No matter how you look at it, a “hook” is a perfect metaphor for what your opening must accomplish. Held like a “J” it dangles bait, upside down it’s a question raised, sideways it’s a crooked finger saying come hither. One way or another, the hook asks the reader to bite into your story.
Today I want to look at the barb—that element the reader never saw coming that, once set, will not let go of her imagination. Let me take you back to 2002, when I was at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, to show you how well a barb can work.
Writers jump through hoops to attend this conference, for one main reason: the opportunity to gain feedback and glean wisdom from well published authors. Yet scheduled across from their workshops, in another venue, a stream of events unspools whose educational potency was underestimated by many.
Sound anticlimactic? I’ll admit that at first I didn’t get Sewanee’s emphasis on readings, either. But after a couple of days, as readings mounted into dizzying dozens, a cool thing happened. I started to get to know myself better as a consumer and writer of stories. What works for me, what doesn’t.
It was at one of those readings that bestselling author Margot Livesey showed how to set a hook deeply with an unexpected element. Livesey read the first chapter from her then novel-in-progress, Banishing Verona. It began:
He had replaced five lightbulbs that day and by late afternoon could not help anticipating the soft ping of the filament flying apart whenever he reached for a switch. The third time, the fixture in the hall, the thought zigzagged across his mind that these little explosions were a sign, like the two dogs he had come across in the autumn, greyhound and bulldog, locked together on the grassy slope of the local park. He had given them a wide birth; still, he had felt responsible when on the bus the next day a man turned puce and fell to the floor. By the fifth bulb, though, he had relinquished superstition and was blaming London Electricity. Some irregularity in the current, some unexpected surge, was slaughtering the bulbs. He pictured a man at head office filling his idle minutes by pulling a lever. Meanwhile, hour by hour he emptied the upstairs rooms, slipping the bulbs from bedside lights and desk lamps.
He had just replaced the fifth bulb when the doorbell rang.
Lightbulb filaments as portent—cool, right?
At this point Zeke, a handyman who works alone because he has trouble relating to others, opens the door to a pregnant woman holding a suitcase. She claims to be related to the Barrows, who own the home. When Zeke says they won’t be back for several days, she charges in. Soon she has seduced Zeke, commandeered his house keys, bought him breakfast sandwiches, and otherwise reversed their roles. The next day, it is he who must ring the doorbell to get in. She finds a pair of coveralls—“her belly split the front like a chestnut its shell”—and insists on helping him paint, “to take my mind off things.”
While they hang wallpaper, Zeke tells her of the lightbulbs that had been exploding the day she arrived. She says that she’s never been able to wear a watch for more than a few days before it goes haywire. “The watchmaker I went to had some mad theory about personal electricity.”
[Let’s take stock for a moment. There has been no murder. No explosion. Yet the packed room at Sewanee was hushed throughout this reading, which went on close to an hour. Listeners leaned forward in their chairs.]
In the chapter’s penultimate paragraph, Zeke is the one to bring the breakfast sandwiches, although he must climb in through a side window with them now that he has no keys. He hopes to find her still in bed, warm and sleepy, so he can slip in beside her.
And this time, he thought, however stupid, however embarrassing, he would ask her name.
After this delightful revelation, Livesey told us what Zeke found when he entered the bedroom:
The bed was unmade, empty and cold to the touch, the suitcases gone. At the foot of the bed the rug was rolled up, and spread-eagled on the bare wooden boards lay the coveralls, neatly buttoned, arms and legs stretched wide, like an empty person. Only when he knelt to pick them up did Zeke discover the three-inch nails that skewered the collar, pinned the cuffs and ankles to the floor.
The audience audibly inhaled and then jumped to their feet to applaud but I was like no-no-no you have to tell us what happens next!
Those coveralls, nailed to the floor, stayed with me for one-and-a-half years of shelf-scanning at my local bookshop until the novel came out.
If in your first chapter you can think of a way to include an unexpected barb, I suggest you include author readings in your promotional events. It could mean the difference between gaining a well-wisher who plunks your book in a pile on her nightstand or a rapt reader who opens the book as they await your signature, eager to both learn what happens and share her discovery with everyone she knows—and then maybe, fifteen years later, even write a column about it.
Can you envision using this technique in your work? What other stories have you read that start with an unexpected, intriguing element?
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