Story Openings–Part 2: Hooks

From Rick:

Welcome to Part 2 of our series on Openings. I trust that in the past couple of weeks you’ve had a chance to look over and analyze the samples presented. The first thing you should have done is to ask yourself if they caught your attention. While that’s somewhat subjective and depends on your reading tastes, I chose the samples in the hope that these particular ones would catch the attention of nearly any reader, regardless of his or her genre preferences. Each of them poses at least one question, and all of them establish character, setting, and conflict. But do they also possess a hook?

So, let’s examine some of them in a bit of detail. I’ll refer to them by number so I don’t have to reprint them here (although I will copy the first one).

[1] It snowed in Sunridge for the first time in twenty years the day they put the old man in the ground, and Jason West knew damned well the bastard had summoned it up himself.

He wondered what they would do, these people in their somber dark dresses and respectable suits and ties and coats, if he gave in to the urge to spit on the old man’s grave. They were already staring at his jeans and boots, noses up, as if only good manners prevented them from sniffing disdainfully. [“Wild Hawk” by Justine Dare]

If any of you looked up this novel, you’ll find it’s a romance with a bit of suspense thrown in. For me it wasn’t the typical romance, either, because the hero and heroine aren’t looking for a romantic involvement. In fact, there’s an interesting mystical element involved. But I won’t spoil it for you.

Regardless of its genre, this opening for me is a perfect example of how to pack a lot of information into a very small space (89 words) without an info dump. Not only do we know who the main character is (Jason West) and how he’s dressed, the setting (a cemetery), and the conflict (Jason hated the deceased, for reasons we will later learn), but the author also manages to show us what the other attendees think of him. We even learn something of Jason’s attire in a non-telling way. It’s masterful writing. Do you want to know more? I did. It hooked me. If this were an e-book, I’d likely buy it and definitely read the rest of the sample.

[2] “Beggars in Spain” is a sci-fi by Hugo-award winning novelist Nancy Kress. The novella that this full novel came from is what won her her first Hugo in fact. Although this opening only brushes on the setting, the next two paragraphs enlighten us and identify the man tells us why these people are here:

“I presume you’ve performed the necessary credit checks already,” Roger Camden said pleasantly, “so let’s get right on to the details, shall we, Doctor?”

“Certainly,” Ong said. “Why don’t we start by your telling me all the genetic modifications you’re interested in for the baby.”

And there you have the hook.

[4] “Artemis Fowl” is a YA fantasy with what is clearly an intriguing character. This intro is done by an unnamed narrator, and it’s clearly telling instead of showing, but it is no less effective. It covers our three pieces and sets up the story to follow. We’ll be talking more about this one in a later installment when we discuss voice as an important aspect of writing. The hook: What kind of trouble did he get into?

[5] – [7] “Nightkeepers”, “Psion” and “A Stainless Steel rat is Born” all take openings one step further. Not only do they set the stage, but they also begin at a point where something is about to happen. More on that in a moment. However, only in the first of these three is the character named. The name comes soon, though. The hooks are the reader wanting to know what happens next.

[8] The opening for “Lamb” sets up a truly interesting story. I gave a longer excerpt on that one because–well–it’s a great opening, and I wanted to give you a sense of how an opening need provide only a small amount of exposition to achieve its initial purpose. The rest of the excerpt is dialogue interspersed with minor bits of action. Again, the notable hook in this piece–aside from the premise–is the fantastic humor. Christopher Moore is a master of characterization, and here he truly shines. We learn a great deal about these two characters from their dialogue alone, and we even learn something about the main character, Biff, even though we don’t see him yet. From the title of the novel, we can surmise that he was an important part of Jesus’ life. The excellent line, “But he’s such an asshole,” touches on Biff’s personality. Within this opening the author has embedded some wonderful foreshadowing that makes us suspect that there’s a whole lot more going on here. Yep, great hook. Totally piqued my curiosity. Besides, I love humor.

I trust that these several examples and explanations (don’t worry, many more are coming) have helped give you an idea of the elements that make for a strong opening. Last time, I promised that we’d examine the opening of the first Harry Potter novel. So, here it is. (Don’t worry that the example numbers jump around. I have a set of 30 that I may or may not use all of in this series, and I want to keep them consistent with my list.)

[14] Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mrs. Potter was Mrs. Dursley’s sister, but they hadn’t met for several years; in fact, Mrs. Dursley pretended she didn’t have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbors would say if the Potters arrived in the street. The Dursleys knew that the Potters had a small son, too, but they had never even seen him. This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that. [“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J. K. Rowling]

On inspection of the first two paragraphs, we can find character, a piece of a setting (but no indication of country, time, etc.), and a possible hint of conflict. The third paragraph adds little except to define the conflict ever so slightly more. This is not a bad opening, but it clearly lacks the strength of the previous examples. As one reads more of the chapter, it largely continues with the Dursleys’ story. The chapter, as a whole, reads like the kids’ book it was written to be, without much excitement. The somewhat distant prose lacks the strong voice that the novel–and its successors–later developed.

I can understand why publishers turned it down. They likely saw a somewhat mild book. Of course, we don’t know what editorial changes happened between the original manuscript and the final copy. Would a stronger opening have made a difference to the number of rejections? It’s impossible to say. The one criticism I heard about the novel is that it lacked a strong sense of place. Read the opening again and you’ll see what I mean. This could take place anywhere. Nothing identifies it as England. The descriptions of the Dursleys, while comical, really don’t intrigue, and the story elements are vague. Unlike examples [1] – [8], if I’d read the sample, I probably wouldn’t have been interested enough to buy it. Of course, history has proved wrong me and all those who rejected it. But what if Harry Potter hadn’t hit when it did? What if it were being introduced into today’s post-Twilight world? Would it have seen the same success?

Regardless of our ffeeling for Harry Potter, the point of this analysis is that it’s important for an author to make a strong first impression on a reader (and agent or editor). You do that by hooking the reader, something I think the Harry Potter opening lacked. I suspect that it’s success came from those venturesome readers who first read it, loved it, and spread the word.

While we’re on the subject of weaker openings, let’s examine two classics.

[17a] A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees–willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark. [“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck]

Unless you’ve read this novel, you won’t recognize this opening. It’s all detailed description without a hint of character (some might say the setting the character, but that’s a stretch), conflict, or story. It might just as well be a National Geographic article. I don’t mean to sound denigrating to Steinbeck’s work, only to point out that the first paragraph of the opening does very little to hook a reader.

However, the second paragraph presents a different picture because it looks past the setting and suggests that we’re about to meet the characters:

There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb worn smooth by men who have sat on it.

From this we discover the same technique used in movies of presenting a wide shot at the start and focusing in on the details. We’ll look at another example of this next time. The problem, however, is a dull opening that fails to catch my attention.

But the next opening one will surprise you if you’ve never read the book that the classic movie came from. You’ll recognize what it is from the first sentence.

[20] Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar–except a small hole, dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap-door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole. [“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum]

Character and setting are clearly defined, but that’s it: no hook, no conflict, little or no sense of a story line. In all fairness, we do need to consider when this was written and that literature in that time was very different in its demands of the public’s attention. Plus, we should consider that–in this case–the title defined the story’s genre. And to be fair to J. K. Rowling, so did the title of her first HP novel, and it did convey an episodic quality to the books. Sadly, the hook is in the title, not in the opening.

Just so you don’t think that I believe literary works (into which category Steinbeck falls) will all necessarily have drab openings, I present three examples that prove the contrary. I do feel obligated to mention that if you’re contemplating opening with pure description or an incomplete set of opening elements, then your writing must be that much stronger to pull it off.

[12] You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly–Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is–and May, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before. [“Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain]

[18] Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds. His jobs: distributor of vending machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go. [“The Shipping News” by E. Annie Proulx]

[19] In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. “To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,” he would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angouleme or to the editor of The Comics Journal. “You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in. Houdini’s first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called ‘Metamorphosis.’ It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation.” The truth was that, as a kid, Sammy had only a casual interest, at best, in Harry Houdini and his legendary feats; his great heroes were Nikola Tesla, Louis Pasteur, and Jack London. Yet his account of his role of the role of his own imagination–in the Escapist’s birth, like all of his best fabulations, rang true. His dreams had always been Houdiniesque: they were the dreams of a pupa struggling in its blind cocoon, mad for a taste of light and air.

Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews; Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable. He was not, in any conventional way, handsome. His face was an inverted triangle, brow large, chin pointed, with pouting lips and a blunt, quarrelsome nose. He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money…. [“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon]

“Huckleberry Finn” grabs us because, even though we see no conflict yet, it has a wonderful voice to it (which is our topic next time). Examples [18] and [19] are both Pulitzer Award winners. They’re more subtle in exhibiting their character, setting, conflict elements, but they’re still very much present. Both Proulx and Chabon set the stage, paint the characters, and give us a tiny glimpse into their personalities–hence their conflict. The hooks aren’t strong, and not every reader will be hooked, but there is a richness and subtlety in the prose that tells us we’re about to embark on journey into the lives of these characters–not the thrill ride, but a ride nonetheless.

Next time, we’ll focus on another important element: Voice. And I’ll bring together the all elements discussed–give you more examples from other novels and genres–and show you how to put them into practice in your own work. For now, I’ll leave you with one last, famous opening that at first glance seems to be lacking most of the elements we’ve noted (except for setting), but which in truth contains all of them: setting, character, conflict, hook, and voice. Study it carefully and see if you can discover these elements. Again, the richness of language titillates and tells us that we’re in the hands of a masterful writer promising to take us on a journey. In this passage we get a foreshadowing of something about to happen.

[16] Chapter 1 — In Chancery

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
[“Bleak House” by Charles Dickens]


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