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The Mythical, Magical Hook -- by M. J. Ascot

There are ten perfect words—or maybe it’s nine, or perhaps it’s a dozen—anyway, the point is, if I start my story with those words, I’ll have the keys to the kingdom. My readers will be entranced. They’ll hang on my every sentence, never looking away, barely daring to breathe, until they turn that last page, finish that final paragraph. And then they’ll beg me for more.

Well, there’s no point in pussyfooting around it. Just hand over the words and no one will get hurt.

Sorry, what? There is no single set? Everyone is expected to come up with his own? What kind of half-baked system is that?

Yes, it sounds ludicrous, the idea that some special words will bind my readers to my book. So why do we accept it? Why put such pressure on ourselves? Why allow others to do it to us?

No one, if questioned directly, would admit to believing in a magic hook. But the suggestion is insidious. It creeps in through cracks and knotholes, and lodges itself in places where we rarely shine light. Before we know it, we become certain we’ll know those words when we see them, even though few of us appear to agree on any one choice.

What’s that? There, at the back of the room, a meek-looking little fellow is holding up his hand, but he’s ducking, too, as if he’s afraid that someone is going to throw something. Don’t worry, it’s mostly writers in here. We just throw around words. Of course, some of them do get heavy.

Anyway, he says he’s a reader. He just wants to read a good story. He has more faith in strong writing than in magic hooks. And he wants to know if, maybe, we couldn’t have a little faith in him, too. If he wanted a whole story in ninety seconds or less, he wouldn’t bother picking up a novel. He says, make it inviting. Don’t just toss him in. And don’t drone on and on—he gets enough of that with Uncle Benjie’s home movies—but expect that, if he likes the place and the people, he’ll want to look around a bit. He says, he likes to keep moving, but too much speed turns everything into a blur.

Maybe we should listen to him. If we really want our readers to get to that last page, that final paragraph, perhaps we need to think about making every scene inviting. Maybe interesting a reader isn’t a one-step process. Maybe there are no magic words.

It’s probably just as well. By the time I’d used them in every scene, those special words would likely be pretty wrung out.

Posted by M. J. Ascot 6 Oct 2015 at 01:24
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Responses to this blog

Bethanne80 6 Oct 2015 at 14:31  
Awesome post. I love the way you wrote it. And I think you have a good point - too often, we focus on nailing that first sentence. We focus on making the first scene awesome, so we put too much in it.
Saspencer 6 Oct 2015 at 15:23  
Yes. Excellent article. "Perfect." That word plugs up my system. Whenever I get hook neurosis, which is too frequently, I remind myself I plan to construct the first words of chapter 1 in my final draft, right before I write, "The End," in my last chapter. Unless a brilliant idea drops upon me from the sky. It hasn't yet.
Darthrevan 6 Oct 2015 at 21:48  
I think the term hook is a bit of a misnomer here. I don't think, at least i hope not, that anyone is thinking one good chapter and the audience is mine. i mean this isn't pokemon. the first chapter is basically the lure or advertisement for the rest of the story, you have to sell the reader on wanting to invest their time in continuing. the "hook" in this case would be your plot. that is what keeps them going forward after that. but if you don't get them in the door with a solid first chapter, they'll never want to stay for the rest.
Dalatorre 7 Oct 2015 at 01:28  
I like the post! Thanks for sharing.
Onalimb 7 Oct 2015 at 10:10  
Thanks for the feedback, everyone! This approach was an experiment; fun to write, but I really wasn't sure how a blog in 'voice' might be received. I was hoping that some folk would enjoy it, so your responses are a big relief.
Alexmcg 8 Oct 2015 at 06:47  
I don't think in terms of a 'hook' for the start. You need a strong opening, but the opening needs to be strong within the context of the rest of the story. The idea of a 'hook' with the action etc. attached to it would be like a movie of 'The Notebook' trying to do a James Bond style opening. At Darthrevan points out, each chapter is also important in how you open it. Just as important is the much neglected close to chapters, and dare I say, entire books now that many authors have decided that writing twelve books in a series in their first year means they don't need a proper conclusion.

Back to the hook, you might have the best first three sentences in the world, but if your fourth, fifth etc are duds, you will lose the reader. Ongoing quality and story development is key. The story is, after all, what really interests that reader in the back row.
Arik 9 Oct 2015 at 07:11  
Very nice post. I can tell you why I love my favourite books, and why they work, and it has nothing to do with the first ten or fifteen (or whatever) words. There is so much pressure on that first line and paragraph that sometimes I think we lose sight of what's really important in a good story.
Piperm 10 Oct 2015 at 08:56  
Great post, M.J - and I particularly enjoyed your 'voice'!

Two things I've read recently relate exactly to what you're saying: one was another blog post on writerunboxed about 'story' - how DARPA has for the last 15yrs been studying the psychology of story, and how the human brain is wired for it. One key point (for writers) made was that story is NOT plot. This tied into the second thing I read, in a critique, in which the writer-reader was demanding more 'action' and plot in the opening.

The 'action opening' seems to be another of those 'rules' that are often bandied about in writers' circles, and is frequently conflated with 'hook' and 'story'. Sure, it can bea hook ... but I agree 100% with Alex above re a James Bond opening for a story like The Notebook.

That magic hook we all are after? Different for every story, and probably different for every reader We can learn as many rules as we can stuff in our heads, but in the end, we each have to be our own alchemist and find the right magic blend for our particular story.

thanks for a good read!

Sheridan 20 Oct 2015 at 21:41  
Good post, and excellent point. 'Magic hook words' are just like 'magic diet pills' — they only work when you work at it.

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