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? [Read more…]