I was having a conversation about creating a killer Hook with my writing coach and friend, critically-acclaimed author Larry Brooks, and it got me thinking about how others could benefit from his advice.
We all know how important a great Hook (<- capped for clarity) is, regardless of genre. This becomes especially important with thrillers. Without a killer Hook a reader could close your book before the story takes off, your chance of finding an agent or editor goes right out the window, because most will only give you a few pages to pique their interest, your book could be destined to collect dust on a shelf, virtual or otherwise.
So now that we know why we need a killer hook, let’s talk about how to create one that grabs the reader by the throat and won’t let go.
If anyone knows how to create a killer hook it’s Larry, author of Story Engineering as well as many other craft books — link to his e-bookstore is in my Crime Writer’s Resource. During our conversation, I discovered I was doing myself a disservice by not starting my books in the best place for maximum impact. Sure, I started in the middle of the action after I’d made sure to invest the reader in my protagonist. Blah, blah, blah. The internet is chock full of that advice.
But how about starting further along in the story?
This is certainly not new advice. Screenwriters are taught this early on. Watch any crime show and you’ll probably see a murder or an intense scene involving the main character in terrible trouble. For some reason, though, novelists don’t always do this. Maybe it’s because no one comes right out and tells us this is a kickass way to write a Hook. For me, I’ve read many bestsellers that use this technique in the Prologue, but because agents/editors frown upon using Prologues, I didn’t feel it wasn’t something I could do till I got published. UPDATE: Once I got my publishing deal for MARRED, I rewrote my hook and used a Prologue.
For those going traditional, call the Hook Chapter One instead of Prologue. Then, in Chapter Two, write your chapter headline as “Five Days Earlier,” or whatever. This is perfectly acceptable, will meet the standards of what agents/editors are looking for, and you’ll have a Killer Hook that will increase your chances of getting full requests and possibly lead to representation.
Let me show you exactly what I’m talking about.
In the book I’m reading now — one of Larry’s fast-paced thrillers, Pressure Points — OMG, what a hook! It nearly knocked me off my couch.
Before I tell you about it, I’ll show you what first attracted me to the story. Book description is as follows:
The game is a weeklong retreat. It’s located in a remote region of northern California. It’s designed to build teamwork, establish trust, and increase awareness.
The players are three ambitious executives — one woman and two men, each prepared to put his physical, mental, and moral limits to the test. They never dreamed how far they could go.
The rules are simple. First you run. Then you hide. Don’t appear weak, don’t admit to the fear, and don’t react to the pain.
The prize is staying alive. Let the game begin.
You can see why it piqued my interest, right?
All three characters have their inner demons ranging from self-doubt to total control-freak. The goal for each is to be made CEO of this gazillion dollar company. The present CEO told them if they completed the seminar (retreat) he’d sell them the business for way less than market value and appoint one of them CEO in his place, depending on how they did at the seminar. The farther I read the more I realized none of the three executives particularly liked one another, so just deciding whether to go to the retreat was a tense meeting of the minds.
The Hook Larry used was one of the best I’ve ever read. It starts out with a man running for his life through dark woods. He’s cold, terrified, barely dressed. When he finally reaches the road he hears his name whispered in the dark, but the reader has no idea who he is. And then, the man collapses, dies right there on a deserted stretch of asphalt.
Bam! I’m in 100%. There’s no getting away from this story even if I wanted to.
And that, writer peeps, is what a great Hook does. It forces the reader to keep flipping pages to answer questions raised in the Hook. Now, do you have to use this technique? No. There are plenty of great stories out there that start at a certain point in time and continue forward. This is just another way of doing it. And one that works remarkably well.
To use this technique correctly, you can’t simply take your climax and stick it at the beginning. That will get you nowhere fast. You’ll also ruin a crucial part of your story. The Hook also doesn’t have to be a moment that occurs in the climax. It can set up the First Plot Point, the Midpoint, the Second Plot Point, the Climax, anywhere really. Doesn’t matter. The choice is yours.
For instance, in my WIP the Hook sets up the Midpoint, because at the Midpoint the story does a 180 to the point of no return. It’s the part of the story that raises the most questions and, therefore, the perfect spot to pay off my Hook. And that’s the point you need to find in your story, where the most questions are raised, a tease, a tantalizing peek at what’s to come. But I’ll tell you, when using this technique it’s easy to forget to invest the reader in your protagonist. Which brings me to…
How To Get Readers To Root For Your Hero
Contrary to what many believe, readers do not have to like your main character. I hear boos and the shaking of disapproving heads. Stay with me. They don’t have to “like” your hero but they do need to “empathize” with him/her. That’s the key word: empathy.
How do we do that?
Let’s hear from the man himself, Larry Brooks. This quote is from Storyfix…
“… we readers need to recognize something of ourselves. We need to empathize. Most of all, we need to get a sense of what the hero’s inner demons are. What is their backstory, what are the worldviews and attitudes and prejudices and fears that define them and hold them back? What are their untapped strengths, their unwitting secrets? These are the things the hero must later, when squaring off with the antagonistic force, be forced to acknowledge in order to step up as the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion.”
I’m not suggesting you dump a whole lot of information about the protagonist in the opening pages. Kill me now if you think that’s what I’m proposing. Just sprinkle enough inner demons, wants, needs, desires, etc. to create empathy. The rest of their backstory you can pepper throughout the novel, but only if it’s germane to the story. Please don’t give a full rundown of their lives. Nothing bores a reader quicker than musing about nothing. Especially the first quartile — the first 20%-25% — the set up phase before the First Plot Point — the most important moment in your story, because that’s when your main character begins their quest. I’ve briefly written about this before (and I’m sure I’ll write about it again) in How To Create A One-Page Synopsis Using Story Beats, which you can check out here.
So, what do you think of starting your novel much later in the story? Have you read any good books that use this technique, or are you using it in your novel? Tell me about it in the comments.