Hook Lines or Sinkers

Transitions are tough. Just look at me–I’m moving from one college to another, I’m living out of the house for the first time ever, and I’m actually (yes, it’s true!) starting to drive on actual roads. It’s a lot to handle. A lot to sort through and make sense of. In this melting pot of emotions, I somehow have to sort through all of these new feelings and figure out what they are–am I excited? Nervous? Some mix of the two? It’s not always easy to tell. Am I busy because I genuinely need to be, or am I just distracting myself?

Those questions plague a lot of us during times of transition, but do you ask those questions when you edit your story’s beginning? “But it’s the beginning,” you cry, “not a transition!” And that’s where you’re mistaken–the beginning is a transition: It’s the point where the reader transitions into a new world.

If you think moving on campus is a transition, how would you feel about moving into another world altogether?

I promised examples, and that’s what I’m going to give. With each beginning I’ve selected, I’m going to show you the original opening, critique it, and then make some changes to illustrate how beginnings can be improved, or perhaps made more disastrous. At the end of each example, I’ll point out a few “tips” about re-writing good beginnings.

I make it a point to specify re-writing good beginnings because there are two beginnings in fiction writing, or perhaps in any king of writing: The author’s beginning, which helps the writer transition into the piece, and the reader’s beginning, which is built to do what any good hook should do.

What should any good hook do? There are four things to remember:

First, you should establish your setting, answering the questions “Where?” and “When?” Next, you’ll want to introduce a character, typically the main protagonist (the “hero”). Then you’ll raise a question to entice the reader. Finally, you’ll hint at the story’s genre and general tone, to allow the reader to decide if it’s a story they’d like to read. Of course, these should all happen, but not necessarily in that order.

* * *

From “The Wedding Cake“:

It wasn’t my idea to put the wedding cake in the middle of the road. It just sorta ended up there by accident. See, we were driving too fast, and the back was open, and…

Whoops. Wrong story. This one’s far more comical, and ten times as cynical. But don’t take my word for it. Just keep reading. You’ll either be amused, or abused, or perhaps off put. It’s hard to say sometimes. Life’s just crazy like that.

Before reading on, why don’t you try to identify the excerpt’s strengths and weaknesses–in fact, you should do this after reading all of these examples.

The first thing that gets my attention is point three: I create a need. What’s that need? To find out how the wedding cake ended up in the middle of the road. If I was any bit successful with this opening, you’d be feeling a fair bit intrigued and maybe even annoyed that I’m not telling you how the cake got there.

Next, I also introduce a character–in this case, the narrator. She’s a little snarky and somewhat sarcastic, although the fact that she doesn’t have a name this early might confuse readers about her gender (which is clarified later on, mind you) and this may turn away some readers, or lead them to construct a false impression of the character. Finally, I do a fair job indicating the story’s tone: Is it hard to believe it’s comedy?

However, this beginning isn’t very strong in establishing any kind of setting. Does this happen in the past, present, or future? Are we in the mountains or a pod on the moon? These details are obviously cleared up later, but here, they’re entirely absent. However, if I were to rewrite this beginning, I probably wouldn’t worry too much about this, since it is a first-person retelling of the story. Instead, I’d try to make the character a little clearer, which can be accomplished by just inserting a small line near the beginning.

Can you get a better picture of her this time around?

It wasn’t my idea to put the wedding cake in the middle of the road. I was just the groom’s sister, trying to mind my own business–but that wasn’t enough, was it? The cake just sorta ended up in the road by accident. See, we were driving too fast, and the back was open, and…

Whoops. Wrong story. This one’s far more comical, and ten times as cynical. But don’t take my word for it. Just keep reading. You’ll either be amused, or abused, or perhaps off put. It’s hard to say sometimes. Life’s just crazy like that.

Pro Tip: When writing in the first person, remember two things: First, if your characters sound like third-person narrators, it may be hard to believe they’re actual characters, so try to capture your narrator’s voice in the writing. Second, gender can be hard to determine in the first-person, and sometimes it’s awkward for characters to mention their own names; try to slyly work these things in as best as you can.

* * *

From “On the Way to Hell“:

It wasn’t the fog that took him off the road. It wasn’t the lonely street sign beside the entrance ramp either. It was the little boy that stood just inside the tuft of grass that lined the far side of the road.

Dana climbed out of his car, radio still blasting, and walked through the haze of his headlights toward the boy. He was still as stone, a sentinel of the mist for a moment it seemed before he turned his empty eyes up toward Dana. He reared back a second, nothingness staring at him from inside the child. Then he blinked–one of them, at least, though he wasn’t sure in the moment who–and the scene was as normal as before. At least as normal as a little boy beside the road could be on a foggy night.

As far as beginnings are concerned, this one hits all the required points: First, the setting is described as a foggy night on the side of the highway, and since Dana’s in a car, we can assume it’s contemporary. Next, Dana is introduced–not described at length, but sufficiently enough. We are also introduced to this strange boy, who serves as the story’s “hook.” Finally, the foggy atmosphere and unusual situation suggest a story with a somewhat darker tone perhaps bordering on the supernatural or horrific.

But if simply meeting those four criteria were enough to make any beginning good, there’d be a lot more good beginnings! This one in particular suffers from a severe case of vague pronouns. Let’s see how much smoother this transition into the story feels if we clear up some of this ambiguity.

It wasn’t the fog that took him off the road. It wasn’t the lonely street sign beside the entrance ramp either. It was the little boy that stood just inside the tuft of grass lining the far side of the road.

Dana climbed out of his car, radio still blasting, and walked through the haze of his headlights toward the boy. The kid was still as stone, like a sentinel of the mist before he turned his empty eyes up toward Dana. He reared back a second, nothingness staring at him from inside the child. Then he blinked–one of them at least, though Dana wasn’t sure in the moment who–and the scene was as normal as before. At least as normal as a little boy beside the road on a foggy night could be.

Pro Tip: In any scene with multiple characters of the same gender, be especially cognizant of your antecedents–and especially how clear they are to a reader. If the same “he” or “she” could easily apply to more than one person, remedy this confusion by using one of their names or another descriptor that will make the action or dialogue clear to the reader. Vague pronouns can not only throw a reader out of the story, they can also be misread and build a scene in the reader’s mind completely different than what you, the author, intended.

* * *

From “The Farthest Hite“:

Adye hadn’t been long in the city before he found himself roaming the streets in his brown robes of coarse woven fibers. He hadn’t been in the crags of Tiir Enath long before even his pale skin became covered in the perpetual soot that drifted down from the Old Gods. He hadn’t been in the city long before he came to know how cruel it could be to be so far from home.

Although I highly regard this particular story, the hook doesn’t function especially well as most hooks should. Adye is mentioned in the first sentence, but who–or what–he is, is not stated at all, other than his absence from home, which may in some small manner also pose a question to the reader, but even if it does leave readers asking, “Why is Adye not at home?” this isn’t necessarily the question the story answers. The setting is also unclear: the name “Tiir Enath” is said, but is this the name of the craggy lands in which Adye finds himself, or is it the name of the land’s owner? Regardless, these crags do establish a general setting, and given the clothes Adye is described in, one might assume this is set an ancient era of earth’s history–however, that’s mistaken.

The one place where this beginning truly succeeds in my opinion is in building a tone for the story. Although it does not explicitly state this is science-fiction (did you get that impression at all?), the longer sentences and generally larger paragraph imply a more cerebral, almost philosophical tone. This is, for the most part, true of the story, which in part becomes an observation of multiple races on Adye’s planet and the various ways they deal with culture, a journey overshadowed by the role the Old Gods play–a role which is obviously absent from the hook.

In this particular case, I’m not going to rewrite the beginning, for reasons explained below.

Pro Tip: On occasion, breaking the rules is necessary. A beginning that’s otherwise “not good” might be a story’s best possible beginning. Who’s to say when to follow convention and when to go your own way? Why, you, of course–the writer. If your beginning “fails” to do what most beginnings should do, ask yourself if this is justifiable–if their absence serves some greater purpose that cannot be achieved any other way.

What is the greater purpose of this beginning? It’s easier to ascertain after reading the whole story, but I believe the lack of too many action-oriented details helps to set the scene as something worn-down and tired, also as something that’s a little smoky, hazy, and unclear–elements that add to the story’s theme. Do they build the plot necessarily? It’s debatable. However, they do build the story’s tone and mood–and that’s just as important.

This post is already getting quite long, and I feel it’s better to stop on an odd number of examples than add one more. If you’ve found this post helpful and want to see more examples, ask for them in the comments or simply like the post–if I see you want more, I’ll do another batch like this next week with even more tips about how to master the art of crafting compelling beginnings.

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