StreetWrites Workshop for Writing Out of the Margins

Setting the Hook

The Hook: It's just the first few paragraphs of the story. Who would believe I could find so much to say about it? Well, other than everybody who knows me ...

There are several elements involved in creating an opening scene:

You want to get the reader interested. In today's Immediate Gratification Society, you want to get the reader very interested, very fast.

Before Kuno could assemble the court to judge my Lisl, he met his own death, a sentence the town's wise men concluded was meted out by Lisl herself. Who could believe that my cat could kill the legate's elegant high priest? Her glance could freeze a rat, but not kill a man nor even hurt him much. I did not believe she even disliked charming Kuno. Ladies had always found him attractive. Kuno was white as a sheet when they found him but not from fear. He'd bled to death. He had a host of enemies, which was logical for a man who brought down the staff of the Pope and the sword of the Emperor on Flanders but they appeared to be blameless, since the chamber where he had died had been locked tight against intruders. The cat, on the other hand, had been right there in the room.
    -- The Witch of Mechelen by R. H. Shimer

You want to get the reader oriented. Where are we, what's going on, who's involved? It's a part of getting them interested: readers who feel confused and disoriented usually go somewhere else more comfortable.

Beyond the window, once again, wisps of fog slowly swirled around the gas lamps. A lonely hansom cab clattered along the cobblestones.

Hands in his pockets, the Inspector turned and faced the brightly lighted library. "Since I spoke with you yesterday, Sir Colin," he said, "several interesting facts about Lord Rumsey's death have emerged."
    -- One of a Kind by Walter Satterthwait

Or, like Magic Realism and Cyberpunk and Wes, you may be trying to get the reader very disoriented, very fast. This is still part of the traditional hook: setting the mood. An adventure story will probably start smack in the middle of a suspenseful scene; a humorous yarn may start with Our Hero hanging half-dressed from a chandelier with a chihuahua nipping at his heels, in someone else's house, telling the reader, "I've got an explanation for this."

Homer the man was a powerful and quick-moving fellow. He fell on the monster with judo chops and solid body punches; and the monster let the woman go and confronted the man.

"What's with it, you silly oaf?" the monster snapped. "If you've got a delivery, go to the back door. Come punching people in here, will you? Regina, do you know who this silly simpleton is?"

"Wow, that was a pretty good one, wasn't it, Homer?" Regina gasped as she came from under, glowing and gulping. "Oh, him? Gee, Homer, I think he's my husband. But how can he be, if you are? Now the two of you have got me so mixed up that I don't know which one of you is my Homer."
    -- Hole in the Corner by R. A. Lafferty

You may open with the Villain kicking a dog, or Our Heroine diving into a burning building to rescue a baby; you may choose to be more subtle than that; you may even choose to set the reader up for a surprise reversal of character later. But you want to use the first paragraphs to do *something* to let us know your characters.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defense I must say it was an engrossing book, and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading amongst the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person.
    -- The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

You may be charitable enough to let the reader know more about what kind of story this will be. If a book opens with a young woman yearning after the orbiting lights of a space station, I am not only pretty sure this is sf, I'm pretty sure it will be a coming-of-age story. If you open in the middle of a cattle drive, the reader is not expecting a space opera; if you open with elves riding strange beasts across a misty landscape, the reader is not expecting a hardboiled private-eye novel. With the increase in cross-genre fiction, however, many authors do enjoy having marooned space travelers hire on at the ranch, or elves on mystical quest hire the services of Mickey Spillane; reversing the reader's expectations can be fun too.

Rust on the Hook

Things that I consider not just playing with the reader, but unfair (you are welcome to prove me wrong):

Describing irrelevant things in too much detail, especially in the first paragraphs: opening with a long, long meticulous description of the wheatfield of Kansas, then hopping to Paris where the rest of the headlong action will take place with almost no description anywhere. The reader has a right to expect that if you spend a long time describing something, it's important.

This goes double for people. If you describe your opening scene from the point of view of a middle-aged waitress named Marvis, weaving in her concerns about her husband's heart surgery and her two married sons and her teenaged daughter and the aging dog and her aching bunions with brief observations of the five people she serves breakfast to that morning, then after five pages of this the story follows one of those people out the door and NEVER COMES BACK TO TELL US WHAT HAPPENED TO MARVIS, I'm going to be seriously annoyed with you.

Inadvertent mood switches. Teasing deliberately is different from teasing accidentally. If, as you open, three private eyes and the police and the Sheriff's Department all arrive at a murder scene tripping over each other like Keystone Cops, then one detective grimly proceeds in the relentless hunt until the final revelation of stark truth, I'm going to read every scene waiting for the punch line and end up feeling let down.

Outright cheating: slapping any sort of sales-pitch intro on, whether or not it has anything to do with the story. (You want to tell a slow-paced romantic story, but you are afraid it won't grab the reader's interest fast enough, so you graft on a bank robbery in the opening paragraphs. )


Write at least one paragraph, or an opening scene of 300 words or less, that
  1. introduces your setting, characters and action -- sets the mood of your story
  2. gets us interested in reading more

Write On!
Anitra L. Freeman

StreetWrites Workshop Exercises