Thursday, July 10, 2008

Narrative Hooks

Here's an opening paragraph for a novel:

"You have a secret. You consider it beyond embarrassing; it is vile, disgusting, and you know that if anyone found out, they would shun you. Your children would despise you, your spouse would abandon you, friends would turn away, your life, your job, they would all be gone. And you would accept all this as just.

I know what your secret is."

So, the question is, if you read this in a book you picked up off the rack, would you be inclined to keep reading or not ... ?


Brad said...

Actually, I would. It sounds like the type of thing many people fear would happen to them. The fear of being found out or exposed lies within a lot of people. So, it would grab my attention.

Dan Moran said...

Don't give the Nigerians any ideas here.

Ximena Cearley said...

No. Boring.

Carissa said...

I'd be intrigued to keep reading to see where it was going (and if it was going to keep up the second person usage--which would eventually get on my nerves).

Steve Perry said...

Second person ends with the quote.

The Nigerians don't need my help, but maybe I could spam a bunch of folks and ask for money to keep quiet.

As for boring, well, you're a newlywed, what you do you know? Your brains are addled by all that fornicating ...

David said...

Sounds good to me. BTW, I just now happened to notice a book, which I don't think I've read, in our collection of SF book-of-the-month club books. The first sentence is: "Dr. Sam Bertolli hunched forward over the chessboard, frowning so severely that his thick, black eyebrows met and formed a single ridge over his eyes, then slowly reached out to advance his king's pawn one square." Pretty impressive. My eyebrows can barely play checkers.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

She's not fornicating if she's married. Perverse, I'll go along with, but not fornicating.

Also, I'm with Ximena. In spirit, that is. Rob has the fornicating part covered.

The setup starts boring for me; "You have a secret that, if it were known..." The setup spends too much time on the consequences of the secret being exposed.

In Alexander Key's "The Forgotten Door" Jon clears his name in court by reading minds. At one point, he tells a skeptic;

"A long time ago, you were in the military. You were ordered to drive a truck somewhere. On the way, you had an accident...Must I say what you did, and what happened to you afterward because of it?"

You never hear anything else about what that terrible thing is, and I haven't read that book in over two decades, but the delivery of the unknown was good, I haven't forgotten it. What the hell did that guy do with that truck?!?

I find that fear of the unknown is a more motivational factor than known entities are. Someone saying "I know your secret, blah, blah, blah" tells me contact has been established. We're talking about straight blackmail here.

An anonymous email with a link to an unknown website that has the secret splayed all over it, and a note saying "I'll be in touch" is more disturbing to me...Who the hell is this?? How do they know? I never told a soul. Oh Christ, what if Susan or the girls see this??

The premise is great. But the setup, were I to read it in a book, would lead me to put it back down unless the next line was something like this:

I pulled the gun back from his neck a few inches to give him some breathing room. He was lying, of course, but better safe than sorry.

"Okay slick" I responded, "You just bought fifteen more seconds of life."

"Let's hear it".

Go ahead and kill me now.

Steve Perry said...

No, she's not fornicating now -- but she's only been married for a few months, it was the living-in-sin stuff that came before that did the mind-bending. It'll take her years to recover.

Seriously, though, the opening graphs are an exercise in second-person dialog -- well, monologue, so far, since the next line could be anything.

It's a hook, but technically, not narration, nor action, the other two common ways to move a story.

The secret doesn't matter. Most people have a skeleton hidden away they don't want dragged out of the closet, and the question is, could they relate to the idea that somebody might know it and reveal it? How would it make them feel? Angry? Fearful? Relieved?

Again, not so important. Will it pique their curiosity? Enough to keep reading?

What I find interesting about the set-up is, who is talking, and who -- if anybody -- is listening?

What kind of person would or could say such a thing? A blackmailer is too easy, I wouldn't go there.

What about somebody teaching a sub rosa operative what she needs to know to spend time in a forensics ward of an insane asylum? Psychiatrists have a battery of tests they use to decide if somebody is off the beam, and patients have been known to fake both sanity and madness. There are ways to fool the docs.

What if the next bit was, "Redgrave laughed. He said, 'You don't scare me. Everybody knows my secret.' You aren't even another brick on my load.'"

Or: "Camilla shook her head. "Sorry, David, but we're already doing 'Last Summer 4'. Have you got anything with zombies? We can get Mila if we hurry.'"

Or: "Better, but not quite -- if she isn't absolutely convinced, you'll be dead before we can get through the door."

All about context, any set-up, but it is breaking that inertia to get reading that needs a hook.

Recall the opening to The Telltale Heart:

"TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."

*That's* an opening ...

VC said...

Hmmm, lots of really bright people here giving great feedback. Makes me feel a bit smaller about the fact that I read for fun and rarely want more than great characters and good stories.

That said, as a simple reader, I love it.

The character can be a good guy walking the earth with his dog righting wrongs or a bad guy taking advantage of his gift for personal gain.

Random tragic killings begin to look a bit less random if there is a possibility that someone may have known the unknowable.

Lots of entertaining possibilities and exactly the sort of diversion I look for.

Dan Moran said...

In Alexander Key's "The Forgotten Door" Jon clears his name in court by reading minds. At one point, he tells a skeptic;

"A long time ago, you were in the military. You were ordered to drive a truck somewhere. On the way, you had an accident...Must I say what you did, and what happened to you afterward because of it?"

I just read that -- I mean, just, a month or two ago. :-) It's the only book I have on my shelves by Alexander Key -- it holds up wonderfully well.

Glider said...

Interesting stuff but what drew my attention more was the photo you posted with the hook. What is that thing? It looks like a cave with a door built into it and locked. Now, that's an interesting and curious item. What is it? Where is it? What is inside? And on and on.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

"The secret doesn't matter"

It doesn't have to matter, but without something biting, the threat is too limp to do any damage. The way it's worded doesn't make me interested in finding out the secret, or if protagonist overcomes this thing. You said it was a hook, but it didn't sink into my enough to keep me. (Lets keep the smarmy comments about beer and my head to yourself on this one, what do you say?)

"A blackmailer is too easy, I wouldn't go there."

How rare for us to disagree on something. ;-)

On the contrary, if it's not blackmail, why tell the victim at all? Why tell them SO MUCH, in fact? If you plan on dragging out their suffering for mental torture or something, that works too, but the enormous setup of the consequences of the secret suggest blackmail more than anything else.

I DID like the idea of an operative, some kind of psychoanalysis/mental conditioning going on. That would be a damn HOOK if we got to the second chapter and discovered everything in chapter one was some Jason Bourne conditioning going down. That would keep me interested, probably enough to finish the book. But we're talking about my personal preference here. Ximena would probably want something on advanced fornication, or something.

The quote from Poe is indeed an opening...But not YOUR opening. It's just my opinion, but there's a lot of explanation going on in that opening paragraph. The word "Would" is used, overused, several times. This gives the appearance of a run-on sentence, even though it isn't, and denoting a possibility, not a definitive. Again, suggestive of blackmail. It's just where the words take me (the little bit of them that we see...As I said, and you exemplified, what happens next is the deal breaker. You just gave a narrow set of circumstances and asked would I purchase/read it based on those lines.)

Here's what gets my attention:

I wanted to spit in her face before killing her, do you understand? My blood surged at the thought of strangling her barehanded, watching her tongue protrude at the very last gasp, seeing the light die in her eyes. I had to grind my teeth together to stop myself from doing something I’d regret.

“Steve? You’re not going to be a cliché’ now, are you?”

I just looked at the floor, impotent in every sense of the word. She wasn’t armed, I could snap her slender neck like a breadstick if I chose to. But I didn’t dare touch her.

“So, that thing we were talking about. Your…Problem.” A smile. “I own it now. The negatives. The clothes. Even some hair samples.”

Hair. Black hair. Susan was Blond. If she even suspected…Jesus fucking Christ. How could I have not seen this coming? How did I put my foot this far into the goddam bucket? Harry…Oh God, Harry, I’m so sorry. I would deserve it if you shot me without-

“Which means,” she continued, “I own YOU. I think we both understand the consequences of this ever coming to light in the public eye, don’t we?” She paused here, but I knew she wasn’t really expecting an answer.

...That's my take on it.

toby said...

I'd be kinda torn. That kind of opening all too often leads to really cheesy and stupid plot lines. It vaguely reminds me of the old "choose your own adventure" books in that it has to grab you quickly and so it throws you into the action and (to quote Biloxi Blues) "reaches its peak too soon"

It's a great paragraph but I'd need to read the blurb and another page or two to be convinced that it isn't dreck.

Ed said...

It isn't too much of a catch for me - but not to give you a big head - I would probably give it a little more look if you were the author. If it didn't bring up 97 steps, spetsdods, good banter, good action, Mues or something real similar I would move on or wait till another came out or caught my attention. I too read for fun. A paperback has to catch me right away or I don't buy. Damn, short attention span - at least for fun book reading. Unless my fun reading is something on alternative energy, conifers, insulated concrete block, SIP construction, woodworking, 22's or other things I don't yet have funds, property or time for. Let me know if you write on those too.

Dan Gambiera said...

Nice. I'd keep reading to find out what the juicy secret was.

Anonymous said...

Um. Ah. Mmmmmmmmm.

Sorry, I have no opinion as my brain is addled from all that fornicating.


Ximena Cearley said...

'scuse me, but it seems like you'd be wanting me to actually be READING the book. If I put it down because I'd rather be doing something else, you lose.

(Now, if I don't put it down, that's a whole nother problem, which I will leave it up to you buncha pervy goats to sort out.) :P

ShaneShock said...

It does grab my attention, however not yet enough to walk to the checkout counter with it. I would continue skimming for a clue to the knowing character’s intentions. If that interested me, then I would cough up some green (or plastic) for the book.


Steve Perry said...

That hook was something I wrote a while back. I came across it in an old notebook while I was digging around in the

Apparently, it was for Mrs. Cowsar's English III class at Central High School, in the winter of 1964 ....

I would have been a little over seventeen, making it, if not quite an antique, (and hardly a classic) forty-three years old.

I cannot remember anything about it, why I did it, what he assignment was, and that's all there was of it. If it hadn't been in my handwriting, I wouldn't have known I wrote it at all ...

Steve Perry said...

Only thing I can think about the hook is that it must have been an exercise in second-person, present-tense, the most well-known example of which is Rod Serling's opening monologue for Twilight Zone: "You're traveling in another dimension ...

I don't know what i had in mind then, but I'm fairly certain I could make it work now. And the question wasn't whether you'd buy the book, but if you would keep reading. If you would turn the page to see what happens next, then the hook works. If not, it doesn't.

The purpose of a cover illustration is to get a reader to pick up and open a novel. After that, it is the writer's job, and the hook is how it is done. Doesn't have to be action, though that is the easiest.

If you don't like the line "Death came for him through the trees." then you probably won't like what follows. If you do, then I fancy that you will.

Second person, a seldom-used voice, and for good reason, did come in handy. The second and third books I had published were in that choose-your-own-adventure series clone, Time Travel Adventures, and that was the voice. And in defense of those, they were entry-level fiction, since they were aiming at ten-year-olds, and designed to be games in book form.

If a novel catches me on the first page, I'll read the next page, and keep reading as long as it holds my attention. If it doesn't grab me, but I know and like the writer, I'll keep reading because I figure he'll pay it off.

If a book is by somebody I don't know and have no reason to trust, if I'm not caught by the second page, I'm done.

Writers can fool you. There are some who do a dynamite opening, but can't maintain it. First three or four pages are great, but then it fades. Usually this is not the case, since somebody who understands a hook well enough tends to know the rest of what s/he needs to know to keep a story going, but now and again, I find somebody who has a hook but that's all.

The image is of a cave that that been walled up to keep folks out. Seemed to go with the subject.

Anonymous said...

I definitely would keep reading. Throughout our lives, we are occassionally traumatized, blessed, horrified, etc., by something so bizarre, amazing, beautiful, awful, that they imprint on our memories. And the temptation to see what it is can be very powerful indeed.