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Editor’s Clinic: A Look at your Hook

I’ve written before [1] about the dangers of working too hard to create your hook. That’s what I believe you’re doing here. The big shock of your opening scene is that your narrator was expected to eat a chicken that had become a pet. But I think the drive to hook your readers quickly led you to pack that shock into your opening sentence.

But this reduces that key reveal to simple information. The fact is shocking in the abstract, yes, but your readers learn it before they know anything about your narrator or her situation. They don’t have any emotional connection to the person the shock is happening to. You can create that emotional connection just by delaying the reveal by half a page or so.

You’ve also fallen into the trap of feeding your readers the background they need to know as quickly as possible. Except that you’re doing it at the expense of your narrator’s character – having her think of things that she would, in real life, take for granted. Once again, this gets information to your readers, but undermines the emotional connection they’re forming with the narrator.

Remember, the thing that draws your readers into your story most is that they care about your main character. When you take the focus off your narrator to do other, less important things (like shocking your readers or filling them in on background) you leave them caring less. Every writing book or blog will tell you that you need to hook your readers quickly.  But don’t be so obsessed with the hook that you forget where your true story lies.

 

Chapter 1

I couldn’t eat my best friend, even if she was a chicken. You’d think I would have known what to expect after she stopped laying eggs. One day, when I returned home after cleaning hotel rooms, Mama handed me the mixing stick as soon as I walked into the village. [1]  I almost refused, but if I were going to eat, it was only fair I helped cook.  Besides, the Ssun warmed my aching shoulders as I stirred the rainwater stew.

Villagers who added rice and yams circled around, singing about the food we would eat. As I listened, mMy mouth watered and my stomach rumbled.  But something was missing.  [2]

[Name], mMy chicken, [3] always greeted me after work. She liked to peck at my bare legs until I petted her. As I continued stirring the stew, I waited kept an eye out for her. But she didn’t come.

Then the warmth of the open flame forced me to take a step back. That’s when I noticed an orange feather lying at my feet. The moment I realized what happened, [4]

I let go of the mixing stick.  “Where’s [name]my chicken?” I asked Mama, shaking her arm.

She Mama didn’t answer, but she didn’t meet my eyes, either I knew the truth.

I looked more closely, and there were My chicken bones floating was in that stew.

I bent down to pick snatched [5] up the feather and dusted away the dirt ran [6]. No one chased after me to dry my tears as I ran along the gravel road and darted between women carrying baskets of fruit or jugs of water on their heads.

How could Mama put my only friend in the stew? But I knew the answer even before I asked the question. She was only trying to feed me.  And [name] had not laid a little brown egg in months.

EBut even my chicken [name] knew little brown eggs weren’t all she could provide could help keep my stomach full the day she followed me into my rickety one -room hut [7]. She sensed I needed someone who would notice my tears. But my chicken was so much more; s She was my only friend in Ghana, a country in Africa where we were born [8].

Neither of us had time for other friendships because I worked too much and my chicken was busy eating bugs from our dirt floor whenever she wasn’t laying an egg.  After Mama got sick in the heart she had to give up cleaning rooms at the Monarch Hotel in downtown Kumasi. [9] When I was eleven, I quit school to clean the rooms Mama couldn’t. With my days spent scrubbing hundreds of toilets, it was impossible for me to make friends. There wasn’t time.  And [name] was too busy eating bugs from our dirt floor whenever she wasn’t laying an egg.

I thought I should have been rich from so much cleaning. B but I barely made enough money for the rent. That’s why I’d never be able to pay what Mama owed the one I called Crazy Man. He sold her medicine to fix her heart. When Mama said she couldn’t afford it, he told her she could pay him back later.  And she agreed, because better to be in debt later than dead now.

Those Crazy Man’s purple pills weren’t like the potions the village medicine man made. Mama said they tasted sweet, like candy. That And they medicine didn’t make her feel any better.

I thought about my problems as I raced alongside rows of shacks and past the corner store, the only place in the village with electricity where people a small group gathered to watch soccer matches on a television, the only one in the village. All that running made me thirsty, so I stopped at the pump in the square.

I didn’t think my day could get worse. But it did. then Crazy Man found me drinking from the water pump.

 

  1.  You needed a bit more scene setting.
  2. Stretch the moment of realization out a bit.  The realization is shocking.  Give your readers time for the shock to settle in.
  3. The chicken should have a name.  It emphasizes the connection your narrator had with it.
  4. Show her realizing what happened.
  5. You want a strong verb at this point.
  6. And once the truth is out there, let the action explode.
  7. This is where you start feeding information to your readers at the expense of your character.  She wouldn’t think of her own home as “rickety,” would she?
  8. And here you are really packing in information.  Readers can guess the story is set in Africa from the details, and you can fill in the specific location later.
  9. Here you can establish the location a bit more naturally.

About Dave King [2]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [3].