I’ve noticed a steady rise in the amount people who obsess over their hooks – the first sentence, paragraph, or even the first pages of their novel. I don’t blame these obsessees (obsessors?) I mean, I’m one of them. There’s something very satisfying about a knockout hook. Take these first lines pulled from my bookshelf:
“There is no lake at camp Green Lake” – Holes, by Louis Sachar
“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.” – The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
These hooks are intriguing. Deceptive. Artfully simple. Like the best hooks, they make you feel like you’ve entered something larger than yourself, like you’ve encountered a master storyteller who will never let you down. I want to do that for readers. I want to be that kind of master storyteller.
But, good hooks rely on perfect wording; a witty twist; a literary flair; they rely on dramatic, cunning prose. And sometimes hooks are so good that you force them on a story. Make it work. Because the wording was just so perfect.
Unless it works for the story, it’s a darling. Such darlings are to be cut.
So this is one main problem with hooks. They have an irrational tendency to take on a darling complex. And because there’s such pressure/obsession/mania to have an explosive hook, we keep these darlings, even when they should really die.
The other problem with hooks is their importance, relative to the rest of a novel. They do need to draw readers into the story. If you can’t write a good hook, nobody is going to read past your opening pages. So they do have a heightened sort of importance.
But let’s put it in perspective – are hooks as important as, say, character voice? Yes? No? How about a good climax, one that really knocks you to your knees – is that as important as a strong hook? More important? Less?
In Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, he says:
“Look at your first line and think of the agonizing effort you put into it. What would the rest of your manuscript be like if you agonized over each line in the same way? It would take forever is probably your first thought. Now you’re thinking. It is actually rare to see the intensity found in the first (or last) line maintained throughout a manuscript.”
That quote makes me cringe every time. Because I’m guilty. I may talk about polishing my novel with a velvet cloth, I may believe it with all pious fervor, but when the moment comes, it’s so much easier to polish my 25 word hook than my 80,000 word novel. Because first I’d have to polish the plot. Then the characters. Then the dialogue. Then chapters, and scenes, and paragraphs, not to mention metaphors, similes, alliteration, transitions…I mean, honestly.
It would take forever.