Alphabet Challenge Day 8

Day 8 of my alphabet blogging challenge

The letter is H

and the word is HOOK

In case you’re worrying that my blog has strayed from reading and writing to something more pugilistic, I’m not talking about a right hook but a narrative hook!

In today’s crowded, frenetic world, it’s hard to gain people’s attention in any sphere, let alone fiction. Readers have got millions of things to do, and if a writer can’t persuade them quickly that the book/story has got something that makes it worthwhile for them to read on, then they will soon move onto their list of other-more-interesting-things-to-do.

The literary technique for grabbing readers is known as a narrative hook. Interest your readers, intrigue them, puzzle them, delight them – what and how you do it doesn’t really matter – but you have to give readers something that says to them you won’t regret investing your time in this book.

A common method for hooking a reader is to ask a question. This can be either explicit or implicit, but it needs to come near the beginning, if not the first sentence then at least the first paragraph. The reader will then continue reading in order to learn the answer to the question.

It might be a huge question such as ‘can this virus be stopped from wiping out humanity?’ which could take the whole book to answer. Or it might be a smaller question, such as ‘will the character give in to the temptation to eat the slice of chocolate’. This might be answered fairly quickly, but can lead to other and bigger questions ‘why is he/she trying to resist?’ ‘Will he/she succeed in dealing with the marital problems caused by over-eating?’ ‘What is he/she hiding from by indulging their appetite?’

The question hook done well is successful and effective. Reel us in (here, I’m counting myself as a reader)   and we’ll search for an answer. It doesn’t matter if the answer takes a long time to come. In the most successful writing, that initial question isn’t answered until the end of the book/story. But when it does come, it must satisfy the reader emotionally, psychologically and intellectually.

In other words, the answer to the question has a lot of work to do.

Sometimes the quality of the writing might be the hook – it might seduce a reader, so that he/she will read on without an obvious hook. This also applies to an interesting character or unusual setting. But through some means, that hook needs to be there.

Here are a few openings to see the ‘hooks’ and analyse how effective they are:

‘No one had seen her naked until her death.’ The Birth of Venus Sarah Dunant

‘We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.’ The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood

‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ 1984 George Orwell

‘There should be a scar.’ Unravelling Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

‘Each year there was an outbreak of fever at the House of Orphans.’ House of Orphans Helen Dunmore

‘For a temporary shorthand-typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficiently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard.’ Original Sin PD James

What do you think? Which hooks work and why? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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8 Comments

  1. Donna Whitehouse says:

    Hi Lyndsay,
    Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying this A to Z. I’m really learning about writing, although I’m not sure i’ll ever put in practice.

    Only small negative – I am a bit disappointed that your choice of hook wasn’t to Captain Hook, from peter pan 🙂

  2. Lindsay says:

    Hi, Donna. Glad you’re enjoying it, and perhaps learning something about writing. It’s a difficult balance because I know some people who read these posts are experienced writers, and then again, some are not, so I’m hoping everyone will get something from them somewhere along the line!Understanding something about writing works can also help your reading why you like or don’t like something. Then again, it can ruin your reading as you become overly crititical!

    Sorry about the lack of Captain Hook! Almost every one so far, I’ve been torn between topics. Maybe another month – but not yet!

  3. Christine says:

    Another interesting and informative post. It caused me to flip through various books I’ve read to check out first sentences. The one with the best was from ‘Left Neglected’ by Lisa Genova who I mentioned on a previous post. It’s ‘I think some small part of me knew I was living an unsustainable life.’ Pretty good especially with what follows and then the worst ‘He watched from the boat as they sailed past the sights of London-the thrusting steel spires of Canary Warf (yes, that’s how it’s spelt in the book) the domed O2 arena, then Tower Bridge, and, finally, the London Eye and Westminster.’ This is from ‘The One you Love’ by Paul Pilkington which I downloaded for 50p to my Kindle purely based on the appalling reviews it got. I wanted to see just how bad it was. The first sentence says it all and it doesn’t get any better although I haven’t bothered to finish it.
    Of the ones you mention, obviously Unravelling is the best, then, I think, the PD James-who wouldn’t want to read on after that!

  4. Lindsay says:

    The first sentence quest is fun. I like the PD James, although it’s quite a complex sentence. Thanks for giving the thumbs-up to Unravelling’s first sentence!

    The first sentence of The Piano Player’s Son is By four in the morning, the vigil was over.

  5. polly says:

    Yes, thumbs up to the first sentence of Unravelling. I guess the most famous first sentence is the one about the road to Mandalay ~ well done for not using it ~ although … (heh-heh)

    I’m really enjoying your journey through the alphabet, Lindsay, and while not always able to comment on the day will endeavour to come back when I can 🙂

  6. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Polly, for the Unravelling approval! I didn’t even think of the Recca sentence, but it is a good one.

    Glad you’re enjoying the alphabet journey. I am too, although it’s harder and more time-consuming than I expected. I had a busy day yesterday and finished the blog about 11.30 – another one by the skin of my teeth! And thanks for taking the time and interest to comment – it’s lovely when people do, although I know a lot of people read them and don’t have time or inclination to reply, which is fine.

  7. Robin Heaney says:

    Just been given yet another Jack Reacher novel.

    ‘The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot.’ Persuader Lee Childs

    There’s money in this stuff but it’s not as easy as it looks!

  8. Lindsay says:

    Sometimes people who are very good at things make them look easy!

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