Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When to Set the Hook

,Post by Jerry
All the advice for wannabe writers tells us that navigating the agent/publisher process and landing a contract, needs the “hook” to be set up front. But I’m a more methodical fisherman, letting that unseen lunker play with the bait for a while before setting the hook. My writing reflects this – lots of scene and set-up before the action starts. And I’ve had several essays published in lit journals that opened with rich description. But the conventional wisdom endures. Now, starting my first novel, I thought I’d check this out by studying openings of some good books on my shelf.

Frank McCourt’s (Angela’s Ashes) sinks the hook in paragraph two, with three sentences. “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it at all. . . . It was a miserable childhood . . . a miserable Irish Catholic childhood” In All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy gives us motion and a sense of foreboding in line one, “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame . . . twisted and righted when he entered and again when he shut the door.” By paragraph’s end, we have walked through the clammy interior of a mortuary, seen the body, left our fingerprint and judged death philosophically. By page two, the reader knows this story is rooted among cowboys and Hispanic common folk and we have had a Spanish conversation and know that more of them provide the salsa as we read. Annie Dillard, (The Maytrees), in two paragraphs introduces her main characters, places them in time and space, hints at their backgrounds, and develops a longing between them with little more than the woman’s pupils enlarging and a hand, “hot to the touch.”

Lessons here? Set the hook early and hard. Don’t dawdle over scene. Each of these openings has action, motion, be it physical or emotional. Each portends greater depth right around the corner, promising a real page turner. An agent has between 1 and 5 minutes for a first look at your manuscript. And they start at the top. So methinks that the first sentence must offer “the hook” and the rest of that paragraph should include the “line and sinker,” to complete the angling metaphor.

I once wrote drafted a true story about a dear friend and her life work for her people in Africa. My opening two pages set the scene, describing her country, its history and politics, all essential to telling her story. “How dull!” said my critique group. So, thinking to shock them into seeing things my way, I pulled a sentence out of the end and put it first. “Next morning, they found her body in a ditch along the mountain road, machine gun holes tracing a crimson slash across her chest.” To my total amazement, everyone loved that opening. What’s a neophyte to do?

Do your essays set the hook in the first 150 words?



Dean K Miller said...

I fall in the long, lyrical openings much to often. Depends on the subject matter a bit, but even short pieces have to grab the reader right away. They (and us) have only got so much time.

Appreciate the angling metaphor, by the way...

Tim said...

Dean, I've read that the phenomenon you describe is due to the shift to a visual communication mode and short attention span. Interest me, shock me, entertain me NOW or I'm gone. It was not always thus. Nineteen Century writing, very different, and lasted up to the 20s or so.

Lynn said...

I've read this in the how-to-write books over and over too. I've also listened to the editors/agents say at the NCW conference that you have to make the readers care about your characters before you deliver the WHAMMY.

As with most things, I suppose it's a balancing act.

I've heard fishing teaches patience -- maybe I should take it up :)

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