I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to revise my beginnings about ten times more than any other part of my stories. It is, in my opinion, the single most important part of a piece of fiction. It’s the handshake, the introduction, the ever important first impression. It’s the moment when the reader decides in a split second if they want to be friends with your characters and make a prolonged visit to your world.
The overriding wisdom where beginnings are concerned is that you should start late, in the middle of something, where some action is happening. This is all well and good, but how exactly does one put that into effect?
Thus enters the hook.
The best definition of the hook isn’t all that great, in my opinion. It’s something that catches the reader’s attention and makes them have to buy your book to find out what happens next. But I’m a girl who likes specifics. So, I had a look at the first paragraph of a bunch of books to see how the experts do it. What I’ve come up with is that a hook is something expressed that makes the reader stop and say to themselves, “Wait! What was that?”
What really catches the attention is when the author insidiously reaches out to a reader’s inner five-year-old and makes them want to ask, “Why?”
First, let’s start with the most obvious hook – the action hook. A good example of this is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first of the First Law Trilogy. The first paragraph of this character driven series has Logan, one of the main characters, almost killing himself in his haste to get down a hill. What on Earth is he running from in such a reckless hurry? Read on to find out.
Thomas Harris does this in a less obvious way with The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is running down stairs to reach the division that deals with serial killers, a part of Quantico that’s “half-buried in the earth” (foreshadowing anyone?). She’s disheveled from racing there from training. We ask why an FBI trainee is running to deal with a serial killer without cleaning herself up first. And thus, we are hooked.
Another obvious hook is the “I should have known” hook. In Glen Cook’s The Black Company, the first paragraph has the narrator stating, in his typical dry humor, that, according to the Company’s wizard, One-Eye, there were “prodigies and portents” that should have warned our heroes of what was coming. What happened to these guys that declares itself with “prodigies and portents?” Nothing good, I tell you.
But what about those less than obvious hooks?
How about the slightly off-kilter reality hook? Jack Linday introduces his serial killer hero in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by having Dexter wax rhapsodic over the Miami night. Unlike the action hook, it’s Dexter’s point of view that gets us. While it starts out innocuous, by the end of the first paragraph, Lindsay’s word choice turns the world into a dangerous place. The starlight has a “hollow wail” and the moon’s reflection on the water is a “teeth-grinding bellow.” Who is this guy and why does he see the world this way?
My favorite rendition of this type of hook comes from Clive Barker’s Galilee and is the only time I’ve ever bought a book from reading the first page. The first paragraph is just the narrator talking about the house he’s sitting in. Not all that exciting, but the devil is in the details. You see, the narrator’s step-mother hired Thomas Jefferson to build it in a North Caroline swamp facing her homeland of Africa.
Let me just state that this book is set in modern days, so we have at least one character who was alive in the late 1700’s, is from Africa, and built her house in a swamp in North Carolina. What the devil is going on here?
Then, there’s the “I’ve got a secret” hook. Jim Butcher uses this in the first book of the Alera Codex series, The Furies of Calderon. A woman is riding a bull, thinking about how the slave collar she’s wearing chafes and she should wear one more often to prepare herself for her next mission. Why is a woman wearing a slave collar when she doesn’t have to, and what’s this mission she’s on? She knows more than we do, and thus has a secret we want in on.
So, what did all these examples prove? Well, basically that it really doesn’t matter how you start your story, as long as that first paragraph makes your reader stop and ask, “Wait! What was that?”