Are you having trouble making a character “real”?
Don’t fill out one of those interminable “character sheets.” You’ll just be tempted to use all that info in some kind of dump later.
But you might think about this. Which sense does the character rely upon most or acquire most info about the world through?
I am primarily visual and secondarily auditory. But my mother is auditory, and she will actually say things to preface things she wants to say: “Listen to what I am saying to you. Do you hear me? I am telling you. . . .I tell you what.” Some people are attuned to smell and taste (wine tasters, people who name scents for perfumers, et al.)
Which sense would prevail for a musician? An artist? Twist: Which sense would give the most reliable information in this particular situation? If we’re holed up in the trunk of a car and listening to hear whether the kidnappers are asleep or taking some kind of distracting break, we have to use hearing and sometimes smell to determine what’s going on (a smell of tobacco may mean they’re taking a cigarette break, or a smell of food could mean they drove through a fast-food place and are distracted.)
I do pretty well with first-line hooks. Or at least I used to hear that I did.
A hook is something that raises a story question. The stronger the question, the more the reader is compelled to read on to learn the answer.
“After seven years of bickering and fussing, the Fort Lauderdamndale city fathers, on a hot Tuesday in late August, killed off a lifestyle and turned me into a vagrant.”–John D. MacDonald, THE SCARLET RUSE
The “hook,” as you might look at it from the underside of the lake’s surfave, is more like the bait. What can you cast onto the page in the first few sentences that will make the reader decide plowing on is worth the effort? Some of the readers are pulled into your narrative through voice, others by being charmed by the characters or being interested in the subject/setting or situation (if you wrote a CIA novel and they love spy stuff, for example, or you’ve set your book in a winery and they are oenophiles.) But it’s best to raise that story question. And once it’s answered, you’d better have a new one pop up.
After learning about “hooks”, some writers seem to go after the readers with a meathook or a shark gaff in the first sentence, when a gently cast dry fly floating on the surface would do better. A lure for the curious reader who wants to see what happens to poor old Glumboy when he walks into that gay bar without realizing what it is.
I tend to avoid books that start with huge chunks of bait on monster hooks, in part because I prefer a quieter read that doesn’t have graphic violence, but also in part because most of the time they have started at such a peak of excitement that they have nowhere to go but down. I prefer subtlety to flash.
O’course, look at my publication record so far and take this with a saltlick.
I like an opening that gets me interested in a character.
Even for a horror/grossout novel or a mystery that’s rather dark, you can still make the focus stay on the character. THE RAIDER BRIDE by Kim Cates begins: “The hunger was inside him again–dark and wild.” If you like that kind of psychological thriller, she’s got you at hello.
Many critique groups have gotten the idea that a “hook” is some sort of exciting gimmick that grabs the reader in the first paragraph. Her car’s about to go off a cliff, or he’s limping through a dark alley with blood gushing out of the ragged hole in his leg, or the social services crew is banging on the door about to take their children away–and all in the first sentence. That’s fine if it works, if the story demands it, but I’ve seen too many hooks that were pasted on the front with duct tape, as though the author had her book written and then said “Oh, right, we’ve got to keep from being rejected in those first ten pages. Aaack!
You’ve seen it–the over-the-top opener that doesn’t deliver. The next scenes dissolve into narrative or dialogue that doesn’t follow through to fulfill the original promise. It doesn’t do much good to open with a big bang if the book can’t maintain and later raise that level of tension. You have to increase tension as you near the climax and ending of the novel.
These books often start with “Entrails. Billy Bob picked them up and ran around the room with them so he wouldn’t miss WHEEL OF MONEY. . . .” and then peter quickly out. (But they get published! Aarggggggh.)
You do need to attract the reader’s attention.
I go for the question hook more than the action hook. Does this opening leave the reader asking a question? One that she wants to find the answer to? Something about the character, either in her present or something in the past that’s coming back to haunt her? Something that’ll matter right away or very soon? Works better than crazy-action “Lethal Weapon” scenes for those quieter books.
Lines that make me want to read on and find out why or what the character is thinking or doing are good hooks. I’ve got to keep reading to discover the answers to my questions.
Some hooks are setting-based. It’s a good introduction and a way to enter the world of the novel. There’s usually some kind of question posed when the character is introduced, such as, “What’s she doing here?”
John D. MacDonald does this. He often uses people you will never see again, such as the bronzed young thing with the hip-roll walk and the ogling businessmen, to clue readers in to the atmosphere. Of course, readers already know what to expect from his series detectives, so that makes the setting more important to introduce. He gets you on that beach. It’s kind of a movie focus-in technique.
Have you ever opened a novel with a line of dialogue? (That can work well, or it can be dangerous.) You’ve got to worry a little about attributions. But it can be really intriguing, depending on what was said.
A narrative opening that describes the setting will “hook” a historical reader because she loves a certain time period–better than an outrageous opening. But will that bore other readers? It depends. Are they in the audience for a Regency? You may not need to worry about grabbing people who read CIA novels, because they’ll never pick up your dark vampire paranormal.
You could use a camera-eye POV opening; I think that works well for some books. Then you focus down. Example off top of head . . . “The Pacific was wild tonight, crashing into the shore with waves that splattered on the rocks. Not a car passed on Highway One. (ETC.) I walked down the beach and visored my hand to see what the dot on the horizon might be.”
You can also open with direct address, as I do in LR. Then you have to segue into a first-person narrative with an action scene. That’s very chicklitty.
All books should start with some kind of question, which is really all a hook is. It’s a question that starts the reader to wondering and (one hopes) worrying. They’ll read on to find out the answer.
* * *
Right now, I’m tightening and editing the part of _Camille’s Travels_ in which they hide out at a Renaissance Faire. I found an old tearsheet that gave some Elizabethan equivalents to modern phrases, meant to be used by workers at Fairs. Hee!
Elizabethan *** Modern
Bait *** Torment
Bandy *** Exchange, as in exchange words
Dainties *** Delicacies
Dam *** Mother
Haply *** By chance
Sack *** Sherry
Sops *** Bread soaked in wine
Woodcock *** Easily caught bird, therefore stupid
Near-legged *** Knocked-kneed
Windgalls *** Leg boils/lumps
An you like it *** If you please; if it please you
At any hand *** In any case
Merry passion *** Fit of passion
Mother Wit* *** Native intelligence
Neat and fine *** Elegant
(Or mother-tongue wit.)
It also has the grammatical rules for thee and thou. The classic phrase that’s taught to show the proper usage is “I tell thee, thou art the ill-bred son of a mongrel b*tch.”
A person uses “you” to address someone higher in station, and “thou” to address someone lower in station. You also thee-and-thou intimates, such as lovers, as well as God (because you’re supposed to be on intimate terms with Him). Think of “vous” and “tu” in French. Domestic animals such as cats and dogs are “tu,” but horses (steeds) are supposedly “you,” because they’re noble beasts.
When using thee and thou, you use “dost” and “hast” for “do” and “have.” I tell thee, once thou hast studied the rules and practiced a little, it seems quite natural.
Harking back to my Latin I days, thee is in the objective case, as in the direct object — I tell thee. Whereas thou is the nominative, as in a subject or predicate nominative.