So, I’m looking at part of my novel and wondering why it reads like a history and not a story. And realising that I need to learn something from the experts about how to ‘hook’ the reader into a story and how to present a character’s needs, emotions and thoughts in a way that will attract the reader. How do the great novelists do it?
Having had a look through ten great novels (chosen at random), I came up with a list of their ‘hooks’:
• A tiny physical detail of a character’s reaction – we sympathise with him
• A sense of foreboding and a dysfunctional family – what is going to happen?
• A young boy’s testing and the question – why is he being tested and who by?
• Irony, education and entertainment, and an attractive character
• Three strange letters sent to a young girl – who has sent the letters and why?
• A mistreated orphan in a derelict house who is happy nevertheless – we like her
• A man in a murder trial who we suspect is innocent and brave – will the truth come out?
• A mixed-up student running through the streets on a windy day – her character intrigues us
• A self-conscious bullied man who appears to be a failure – will he find happiness?
• A city child seeing a rabbit being skinned – how will she handle being transplanted into a different society?
There are several themes: either a question pertinent to the plot, or an attractive character (attractive because they are cheerful or bullied or have a weakness or are mistreated), or a confidence that the author will entertain you.
I think that the best openings take you inside someone’s head – deep into their thoughts, feelings, desires. It surprised me how much space these writers take up with this. For example, almost the entire first chapter of ‘Angels and Men’ contributes nothing to the story and is all about establishing the character of the heroine, Mara. Similarly with ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. But the first chapter has, as well as a question and hook, got to give context, some background information, information like age/sex/location/time/names. Tricky!
If you are interested in the details of the hooks in the books I looked at, then here are the details:
Small Wars by Sadie Jones:
She starts with a page giving a cool, precise description of a passing-out parade. Then ‘Hal was not choked with feeling: he had only the desire to do well…. He wasn’t thinking about these things though; he was thinking about the precise execution of this small part of his training…, suddenly, he felt it, a sort of overflowing, and he had to blink and focus carefully on the far trees.’ Immediately, we feel a connection and a sympathy with Hal. That tiny physical detail of blinking and focusing has hooked us into his character.
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson:
A hot summer, neglected children, three-year old Olivia ‘as cute as a button’, the weary and harassed mother, a clear, authoritative narrator’s voice describing the dysfunctional family with devastating coolness, and the reader is filled with pity for the mother, anger at the father and an ominous foreboding. Something awful will happen; there are plenty of hints (such as the line ‘she returned from the honeymoon in a state of shock’); and we read on to find out.
Dune by Frank Herbert:
Science fiction has huge challenges: the presentation of an alien world and the necessity of explaining this world to the reader without ‘info-dumping’. Frank cleverly starts with what would appear to be a medieval castle and an old crone, with only the odd unexplained word (e.g. suspensor, baliset) to hint at the alien setting, then intense detail on Paul’s emotions as he sees the crone, ponders her words and then faces her testing the next day. The reader is given puzzles, clues, strange words: and the drama and fear of an ordeal faced by a fifteen-year old boy. This mixture of external puzzles, a child’s testing, and internal focus on Paul’s point-of-view is enough to make us want to know more.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres:
Opens with mild irony: the doctor has had a ‘satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse’, and a wonderful description of the extraction of a dried pea from a man’s ear: sprinkled with obscure and beautiful words that make even the ‘aural orifice more dank, be-lichened, and stalagmitic even than the Drogarati cave’ attractive. The next section, with Dr Iannis attempting to write history, with honest self-knowledge, then bickering with his daughter over the goat, pulls us into the story and gives us confidence that the author will both entertain and teach us. And we are hooked.
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder:
A simple start: a young girl called Sophie gets three very puzzling letters. We get fairly detailed descriptions of her house and street, a little of her family, and a lot about her thoughts and emotions on receiving the letters. But it is the mystery of the letters, and the questions that they raise, that draws the reader in, rather than Sophie herself.
Mistress Masham’s Respose by T. H. White:
This is a children’s book and opens with an oppressed orphan, descriptions of her tormenting and ugly guardians, and her huge and ruined house – so big that the cook has to bicycle along the corridors to answer the doorbell. Starting a book with a mistreated orphan could be a cliché and open to the charge of ‘emotional manipulation’, but the cruelty of her governess is described with a light touch, and Maria is described as ‘a wild but earnest puppy rushing about with the slipper of her imagination’. So we know the book will have a joyous atmosphere and we want to know more about the ruined house and what will happen to Maria.
Snow falling on Cedars by David Guterson:
This starts with an impersonal description of an accused man at a murder trial. He is still and rigid and gives nothing away. We suspect that he is innocent and is hiding his fear at the verdict, and immediately we sympathize, even more because there is a hint that the audience are prejudiced against him. Before the paragraph ends we are ‘hooked’: we want to know what will happen to him and will the real murderer be found out?
Angels and Men by Catherine Fox:
Poetical opening: angels walking in the paths of the air above the cathedral, followed by a new student escaping to run through wind-swept streets, and her thoughts: clues about her father, about breaking free from a sect, about going to a psychiatrist, about wanting a fresh start even if it means fostering her own isolation. She is harsh, arrogant and irritable but also repentant, fearful, self-aware and damaged, and this mixture of goodness and darkness intrigues us. We want to know more about her.
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
She goes straight into it – flags up her distinctive style of prose so you know you are going to love it or hate it. Immediately you know the main character, Quoyle: that he is bullied, walked over, a lonely self-conscious giant who hides his over-large chin. And you sympathise and want him to have a happy ending, so you carry on reading – assuming that you like Annie’s style.
Regatta by Libby Purves
An old man skinning rabbits by the river, watched with horrified fascination by a young child with a limp; effortlessly leading into a description of the river, the main characters, the town where the book is set. The hook is the child saying, indignantly, ‘That is gross.’ You learn that the story will be about a city child transplanted to a country setting – the limping city child as a ‘project’, a simple and straightforward ‘hook’.