Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Hook me in all the ways

This week SFF Seven asks us, gentle writers, which type of hook* we most often use: the why, the character, the catastrophe, the setting, the contradicting emotions, the inherent problem, or the goal. My answer is all of them. Definitely. 

A good story always begins with story questions, so there's an inherent, built-in why. Always. If a story opening posits no questions, it's not a very good beginning. The author might not have deliberately put a why hook in there, but sure, I will play that game with you: you give me the first scene of any book, and I will list the story questions for you, because they are most definitely there. The more intriguing the story questions, the more likely I am to keep reading. You give me no story questions, I DNF.

So, does a story need a "why" hook? Yep. Check.

Most story structure mavens (Michael Hauge, Larry Brooks, Blake Snyder, and on) advise focusing on a protagonist and getting audience or reader buy-in for that character as early as possible. You don't always have to relate to the protagonist -- especially in the case of antiheroes -- but you do always have to be invested in their journey. So in that sense, every successful book starts with a character hook, too. If we don't care about the character, we don't care about the story, and again: thar be DNF.

Character hook? Check.

"Catastrophe" is the same thing as "inciting incident," is it not? A well-structured story needs one of those, too. Check.

When I got my very first edit letter from an editor, one of the things she wanted me to do in my revisions was to "ground" the reader more up front. What she meant was I needed to do a bit of worldbuilding right off, on page one, to situate readers in my story universe. Worldbuilding is "setting" for the purposes of this conversation. Have you ever heard of "white room syndrome"? It's a fatal condition for story and basically means that character are talking but could be talking in any time or place, including a random, boring white room. Even scripts, which are chiefly dialogue, have setting information included. It's important. So yes, setting: check. 

"Contradicting emotions" and "inherent problem" are two ways of approaching conflict, and most Western stories* are structured around a conflict. The earlier you can introduce the GMC--

Wait. Hold up a sec.

I can't talk about conflict without also talking about goals and motivations. So I'll deal with this whole thing in one fell swoop: GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict, aka "what does your protagonist want, why do they want it, and what's keeping them from getting it"; see also Debra Dixon). Yes, your story must have all of them. In fact, the most layered stories have internal as well as external GMC. 

Check, check, and yep, check.

If somebody is telling you they can't get into your story or can't relate to it or are confused by it, my guess is that going through your opening and making sure you have included all of these hooks will fix your problem.


* The term "hook" in publishing often means "what makes your story special or noteworthy" and can sometimes overlap with your elevator pitch or one-sentence pitch. That's not what we're talking about this week on SFF Seven. (Though maybe we should...?)

** Not all storytelling structures center on conflict. Kishōtenktsu, for example, is a narrative structure that highlights the turn or twist, rather than the conflict.