Openings, Hooks, And All That

We all strive to write first sentences that are good enough not to cause a readers to snicker. But if it exists, a first sentence that convinces a reader that the author is a great writer and that the book is worth reading has eluded my radar; just about every opening sentence I've seen was nondescript, even though the paragraphs they began were sometimes spectacular. That is why I decided to devote some time searching for a genuine hook and also to try and answer the question, Does anyone who can write a good opening paragraph really need to fret over hooks?

Geoffrey Fowler
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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.

 

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