Wednesday, February 01, 2006

More Musings on Hooks

I was going to post another analysis of the Storytelling Magic of Project Runway, but that can wait for another day. This discussion on book openers has me, erm, hooked.

Writers of fiction are pretty familiar with the term hook. Sol Stein calls it the moment when the story’s engine gets started. It’s a good analogy: the hook is going to reel the reader in so the author can take them along for the ride.

Therese already highlighted the main components to a good hook in her blog entry below, so I’m not going to belabor the point. I’d just like to add one more thing to the list: finesse. Devilish hard to master, essential in storytelling. A great hook isn’t one that clubs you over the head and says, “See, here. Conflict. Peril. Action verbs. Look, look!” A great hook need only be that moment in the story when the protagonist’s world is about to change.

One of the best openers I ever read was by Melissa Bank in her debut novel, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Over the years I’ve shaken my head over the fiendish deception of her hook. See if you agree.

‘My brother’s first serious girlfriend was eight years older—twenty eight to his twenty. Her name was Julia Cathcart, and Henry introduced her to us in early June. They drove from Manhattan down to our cottage in Loveladies, on the New Jersey shore. When his little convertible, his pet, pulled into the driveway, she was behind the wheel. My mother and I were watching from the window. I said, “He lets her drive his car.”’

“He lets her drive his car.” Why? We get a glimpse of the narrator's jealousy over her brother’s girlfriend in one line of dialogue. What’s going to happen when the three of them are in the same room?

I’m hooked. It’s all I needed.

Notice Bank didn’t write something like, “Tires squealing, my brother Henry and his big-city girlfriend showered us in a spray of gravel.” She let the scene unfold, quietly secure in her ability to keep our interest sustained. She finessed it.

Some writers are born with finesse, others (like me) have to work at it. But it can be achieved with careful attention to word placement and rhythm. And rewriting. Lots and lots of rewriting. Ain’t no gettin’ around it.

Finesse is much more than a good shampoo sold at a fair price. It's the art of making hard work look easy.


Blogger Therese Walsh said...

Speaking of finesse--here's the opening graph from The Secret Life of Bees.

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

Love it!

10:45 AM  
Blogger Elena Greene said...

Yes, finesse is important. And difficult to pin down, too. Maybe it's editing. Like that old advice about accessorizing: after you get dressed up to go out, take off one piece. (But for me on a typical day, that might involve removal of...a sock?)

Hmmm... Maybe instead it's a matter of voice and what is natural for the POV character. Your examples are so different--the first so sparse, the second full of sensory detail. It's not really "less is more", it's figuring how much is right for this character/this story.

Elena :)

7:40 AM  
Blogger Therese Walsh said...

Elena said:

It's not really "less is more", it's figuring how much is right for this character/this story.

I agree with you, Elena. I also think that what's finesse for one person might not work for another. It's a good thing there are a lot of books to choose from!

8:39 AM  
Blogger Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill said...

Your points on hooks and openings are excellent. If you want another take on openings for novels, check out my Flogging the Quill post at



12:10 PM  

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