Hook! Hook! Where’s the Narrative Hook?


How do you find your narrative hook? Well, it’s probably not in stealing movie lines from Dustin Hoffman films. (And shame on you if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Writing Rule #39 can’t promise to make your narrative hook-designing life that easy. But it can make it somewhat more simplistic, as indicated below.

There’s really no genre-specific literary or non-fiction hooks out there.

Hooks are hooks. They set a whole lot of expectations for the rest of the read, but they hardly tell the whole tale. As such, a romantic beginning could lead to conclusions about the benefits of being single. Or an edge-of-your-seat opening could set up historical non-fiction. For Writing Rule #39, rules need not apply.

For all you rule followers out there, don’t panic. They definitely can apply here. The three examples I gave yesterday certainly show as much.

Take Lia Mack’s Waiting for Paint to Dry, which starts out with an introspective tone. And while it has its amusing aspects, it overall maintains that introspective tone all the way through. Largely meant as a self-help guide wrapped up in engaging fiction, Lia wrote Waiting for Paint to Dry as a rape survivor for rape survivors.

Kate Quinn’s Daughters of Rome starts out hinting at historical amounts of blood, pain and drama; and it ends the same way too – not quite with a cliffhanger finish, but still foreshadowing further impending doom. Good thing there’s a sequel. Three of them, actually.

Then there’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which carries the same genuine search for information from start to finish. It starts out implying that it’s going to explore the life and scientific ramifications of one woman, and it does exactly that.

So narrative hook traditionalists, feel free to not feel too free in designing your opening paragraphs. It’s just that if you want to get creative, you’re more than welcome to go that route as well.

There are perfectly great hooks out there that establish boring, mundane or relatable scenes, only to delve into drama, fantasy or otherwise extraordinary genre-suitable circumstances later.

One of the most entertaining spy romps I’ve ever bought, Once a Spy by Keith Thomson, works well to illustrate this possibility. The Chicago Sun-Times calls it, “Nonstop action, thrills, and more escapes than Houdini in his lifetime,” a description I’m not going to disagree with.

Yet the hook is absolutely ordinary.

Brooklyn was booming. Elsewhere. Drummond Clark’s block was still packed with boxy, soot-grayed houses, some settled at odd angles and all so close together they looked like one long soot-grayed building. At holiday time, the patchy displays of festive lights accentuated the cracks as much as anything.

On this bitter Christmas Eve, Drummond stood hunched in his small kitchen, alternatively green and red in the reflection of a neighbor’s tree, struggling to open a can of soup for dinner. He wondered how all the years had come to this. No friends. No family. He couldn’t remember the last time one of the neighbors had invited him in.

What’s the appeal of that hook? Admittedly, it’s helped a lot by the title and cover design, which features big, bold letters in red and white over an ominously dark image. But readers already know to expect that something’s going to change.

Will it be a spook jumping out of the shadows to say, “Boo!”?

Could there be some secret spy lair in Drummond Clarke’s basement?

How long will Keith Thomson drag out the dull details before he springs the real deal on us?

You could say this particular narrative hook plays on the reader’s natural – warranted – suspicion of the writer. Writers of the creative variety are emotion-manipulating, fact-obscuring little con artists. So if it seems like they’re hiding something, they probably are.

Curiosity kicks in, and the reader is hooked.

Or it could boil down to the equally natural desire to be better or smarter or faster. Some readers could see these opening paragraphs as a challenge. Can they figure out what’s going on before the writer means them to?

Bring it on! Challenge accepted.

There are really only two rules you absolutely need to follow when it comes to creating engaging opening paragraphs:

  1. Make it interesting.

  2. Make it fit.

Other than that, you’re the boss when it comes to designing your narrative hook.

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