Making It Matter: Hooks

In the previous posting, I talked about the need to give readers a reason to care about your story. In the very first lines of the piece, you have to present a character worth caring about—a character whom you the writer care about—and something to promise that you aren’t going to waste the reader’s time.

How do you do this? If you’ve read any books about writing, I’m sure you’ve seen advice on “hooking” the reader: presenting something that intrigues readers enough that they’ll want to keep reading. Typically, hooks are discussed in terms of plot—you want to indicate that interesting events are going to unfold, and perhaps introduce a note of mystery so that readers say, “What’s that all about? Tell me more.”

But stories should also begin with emotional hooks. They should introduce at least one character that readers connect with. The connection should generally be positive—readers should like, sympathize, or even admire the character.

Negative connections are also possible. One very common trick is to start a book with one or more sympathetic characters getting slaughtered by bad guys. The hope is that this will make a reader hate the bad guys so much that he or she will keep reading in order to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.

But even in this case, it’s advisable to lead off by presenting the sympathetic victims-to-be…and to make them very sympathetic. The first Star Wars movie showed the spunky rebel underdogs before eventually bringing in Darth Vader. Vader is cool and intriguing, but (at least in Episode IV) not someone you’d root for. So long as he’s just evil, he can’t carry a movie himself.

To create an emotional hook, therefore, you need someone the reader wants to see more of. A tried and true method for doing this is to show a character doing something positive, thereby signaling the character’s potential for being a good person (even if they aren’t very good to start with). This is often called a “Save the Cat” moment, as immortalized in the screenwriting “how-to” book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder advises that even if a lead character has a lot of negative qualities, an early moment when he or she does something good (such as saving a cat from danger) will make us feel as if the character is redeemable. We’ll then be ready to watch the movie or read the story in order to see if the character really does become a better person.

This may seem trite and cynical, yet it’s important and it works. My favorite example is the first Kingsman movie. The protagonist Eggsy is a drunken delinquent who steals a car in the movie’s first few minutes. He seems like an unlikable lout…but in a car chase trying to escape from the police, he literally veers the car to avoid running over a cat. The car runs into a wall and Eggsy gets caught by the cops. But now we know he isn’t all bad, so we’re willing to keep watching what happens to him.

The key is to engage readers’ emotions very early in a story at the same time that you engage their intellectual interest with plot-related matters. Let me give an example.

Even before someone tried to kill him, Max Vereen was having a bad day.

At 5:00AM, a drunk driver smashed into a car in the parking lot right outside the window of Max’s apartment. Loud blaring of the car’s alarm. Max jumped out of bed to see if his own car was the one that was hit. It wasn’t (thank God!), so Max was inclined just to go back to bed. But then the owner of the car that was hit came running out and started screaming at the drunk driver. Screaming threats and banging his fists on the guy’s car. Max hated to get involved, but things looked like they might get ugly, so he sighed and called 911.

The police arrived in time to stop a serious fight, but then they were out there for an hour with their flashers lighting up Max’s bedroom and talking so loud that Max just couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, he decided to get up and make himself a real breakfast as opposed to just Red Bull and a granola bar…but being groggy and sleep-deprived, he burned the toast and got little bits of egg-shell in the omelet. He ate them anyway. He also ate the granola bar and drank two cans of Red Bull.

When he walked out to his car, he tripped over a side-view mirror that had been knocked off one of the cars in the collision, and just left lying on the parking lot’s pavement. He nearly fell flat on his face. But it turned out okay because his stumble meant that the bullet aimed straight at his head missed by a fraction of an inch, whizzing past his ear fast enough that Max felt its breeze.

What does this example give us? A plot hook in the very first sentence, then a couple of paragraphs introducing Max and showing that he’s an ordinary guy, but decent enough to call 911 even when he’d rather not get involved. These paragraphs also establish a basic setting: probably modern-day in some urban part of the developed world. With that set-up done, it’s back to the action of the plot.

I’m not saying this is a brilliant opening—I dashed it off without too much thought, and it’s likely a bit too generic. Even so, I hope it shows the basic principles of both plot hooks and emotional hooks.

But there’s more to “making it matter” than just helping the reader connect with your characters. In the next blog post, I’ll start dealing with what I really wanted to talk about when I started this topic: theme.

[Fish hook picture by Mike Cline from Wikimedia Commons]

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