Are You A Hooker?

I think I might have just hooked you into here.

Have you hooked or are you bait-less?

I’ve accumulated thousands of rejection slips, both email and hard mail, dating back at least 28 years. We writers agonize over just about every word in these little snippets of rejection death, attempting to decipher some type of meaningful logic out of these one or two-line zingers.

Scenario: So the editor has read about three or four pages and stopped. She is in problem territory already. She sees snags and there are a few that stand out over the rest which indicate specific problems, and the rejection usually begins with, “I’m afraid I wasn’t pulled into the story,” or “I couldn’t identify with the protagonist,” “the front bogged down,” or “after a few pages, I wasn’t compelled to read any further.” “too dialogue heavy,” “static opener,” “excessive sentence fragments,” Something to that tone, anyway. What we have here is a failure to communicate up front with that all important “hook.” A hook doesn’t have to make logical sense. It’s better left less obvious.  

The hook is that mystical teaser, that pulls the reader into the story, and it usually begins on page one, and really never lets up unless it finally reveals but leads into another. You can craft a hook by using dialogue, action, narrative or even description, but the one thing it does is present a unique problem that is not answered immediately, or is a set of circumstances that confounds the reader, asking more questions that it’s answering. I think a really great hook uses deceit or misdirection. It presents a “What the hell’s going on here” in the reader’s mind, or a “why or how could this be happening?”        

Setting a good hook, I later learned, is a crafting trick–a tactic. There’s nothing artistic about it. Just like a magician uses sleight of hand, so too does the writer create an unfathomable scenario that begs explanation and further reading. Of course, it’s wise to take the reader up to the confusion threshold but not beyond it, where incidents and plot seem even more disjointed. There must be a method to your madness, allowing the reader to glimpse that sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. Which means, little answer and a bit more tease.  

I can pontificate all day long about how stunning and fast-paced my second and third acts are, but when I read and interpret those pesky rejection slips, the ones that hint at boring, tepid, stilted, stuffy first-page or fist-chapter passages, I know then that I’ve failed in capturing my reader’s attention–he/she will be reluctant to invest further reading time if I cannot make the mystery worth his/her time to solve. I’ve opened the story door and invited the reader to ride along, but they are inclined to pass and let me drive off without them if I haven’t grabbed their curiosity.         

Thick back-story is a killer, as is puffed up prologues, heavy, multiple character descriptions (laundry listing), too many characters, uninspired dialogue, weather reports and heavy handed scenery that tries too hard to be literary or cinematic.

I can have a dynamite query letter, but the editor or agent won’t get past page five if I haven’t pulled them into the story and forced them to wonder or agonize about something.        

The hook scene doesn’t have to be complicated. (First Page–First Paragraph)–Imagine average Joe Blow pulls over in a picturesque grove of trees, gets out of his car and lights up a cigarette. He’s on his way home but has a few minutes to kill. He happens to notice a church a few hundred yards away and the church parking lot is filled to capacity. The back of the church looks to be occupied with a reception area, filled with chairs, tables, colorful streamers and a small stage. But no one is out there celebrating, meaning that the festivities must still be under way inside. He crushes out his cig butt and happens to look up, being prompted by the sound of a twig snapping in the boughs of a large tree.

He sees a woman in a full sequined wedding dress, balanced precariously on a limb high up in the tree. The woman has a terrified look on her face; she is breathing hard and sweating profusely.

You’ve just set the hook. You don’t have to have this guy figure out exactly what she’s doing up there, but we have a pretty good idea. Or do we? We won’t really know until the writer let’s these two exchange dialogue. But we’re not going to do that either. Joe Blow has decided, against his better judgment, to help this woman out. Just by her demeanor, he knows something is way off the normalcy scale. She’s a runaway. He can sort it out later once he gets her in his car and down the road away from the church.         

He drives off and they’re safe for now. When it comes time for her to confess her problem, she’s evasive and remains quiet.  He slows the car down and then gets a phone call from his wife, wondering if they’re still on for their marriage counseling session that night. He can’t talk right now and hangs up. He slows down, looking for his pack of cigarettes that he’s lost, and he can’t get his seat belt up because it’s wedged in the closed door. She whines from the back seat and slips into a barrage of hacking sneezes, spraying phlegm all over his new upholstery. He also can’t see out of the rear view mirror because she’s got her head buried in the carpet and her pleated wedding dress has sprang up and blocked his view.         

Now we have conflict, while still nothing has been resolved. And that’s what you’re doing–leading the reader along, who thinks he/she is on the main storyline highway, but are actually ending up hitting potholes and speed bumps. I think you get what I’m trying to say. Don’t be predictable. Don’t underestimate your reader. Shock and surprise. Don’t explain the reason for this scene.

How important is the hook? It is the most important page or pages of your entire manuscript, and that includes the query and/or synopsis. You’ve got one chance, one pair of editor/agent eyes to entice, to compel, to convince the reader to keep turning pages. Any lull or stoppage in the text is the mark of death, and it means your bait is inadequate, it stinks of age or it’s missing entirely.         

Does your book really start on chapter 2? Then dump chapter 1. Is Chapter 1 a slough? Then cut and burn out everything that isn’t thrusting the plot forward or arousing conflict and asking new questions. Yeah, but Chris, you should read some of these dud first pages in these bestsellers; hardly grabbers. Let those brand name authors craft their books the way they see fit; they’re not hurting for readership and the fans know their style pretty well. Study some of the debut author’s works from some new books and see if you can’t find those subtle hooks, little red herrings–those attention grabbers that are starting to unravel things.       

Another mile down the road, our driver’s phone rings again—it’s his counselor confirming their appointment for that evening. He can’t answer because the girl in the back has rolled down the window and pitched out her bridal train and veil onto the street. He cusses her for that action and tells her to get down. She starts insulting him. He steps on the gas and comes to a screeching halt in front of the police station, where he forces her door open and yanks on her legs, only to tear her nylons off.

“Halp! He’s trying to rape me!”

“You get out of this car right now.”

“I won’t let you kill me, you masher!” she wails for all the city to hear.

You get the idea. This can go on and on and escalate into a full scale donnybrook–clothes being torn, saps and batons flying until our two are handcuffed and shackled and led through the entrance door to precinct 11. His new car starts to burn from a lighted cigarette which fell between the seats. He tries to get away but assaults the arresting officer. Just make sure if you lock him up make sure that his prison stay has SOMETHING to do with the plot. Now, if you can’t stand the notion of pulling your first chapter because it’s a slug, do a flashback scene. Exchange a really interesting future chapter with chapter 1, and then sew up the transition between that pulled chapter and the next one. If you move your slug chapter to the chapter 2 position, cut it down and make it move faster. How do you write a flashback scene? Google it.

It’s not that difficult.

Red-shifting otta here…

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