When Is a Hook Not a Hook?

For anyone who aspires to write genre fiction today, it need hardly be pointed out that a novel — or even a short story — ought to start in a way that hooks the reader. The general feeling, among editors and publishers at least, seems to be that readers are so fickle, so impatient, so easily distracted that unless raw meat is dangled under their noses in the very first paragraph, they will fail to salivate. They will drop the book and go on to something that promises thicker slabs of protein.

This is probably less true in the case of literary fiction; I wouldn’t know. It was also less true a hundred years ago, before audiences’ expectations were electrified by film and television. But good writers have always tried to create a strong lead. More than 2,000 years ago, Publius Vergilius Maro (better known as Virgil) began the Aeneid with the words, “Arma virumque cano” — “I sing of arms and a hero.” Dickens begins some of his novels with tongue firmly in cheek, plainly with the hope that the casual reader will be enticed to go on reading: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,” David Copperfield begins, “or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Some thought may be required to create an effective opening hook, and even some well-respected writers occasionally fail. Recently I picked up one of a longish series of fantasy novels written by a fairly well-known and probably successful author. I’m not going to tell you the name of the author or the name of the book, because I don’t like to go out of my way to insult my colleagues. But here’s a thumbnail sketch:

On page 1, the viewpoint character (one suspects he’s a warrior hero) is “lying naked, bound, and bruised on the cold ground.” That’s not just the first page; it’s the very first sentence. A smallish group of nasty guys, we quickly learn, is planning to torture and kill him. There is mention of “tools … heating in the coals.”

Exciting, right? Is your pulse pounding yet? Sure it is.

Nonetheless, I maintain that this is a terrible way to start a novel.

Why do I say that? First, because it’s glaringly obvious that the hero is going to escape from this gruesome death-trap. (And indeed, on page 3 the nasty guys have gone into their shack because it’s raining and sleeting, and then he finds a sharp rock and starts sawing at the ropes, and bingo, he’s free.) There is no actual suspense in the opening: It’s a hoax. If the hero were actually tortured and killed on page 3, there would be no book! So the fact that he is going to escape is never in doubt.

Second, if you start a book with such an intense situation, what’s your follow-up? The writer can’t possibly sustain that level of danger for 450 pages. (And that’s just Book I; apparently there are three books in this particular segment of the saga.) The story is almost certain to sag rather than building.

To be sure, the writer can try to sustain the tension. Flipping through the book at random, I quickly find a page with a mention of assassination, another where the body of a murdered man is carried into a castle, and another where some character’s “wound was hugely swollen and leaking stinking pus.” Such a surfeit of grinding grimness may appeal to a few readers — those who are so numb to start with that only a steady diet of tooth and claw can give them, for an hour or two, the illusion that they’re still alive. But if you aren’t numb to start with, you soon will be.

Personally, I don’t feel that the highest purpose a novel can aspire to is to stun the reader into passive acceptance of extreme violence. But maybe that’s just me. In any event, I didn’t start this little essay with the intention of complaining about violence in popular fiction. I only wanted to point out that the first page of a story should be honest, not a con game — that is, that the problem facing the lead character should last for more than two pages — and that the opening should leave room for the story to develop in some direction or other. If the opening is too forceful, too extreme, there’s nowhere to go but down.

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