Have you ever wanted to grab someone by the teeth and yank them across the room? Because, in writing, that’s what you’re supposed to do all the time.
It’s called a narrative hook.
The idea is pretty simple: Say something so gripping, so compelling to your reader that they simply must keep those pages turning to find out what happens next. They just keep flip-flip-flipping until suddenly they’re at the end and wondering where the time went. And without it? Someone throws your story in the garbage before they even make it halfway through the first page.
That’s what they tell you in writing class, anyway.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and I’m not sold on the idea that the hook is the make-or-break line that everyone makes it out to be.
The Classic Examples
If you do a Google search for examples of literary hooks, you’ll find a ton of examples in classic literature. Here are a few that you see listed most often:
Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Of those four, I like two. Of those two, only one would keep me reading, and there’s no guarantee that it’s going to take me past the first page of the piece because I might not like a dozen other things. Rack it up to my picky tastes, or my belief that there’s more to Act One than an eye-catching first line, but I think hooks are overvalued and often challenge a writer to jump-start a narrative at speed, rather than taking the time to open it appropriately.
The Long Open
I like doorstop fantasy books. You know the ones. Thick, heavy, could be a brick in a purse on a given day.
Act One is almost always about setting up some fantastic universe or another, and intermingling that with enough plot and characterization to keep the reader going. But, at the same time, it can be a slog. It’s one of the hazards of the genre, diving into a new world and patiently waiting while the author unpacks all the things you need to know for the story to move forward.
Some critics would chalk it up to bad pacing, but I don’t think that’s always the case. It just takes a while, sometimes, particularly if the narrative doesn’t catch your interest right out of the gate. But no killer first line is going to change any of that for a reader that’s accustomed to wading through fifty or a hundred pages before the “real action” starts.
Hook and REEL
I’m not saying that hooks are pointless, but I’ve never been sold by the first page of a book. Ever. And I’ve read a lot of books.
Hooks are a valid aspect of effective narration. First impressions matter. We can all agree on that. I’m saying that they’re overvalued and overemphasized, because a stellar first line doesn’t make a stellar story. Most readers inherently understand this, so why the heavy emphasis on the first line?
Novels aren’t clickbait headlines or flash-in-the-pan pieces. They’re long, winding things with plenty of twists in the road that you don’t see until well into the piece. I’d rather roll the dice with a mediocre first line and a well-paced opening scene and first act. If I’ve decided to give an author a chance, I’m going to read a ways before I give up.
It’s really the only sensible thing to do, at that point.