The sweetest five words to a fiction writer: “I couldn’t put your book down!” “Kept me up all night!”
Isn’t that what we write for? How about the most valuable three words you can ever hear while telling any story—“then what happened?”
When you hear those, you have the reader-listeners by the ears and if you don’t stumble, you will keep that rapt look in their eyes until the “amen” at the end or the last period in the last sentence.
The trick is, how do you do it?
It depends on how you hook him, how long you can play him, and then how you get him in the boat, flopping around in the delight of your mystery and your magical words. I have been hooked by the first line, or first paragraph, only to yawn within the next few pages because my fisherman-author didn’t keep a tight line on me to hold my interest. I simply shook the hook and shut the book.
What would grab your attention, and then hold it? Like a beautiful aria, one of those great Beatles melodies or a knocked out riff by Pink Floyd, the reader doesn’t expect a killer moment to last on and on. The author just can’t maintain that excitement to continue. He drops it on the reader and then goes into exposition or dialogue which will carry it for a bit and then increase the tension on the line at just the right moment. This is the craft of the art or the art of the craft-knowing when to tighten the line.
What hooks me certainly isn’t like the Bulwar-Litton first lines–“It was a dark and stormy night.” Look at the beginning lines of authors who write for the type of reader for whom you are writing. How did he hook you, how did he keep you reading on and on? What was the pace of the book, and when did he tighten the line?” Lee Childs, with his Jack Reacher character, grips you in tension from page to page. That accounts for his immense popularity as a commercial fiction writer. So does James Patterson, John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Martin Cruz Smith and his dark, turgid Russian detective stories.
I could list a hundred writers I loved because they removed me relentlessly from my mundane world to one of wonder and excitement, leaving me grieving that I had completed the book or the series. But like one’s list of past loves, there was always one outstanding face (or anatomical part or charm) that is far above the others. Why? Usually because she hooked me on opening her first page and held me until the unfortunate or glorious end. When she felt my attention flagging, she tightened the line and I happily flopped into the boat and begged for more. So what was the outstanding book? Find it and discover what hooked you. Then use it as a technique, and store it among your growing toolbox of hooks.
One infamous movie producer said, to get their attention, just use “tits and bullets.” Watch some of the new TV mystery or crime series. They put you right at the crime scene during the first few minutes. You are hooked, you want to be hooked, and expect to be hooked and you cannot stop watching until the denouement at the end.
My first novel, Command Influence, was about a court martial I defended and won while serving in the JAG in the US Army in the early sixties. It was about a top sergeant accused of having sex with his adopted teenage daughter. They had him cold, but he denied it. I followed my oath to represent him to my fullest. I got him acquitted by a military court which members usually said, when they are advised of being appointed to sit on the court, “bring the guilty bastard in and let’s give him a fair trial.” In other words, acquittals are rare in the military.
I wrote a linear story that continued straight to the end when the case was over. I realized the runway was too long to the action, so I did a bit of a flash forward by extracting a page from the first day of the trial and used it as a prologue, which drew the reader into the book who then must find out “what happened next.”
The opening hook doesn’t have to involve violence or intrigue. It could involve aesthetics. I am actually more drawn into a book by the author’s word crafting than by anything else. I seek to be borne aloft by the author’s skill in invoking word pictures with word candy. It is my paycheck for putting up with the ugly crap this world puts out around me on a daily basis. The color, the images invoked by the use of our beautiful language, the skillful arrangement of words and thought patterns work on me not unlike music. A wonderful opening will do it for me every time. It bears promise of more to come and I buy or check it out in hopes that I am right.
It is all about enchantment. Whether it’s about skydiving, murder or love, first impressions do the trick. As a courtroom lawyer for 43 years, we had what was called “the law of primacy.” People remember what they hear first. So hit the high point first in your opening statement and closing argument as well as the first sentence and paragraph. What do you remember of this statement? “He was a dirty, low down thief, but he did many charitable works—helping the poor, particularly children.” Or this: “He did many charitable works – helping the poor, particularly children. But he was a dirty, low down thief.” Get the idea?
The bottom line is to start off with a bang! See how others of this genre do it. Sock it to ‘em by a violent shock or the mesmerizing beauty of a phrase. Then play them and surprise them again at the end.