begins with the line "It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance". That mention of disappearances is enough to keep my attention through the whole first chapter (in which no-one disappears), and there's a lot of character building before the narrator time-travels at the end of chapter two. However, people who put a novel down if nothing immediately "happens" would surely put that one down, and miss out.

Tom Clancy's Without Remorse opens with the rather cliché "He'd never know why he stopped," but I like it anyway.

Diane Setterfield's beautiful The Thirteenth Tale opens in a blasé way, with the mention that it's November. Oh, and the narrator just got her mail. If I hadn't gotten the book as a Christmas present, I never would have read it! Again, misled by the first page.

The moral(s) of the story...
Hooks are good things! They don't have to be gimmicky; we don't have to blow something up on the first page (unless it's that kind of novel). Many fine books begin with nothing more complicated than a conversation. A hook can be a bit of dialog, an interesting situation, or a pithy observation. When there's no hook, the book may still be great, but it will take more patience to get into it.

As writers, we should strive to make the first page capture the reader's interest. I went back to Ivanhoe because I'd heard it was good, but it did take me three years. Nobody will spend that long trying to get interested in what I write!

As readers, we shouldn't judge a book by its first line. I would be a lot poorer if I'd never read Ivanhoe or Les Miserables! A short attention span is a bad thing, especially in literature.

So off I go to try writing engaging hooks. I'd appreciate hearing your opinions on the subject, and any examples of good hooks or great first lines that stuck in your heads! Counterexamples are also welcome. Thanks for your patience with this long post!


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