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Jun
12
2018

Openings, Hooks, And All That -- by Geoffrey Fowler

On Openings

A woman is sitting in the waiting room of her physician when the receptionist announces it will be some time before she can see the doctor. He subscribes to the New Yorker and so there is a rack filled with back issues of this magazine. She takes one, thumbs to the fiction section and starts reading a short story. The author is Ottessa Moshfegh and the story is titled The Beach Boy. Within seconds she is in a different world, the world of fiction. Now oblivious to her surroundings, when the receptionist calls out, “The doctor will see you now,” it is with great reluctance that she returns the magazine to the rack.

Even though this is a perfectly mundane occurrence there is an undertone of mystery in it: How did it happen that after walking into a room and picking up a magazine a person’s consciousness was swept into a different world, the fictional world of John and his wife, Marcia — the main characters in Moshfegh’s story — who have just returned from their vacation on an exotic Pacific island?

The first sentence my fictitious woman in the waiting room read was a simple statement that three couples, John and Marcia and two others meet for dinner at a small Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side on the first day of every month. This is followed by a long stretch of dialog in which John and Marcia and their friends talk about the boldness of male prostitutes, incredibly cheap hotel prices and many other things related to South Sea vacations. A writer will immediately see that Moshfegh has created a scene with her main characters and four throwaway characters so she can feed the reader as much information about the island as she can without a word of narration.

Moshfegh then sends the couples home and this is followed by about fifteen paragraphs, some long and some short, of narration and dialog. It isn’t until the last third of the story that an element of tension arises.

This description of the opening helps answer the question posed above: The author resorted to the common ploy of opening her story with a conversation in a restaurant so she could introduce the main characters, and at the same time feed the reader information about their vacation, which is central to the plot. This was enough to get the story rolling.

But not everything that starts rolling keeps rolling, and so there is a new question, How did Moshfegh keep the reader’s attention? The answer is simple: She writes one delectable sentence after another.

The carefully crafted opening of The Beach Boy did its job unobtrusively and effectively — it made no attempt at dazzling the reader, which would have been totally out of place in this kind of story, anyway. But not in a detective novel, where the use a first-person narrator-character who is on center stage from the beginning makes it almost mandatory that he impress the reader with a gritty wit in the opening. One of the most famous of these openings is found in Raymond Chandler’s famous detective novel The Big Sleep, which begins with Philip Marlowe giving an account of the weather in L.A. and then providing a detailed, shoulder-to-foot description of the clothes he is wearing. The paragraph closes with the sentence “I was calling on four-million,” which is Marlowe's euphemism for his rich client General Strernwood. This doesn't become clear until the narration segues into Marlowe being received by Sternwood’s butler.

An even more unusual opening is the first paragraph of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It doesn’t even mention the murder that took place in Holcomb Kansas, instead, it gives a description of Holcomb, its surroundings, and the kind of people who live there. But what a description; it’s virtuoso writing from beginning to end and it can compete with the flashiest opening to be found anywhere.

The Hunting of The Hook

While vast in numbers and type, openings have one thing in common: Before the opening, a reader was outside the story, after the opening inside it — the opening functions a bit like a door. The sample openings above showed how varied openings can be. Since the emergence of Web sites devoted to writing, a new term has become ubiquitous, The Hook. The people who run and profit from these sites, or at least most of them, make it clear that every writer must begin their story with a hook, or they are doomed to obscurity. In other words, a hook is necessary. What’s known about the hook is that it is a certain type of first sentence, namely one that rivets the readers’ attention, makes them salivate for more, and it is also the key to success because, it’s claimed, editors scrutinize the first sentence of any manuscript that comes their way like a jeweler inspects a diamond, to make sure it is a genuine hook that will capture readers for them.

This claim has been repeated so frequently and in so many places that for some it has achieved the status of an inviolable law. There are reasons to be skeptical, though, for example, in all the openings of stories mentioned so far, the first sentences were absolutely nondescript. Even Chandler’s first sentence, which described the weather in L.A., was nondescript. They did have very good, to great first paragraphs but there is no reason a great paragraph has to begin with a dazzling first sentence and, in any event, there is no way of mentally divorcing the first sentence of a paragraph from the paragraph as a whole.

Whenever I look at a piece of fiction now, I ask myself if the author has tried to begin with a hook. The first story I came across that did was on another writer’s site and began with “Mallory vomited when he got out of bed on Thursday morning." (Sentence changed to protect the guilty.) The writer never mentioned why Mallory vomited and it played absolutely no role whatsoever in the story. For the writer all this was irrelevant; what counted was he had his hook. Or thought he did: The effect of the hook lasted a few milliseconds and then this reader hit a wall of bad writing and gave up.

One allure of the hook may be that finding one seems easier than trying to come up with an opening scene that could run to several paragraphs — Why bother if all that's needed is one sentence? The problem with this is that after this lonesome first line the reader may ask, So what? Who is this character whose name has been mentioned? Since a hook is bound to raise questions, a writer should follow it with a real introduction that provides answers, and this not only obviates the need for the hook, it also requires making a transition to a meaningful opening.

Here is a made-up example that is fairly typical of a novice-writer’s hook and also illustrates the difficulties that accompany one: “The howling wind swept dark clouds over Dan Humphrey’s house on their way westward toward Nebraska.” On first inspection, it has something going for it: A howling wind and dark clouds suggest a storm and it also has a certain cinematic quality. And the reader knows that Dan Humphrey, whoever he is, lives East of Nebraska. Now what? Who is this Dan Humphrey? What is the significance of the dark clouds?

It’s easy to think of answers to these questions but not so easy to come up with an opening that the hook transitions to. On the other hand, it is easy to invent traditional openings that avoid these difficulties. Here is a sketch of one: Dan and his wife Cecilia are driving home and hear a weather report on the car radio warning of gale-force winds. When they enter their house they find the wind has blown open their windows and the living-room carpet is covered with muck.

Now the possibilities are almost limitless. The couple could get into an argument about who forgot to shut the windows; Cecilia could go into the bedroom and find that the mattress was soaking wet, causing her to scream; Dan might call his friend and neighbor Geoff for help; Geoff could invite them to spend the night at his place; Cecilia could be having an affair with Geoff and, after Dan had gone to sleep, sneak into Geoff's bedroom; Lying in bed, Dan could hear the unmistakable shriek of pleasure Cecilia makes when she has an orgasm, unique because of its animal-like intensity, and get up and kill Geoff with a fire poker ... . Anyone with a modicum of imagination could add dozens of lines to these. All it took to get the story rolling was an opening ploy consisting of a car ride, a weather report, and the discovery of windows blown open and the story can start rolling.

In my search for a hook I came across an interview-based article in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years'” Writing Opening Sentences.” I was sure my search for a hook would end here.

King pussyfooted around the issue of what qualities a good opening line should have, suggesting they were too recondite to put in words. The interviewer had to be content with “But there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” When I saw this, I couldn’t believe King used ‘opening line.’ If he had used ‘paragraph’ instead of ‘line,’ what he said would make perfect sense, with ‘line’ it seemed he was talking about hooks. And then a few sentences later he did use ‘hook,’ giving the opening line of James M. Cain'sThe Postman Always Rings Twice, in which the narrator begins by saying he has just been thrown off a truck, as an example.

I had Cain's book in my library and so I took a look at it. The 110-word opening paragraph explained that the narrator had sneaked onto the truck to get a ride during the night and that one of the men on it had noticed the intruder’s foot sticking out of the tarp in the morning. Then he got tossed off. Cain's opening paragraph was superb, no doubt about that. And the first sentence provided a good lead-in for the paragraph. But saying the first sentence was a hook borders on the absurd: It takes less than a millisecond to get from the first sentence to the second sentence and so there is no possibility for a reader to judge the former independently of the paragraph which it introduces.

Out of curiosity I looked at the openings of six stories by King himself, It , The Shining, Mr. Mercedes, 11/22/63, Premium Harmony and A Death. I read them to a friend and asked him to rate the first sentences and first paragraphs. He felt that none of the first sentences and none of the openings were anything special; I disagreed in one case; I thought It had a good opening and a good first sentence, not that it mattered. I also read the 110-word opening of The Postman Always Rings Twice to my friend and he thought it was great.

It is here that my search for the elusive hook ended. If, I thought, the Atlantic was right and Steven King really spends months and even years trying to find hooks for his stories and this is the best he can do, then a novice writer like myself is never going to dream up a hook — I mean that spellbinding first sentence that guarantees success. So, I felt, it's better to view the hook as the literary version of the snark, forget the term was ever coined, and concentrate on writing effective opening.

 

Posted by Geoffrey Fowler 12 Jun at 03:18
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Responses to this blog

Ann4get 12 Jun at 10:25  
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Is probably my favourite Stephen King opening lines. One of the great ones.
Onalimb 12 Jun at 11:17  
As another hook non-believer, I applaud your well-written and carefully-thought-out argument. Whenever I've seen a writer (or in some cases, a would-be writer) extolling the virtues of a magical hook, I've suspected that the magic is usually in 20-20 hindsight—by which I mean, a reader recalls loving a book, looks back to see what the first sentence was, and decides it was brilliant. Others look at it and shake their heads. Standing on its own, bereft of any emotional connection, it's just another mundane sentence.

IMO, the best writers are good scene-builders. Their openings are carefully-crafted, but so is every other scene in the book. Their openings work, not simply because they're good scenes, but because the writer makes a promise and delivers.
Grumpybull 12 Jun at 12:55  
Onalimb
I've suspected that the magic is usually in 20-20 hindsight—by which I mean, a reader recalls loving a book, looks back to see what the first sentence was, and decides it was brilliant.
I doubt anyone's ever done that.

I think the worst attempts to "hook" readers at the onset are with some exclamation like, "We're all going to die!" or "Oh my God, what is that?" It feels so cheap and it's just so obvious.
Rellrod 12 Jun at 15:14  
Excellent and well-thought-out blog post!

I think you've hit on the essential: The hook merely invites the reader in — or begins to do so. For it to work as advertised, the following sentences, paragraphs, and so on must continue that drawing-in. That's why what follows the opening line has to deliver on the promise of that first line: it has to keep getting us more involved with the story, whether by interesting events, interesting characters, enjoyable prose, or whatever, until we're fully committed and settle down to enjoy the tale.

Rick
Cacollins 12 Jun at 23:01  
'Mallory vomited when he got out of bed on Thursday morning.' is no 'Monday, Gloria got sick on the subway.' (sic transit gloria mundi.)
Paulpowell 13 Jun at 10:27  
H'mmm. Okay, yeah..but to my way of thinking, 'good hook' —or not—one needs the ability to follow-through on your story no matter how it opens. Its the toughest task of all to write the dull, interstitial, nuts'n'bolts scenes where nothing much happens, than it is to write slick/glossy/cool/sexy/action sequences. The skilled writer shines when he makes even the dry and the commonplace become interesting.


__________________
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Stromberg 15 Jun at 03:32  
Nineteenth-century examples of first sentences:

"One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot." (Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge) – One can just hear modern-day readers howling about omniscient point-of-view, wordy formulations and sentence length. How times have changed... (This is, by the way, a masterpiece of a novel.)

"Whilst every one at court was busily engaged upon his own affairs, a man mysteriously entered a house situated behind the Place de Grčve." (Alexandre Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask) – A leisurely start for a writer known for swashbuckling romances, but then again, "in olden days, everybody had lots more free time..."

"Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." (George Eliot, Middlemarch) – Terse and to-the-point by 19th century standards, but a complex observation nonetheless – suitable for a novel that one notable commentator called "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". Don't forget to clutch your pearls as you note the now-unfashionable use of the passive voice.

Twentieth-century examples of first sentences:

"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." (Neal Stephenson, Seveneves) – A writer who knows he's written an 861-page doorstopper and is in competition with Hollywood for eyeballs. Note the cubicle-enclosed programmer's formulation "no apparent reason" – readers want to be addressed in their own voice.

"This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything." (Paul Beatty, The Sellout) – Notably shorter, and much more to-the-point, than anything from the 19th century. Also very modern and self-aware, sawing against stereotypes. Sets the tone for the entire work.

"I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) – Vague, vague, vague. But nobody who reads this memoir forgets it. A writer sure that you'll keep reading beyond the first line.

"His head unnaturally aching, Barney Mayerson woke to find himself in an unfamiliar bedroom in an unfamiliar conapt building." (Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch) – A clichéd opening (waking up) from a writer who never saw a cliche he didn't like—but built mind-blowing stories anyway. Technically awful, brilliant anyway.

"A screaming comes across the sky." (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow) – Vague. If you want to know what this means, keep reading.


In summary, I have no idea what makes a good first sentence—other than the fact that there's a story afterward.
Jongoff 16 Jun at 05:46  
For your consideration, you don't catch fish with a hook. Sink an unbaited hook in the water and you get nothing. With the right bait, however, you can reel in fish after fish. We've all heard the phrase, "start with the action." I disagree. I think, as Geoffry says, you need to bait the hook with a question, the hint of a mystery, anything to evoke curiosity. That's the bait, and without it, your hook is useless. One of my all time favorite hooks is for words long. "The boy who lived." It's the chapter title of the first chapter of The Sorcerer's Stone, and it's dripping with intrigue. Why did he live, what or was trying to kill, what did he survive. It's four words that couch with in their four syllables intrigue and mystery, danger and adventure. A hook doesn't have to be action. In fact, I'd suggest that the very best hooks almost never start with the action.


__________________
Good writing is the act of recalling memories of events and feelings the reader never actually experienced, but nonetheless lived.

Barrywk 16 Jun at 07:25  
Geoffrey—I agree with just about everything you say here. My suspicion is that what might be called the cult of the hook can be largely attributed to agents. They need something quick and easy to justify not reading a manuscript. Since there's no such thing as a perfect sentence, the way is clear for rejecting work—specifically queries—on the basis of opening sentences. This idea speaks to your emphasis on opening paragraphs, not first sentences. I think a better way of seeing all this has to do with the aura of authority, or command. Is the first page clearly the writing of someone in charge of the medium as well as the message?
And something else you mention: a great deal depends on the target audience. Is the writer aiming for women readers who love memoirs and thoughtful, meditative work, or readers seeking hell-bent-for-leather escape? Is the writer hoping to interest people who respect "literary" values, or not?
Thanks for a useful, thoughtful post.
Czing 16 Jun at 10:14  
This is an interesting post and an interesting discussion!

One thing that always sticks in my mind about openings is something they talk about a lot on the Writing Excuses podcast - and that is Promises.

I think your premise is pretty spot on - openings are more than hooks. And there isn't really any perfect formula for openings whether it is first lines or first scenes. But I do wonder if one of the keys - and you addressed it in terms of the possibilities that stem from the opening - is what the opening promises and whether the rest of the story fulfills that promise.

For me, if I am going to spend ages dwelling on my opening that is where my attention is going to reside - on whether it is making promises the rest of the piece doesn't keep.
Bentletter 16 Jun at 15:01  
A hook is no more of an imaginary snark than a robot's directive to preserve human life would be a snark. The hook is a simple and concise directive. It is nothing more and nothing less.

Prime Directive #1: Grab the Reader's Attention.

Notice how the directive doesn't force you into taking any specific steps or methods to accomplish this directive. It's obscure for a reason. You're in charge of deciding what will grab the reader's interest.

And you want to know the best thing about this directive, you're not a robot slave to it, you don't even have to follow it all, if you so wish. Do the opposite instead, bore the reader from the get-go, they'll thank you for it.
Geoff 16 Jun at 16:23  
Bentletter:
The hook is a simple and concise directive. It is nothing more and nothing less.
A directive, huh?
Bentletter 16 Jun at 16:59  
Geoff
Bentletter:
The hook is a simple and concise directive. It is nothing more and nothing less.
A directive, huh?
A snark, huh?
Mrbillyd 17 Jun at 03:20  
How's this for an opening hook?

"The naked young woman walked along the path through the jungle behind her hut, without seeing any of the headhunters who were hiding in the foliage all around her."

Would anyone want to stop reading after this?


Onalimb 17 Jun at 03:45  
Mrbillyd
How's this for an opening hook?

"The naked young woman walked along the path through the jungle behind her hut, without seeing any of the headhunters who were hiding in the foliage all around her."

Would anyone want to stop reading after this?

Sorry, but yes, me. Why? Because it's trying too hard, pushing too much, too fast. We don't know the character yet. Putting her in this situation, without establishing any link to her, is one of red flags that screams 'novice author.' The other is in trying to stuff the premise of the story into one sentence. I've seen a thousand variations on this—characters jumping off ships or bridges, being chased through forests, streets, buildings, attacked in dark places, stuck in prisons, about to be executed...this is the standard 'unsupported action' opening.
__________________
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Dalai Lama XIV

Geoff 17 Jun at 09:31  

Geoff 17 Jun at 09:33  
Folks who like hooks may profit this:

A few months ago, a friend of mine showed me a vintage Andy Warhol movie he had bought on Amazon. It started with shots of man, who’d gone out to sea to fish in a small motor boat, putting a worm on a hook. Shorty after the man — he was muscular in a coarse way, and mean looking, too — whips the line and hook into the ocean, the line goes taught; the pole bends, and, after stuggle between man and fish, the catch has been reeled in. The man grabs the fish, and instead of gently removing the hook slowly from its mouth, he rips it out, leaving an open gash where the mouth was. The suffering fish is tossed into a bucket and, smiling a sadistic smile, the man picks up the lunch bag he had earlier placed near his seat, and takes out a sandwich. Being the crude person he is, he shoves it into his mouth, and chews on it like a glutton. Suddenly, his face takes on a look of shocked incomprehension and the viewer sees the end of a hook protruding from his cheek and a line coming out his mouth. Without warning, the line goes taught. The man grabs it, and his desperate struggle to remain in the boat begins. Futilely. Whatever is on the other end of the line is superhumanly strong and the brute is slowly pulled toward the edge of the boat and then overboard. The final shots show him disappearing into the sea. 

Mrbillyd 17 Jun at 10:46  
I was kidding around with that last reply, but now I'll get serious. What do you think about this opening?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The sun was about to set, when Rosalyn’s alarm went of. The 23-year-old woke up naked, with a naked dead guy in her bed. She’d always felt good when that happened. She couldn’t think of a better way to start the night. Then she thanked God for what she’d had to eat.

She got up and stood in front of the mirror, brushing her fangs, combing her yellow, shoulder length hair, and fixing her make-up. The full figured woman wondered why no one else could see a vampire’s reflection, but she could see her own. She liked what she saw. When she extended her fangs her face did not become disfigured, like they did on those fictitious vampires who were featured on certain popular TV shows.

Rosalyn thought, I’m a deadly beauty.

She put on her bright yellow dress, with matching vest and pumps, and picked up her matching handbag.

The "deadly beauty" reached in her handbag, and took out a copy of the “Vampire’s Handbook”; which was subtitled “Being a Vampire Doesn’t Have to Suck”. Under the subtitle was a cartoon smiley face with fangs. Under the smiley face was the blurb “What every new vampire should know.”

Rosalyn, the stylishly dressed employee of Vidamort Corp., walked over to the bed, put a copy of the handbook between the dead guy’s limp fingers, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and went out the door.
Geoff 17 Jun at 11:00  
Mrbillyd


The sun was about to set, when Rosalyn’s alarm went of.
When edited to read "The sun was about to set when Rosalyn’s alarm went off," the first sentence is actually a cool way to begin a vampire tale, even though Rosalyn could be an ordinary person working on a night shift somewhere. As for the rest of the opening, Why not post in on a forum and ask for opinions there?

Geoff 17 Jun at 11:25  
Mrbillyd:
"The naked young woman walked along the path through the jungle behind her hut, without seeing any of the headhunters who were hiding in the foliage all around her."

Would anyone want to stop reading after this?
Well, since you've said below that you were only fooling around with this, I can give an honest opinion: Everyone would stop reading after that sentence.

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