Writers of fiction are pretty familiar with the term hook. Sol Stein calls it the moment when the story’s engine gets started. It’s a good analogy: the hook is going to reel the reader in so the author can take them along for the ride.
Therese already highlighted the main components to a good hook in her blog entry below, so I’m not going to belabor the point. I’d just like to add one more thing to the list: finesse. Devilish hard to master, essential in storytelling. A great hook isn’t one that clubs you over the head and says, “See, here. Conflict. Peril. Action verbs. Look, look!” A great hook need only be that moment in the story when the protagonist’s world is about to change.
One of the best openers I ever read was by Melissa Bank in her debut novel, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Over the years I’ve shaken my head over the fiendish deception of her hook. See if you agree.
‘My brother’s first serious girlfriend was eight years older—twenty eight to his twenty. Her name was Julia Cathcart, and Henry introduced her to us in early June. They drove from Manhattan down to our cottage in Loveladies, on the New Jersey shore. When his little convertible, his pet, pulled into the driveway, she was behind the wheel. My mother and I were watching from the window. I said, “He lets her drive his car.”’
“He lets her drive his car.” Why? We get a glimpse of the narrator’s jealousy over her brother’s girlfriend in one line of dialogue. What’s going to happen when the three of them are in the same room?
I’m hooked. It’s all I needed.
Notice Bank didn’t write something like, “Tires squealing, my brother Henry and his big-city girlfriend showered us in a spray of gravel.” She let the scene unfold, quietly secure in her ability to keep our interest sustained. She finessed it.
Some writers are born with finesse, others (like me) have to work at it. But it can be achieved with careful attention to word placement and rhythm. And rewriting. Lots and lots of rewriting. Ain’t no gettin’ around it.
Finesse is much more than a good shampoo sold at a fair price. It’s the art of making hard work look easy.