Monday, 26 September 2011

Little Hooks Catch Bigger Fish

Last week I wrote about the importance of establishing 'Normal World' before having something super-dramatic happen.  When I give this as feedback people often say, 'But I've been told to start with a hook, that's why I started with the car crash/presumed dead father turning up/announcement of pregnancy.'

But the event itself is not a hook.  The hook is the promise that a dramatic event is in the offing. 

Think about these scenarios:  

1.  You are told that thousands of people have just died in an earthquake in Paraguay.  
2.  You are told that your neighbour has been in a hit-and-run incident and is in a coma.

We are upset by both these events,  but the chances are that the one that really affects you is the second because you know your neighbour and also because it could have been you.  You are directly involved.  It's not the size of the drama that matters, it's the degree of involvement. 

So, if we were writing this, we'd need to establish the characters, whether they were the neighbour or a Paraguayan.  This sets up the dramatic event - remember, it's knowing the characters that makes it dramatic, otherwise it's just another headline in the papers.

But the event is not the hook.  The hook is a promise that there will be an event.  

I haven't watched Casualty for ages, but it always started with the viewer seeing a series of characters doing things - crossing the street while talking in a mobile phone, about to climb a ladder to fix a roof tile, getting into a car saying 'It's all right, I'm not over the limit.'  Part of the fun was guessing which one was going to end up in hospital. That was the hook.

Hooks are usually small.  

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.' 
(From Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.) Where or what is Manderley?  Why is the character dreaming of it?  Then we learn that Manderley is a ruin - why?  What's happened? And all the time we're learning how the place is ruined, we're also learning that the narrator knew it when it was a great house.  We want to know what happened - that's the hook. 

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that..." I probably don't have to carry on for you to recognise this one from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen).  The same is true for:
"All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.) 

These are not dramatic events.  But they're promises of what is to come.  We know that P&P is going to be about getting married well, and AK is going to be about unhappy families.  Detective stories start with the body - dramatic, yes, but the hook is that we're going to discover who dunnit.  It's not about the body.  

The order runs: Hook (the promise), the characters (so we care), then the event.  Remember: The hook is the promise of the event, not the event itself.  


Diane Fordham said...

Hello Sarah, I stumbled across your blog today and what a find! Enjoyed your post and looking forward to reading more. Thank you :-)

Liz Harris said...

That all makes great sense, Sarah.

I get so fed up with hearing that you must start your novel in the middle of the action. This is invariably followed by the caution that you must go carefully when presenting the backstory, which makes sense of the action, so that it doesn't come out in a giant block of narrative.

Raising an expectation in the reader, and then building up towards it, can be a so much better way to begin a book.

Liz X

Karen said...

What a very good way to explain it - brilliant.

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Diane and Karen, how kind you both are.

Liz - you have to start with something happening, which is different from being in the middle of the action. Subtly different, maybe sometimes, but definitely different.

AliB said...

Hi Sarah - you always hit the nail on the head. Action/violence rarely works for me as an opener and often looks 'stuck on'. In fact I've just read a (prize-winning) novel which started with a violent scene not particularly related to the main characters or the book as a whole. It very nearly put me off altogether.Now I know why!

Sarah Duncan said...

Ali, which book was it? It's rare to find books which have action/violence on the first page for example James Bond novels start in a low key way. But there's menace from teh first lines...

Inglath Cooper said...

Excellent! You're so right, Sarah, it's the degree of involvement that broadens the impact for us. Great post!