NaNoWriMo #24: Sharpen Your Hook

We’ve covered the notion of a “hook” before.  But now, after you’re down the road with your concept and (hopefully) have a functioning beat sheet underway, I’ll wager you know way more about your story than before.

Which is the very best time to revisit your opening chapter, or Prologue, to make sure your hook will draw blood.

If I was right — that you really do know way more about your story than you did when you first started planning it — it proves the entire point of story planning.  As the plan evolves, the scenes you’ve put in place on your beat sheet evolve.  They get better.  They get swapped for better ideas and/or moved around.

Hard to do in a draft.  Really easy to do at the beat sheet or outline level.

A hook, especially in the form of a Prologue, is often something that allows a peek at what’s going on in the story well down the road.  That’s the definition of a Prologue, by the way — it previews a tense moment in the story, and/or, it glimpses a context-setting event that may never actually appear in the story, but sets the stage for it.  

A strategically-conceived first chapter can head in that direction, too.

Either way, Prologue or chapter, the mission of your first pages is to reveal something so compelling, so delicious, so disturbing or provocative, that the reader can’t help but want to keep going.  It’s usually plot-related, but it can be character-driven as well, introducing a hero so cool and interesting that you just have to see what kind of experience you are about to share with her or him.

Start big.  Start strategic.  You should be mission-driven from page one. 

Let there be examples.

Sometimes we can define a concept for weeks, but it doesn’t really sink in until you see it executed.  So here you go.

The links below take you to four different hooks from four books written by a published author and writing teacher. 

Three are Prologues, one is a first chapter that actually could have been a Prologue.  Please notice how they ask a question or two — what does this mean?  What happened to get to this?  What happens after this? — and in a way that, by design and objective, propels the reader forward to get the answers.

The first is from an as yet unpublished novel…

… the sequel to a critical home run (a Publishers Weekly best-books-of-the-year honoree).  It’s a Prologue that doesn’t even have the protagonist in it, and actually is sequenced before the story begins, thus providing context (and some serious character motivation) down the road.  CLICK HERE to read it.

If you are shocked, then the author succeeded.  It was part of the strategy.  If you are curious, then the mission was successful.

The second is the Prologue from my USA Today bestseller, “Darkness Bound”…

…which unfolds in two parts.  Yes, you can have a two-part Prologue… CLICK HERE to see it done.

An effective strategy is to really jack the hatred factor for your antagonist.  A good place to do this is in your opening pages… that was the strategy here.  Hopefully you’re already rooting for the good guys, while perhaps squeamishly intrigued by the femme fatale..

The third is from a novel originally published as “Pressure Points”…

… (it’s been republished under the title, “The Seminar,” a total arena story), with a Prologue that is a glimpse/preview of a tense story that doesn’t actually happen until the Part 4 resolution section of the story.  It’s mission is clear: make you want to read how this came to pass.  CLICK HERE to read it.

The fourth is from my most successful novel, “Bait and Switch.” 

As described above, it’s an event that happens apart from the thread of the narrative, but is the catalyst for everything in the narrative.  CLICK HERE to read this one.

You see how bad the bad guys are, and the McGuffin, while undefined, hopefully takes a compelling form.

A coaching tip…

Read these differently than you might as, well, a reader.  Read them analytically, in the context of research and learning.  I’m not claiming these are iconic in any way, but I do feel they’re clean and clear examples of the mission-driven nature of a hook… and… well, let’s just say I had no trouble securing the reprint rights for these sample chapters.

Reading this way, with an analytical, deconstruction-oriented filter, is one of the most empowering things a writer can do.  It works best — by a long shot — when you’re schooled in the principles of story architecture, because you’ll recognize it when you see it, in the same way that a structural engineer sees things that you don’t when driving across a bridge, or a pilot notices things that you don’t (maybe a good thing) while sitting next to you in coach.

My hope is you’ll use this as a machine lathe to sharpen your hook, which is one of the most critical elements of your story.  Enjoy… and get pumped.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to NaNoWriMo #24: Sharpen Your Hook

  1. Even though you’ve talked about a hook before, it never really hit me how important it is until I read those prologues/first chapters. This post essentially punched my old, sketchy prologue in the face and sent it to the depths of my computer to rot, just so that a fresh, shiny, exciting new prologue from a different perspective can take its place. Also, I have added four books to my already-lengthy reading list.

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  3. Amanda

    Dear Larry,
    First I have to say I am amazed by how well this “planning” thing is going. 🙂 I’m sure you hear this all the time, but I am definitely a pantzer reformed. Having my ending in place (actually knowing where I’m headed) makes a world of difference.
    Question: I am doing my first NaNoWriMo and want to know – How detailed should the beat sheet be? I have all my scenes mapped out, with my plot points and pinch points and mid-shift, etc. all noted. Just a quick line (ie. “main character” meets “secondary character”, etc.) or sometimes more (ie. if dialogue or particular actions occur to me) but not much more. Should I be deciding on locations, scenery, set up at this stage or not?

  4. Loved your post. I think sometimes I read my hook and think “this is awesome” but in reality, it’s only decent. If we really want to bring in our readers from page 1, we really need to have a hook like you mentioned.

    Amanda: this is also my first year doing Nano! I think the degree of planning one should have can vary. I guess it’s what you feel most comfortable with. I have a list of all the scenes for my novel. Then, when I’m writing, I know where to go next. Some people are more spontaneous and want to figure it out as they’re writing. Either way, I think one should always be adaptable. It’s okay to change your scenes, plot, or go in a new direction.

    I also decided what my settings are. I will just have a brief description of each so I’m consistent when I write. And again, so I don’t waste time doing research when I’m writing in November.

    I guess part of the excitement of being a first-time Nano-er is heading into the unknown!

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