Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: The Hook

Yes, friends, it's time for Ask Mr. Writing Person, the only weekly advice column on the Internet that's neither weekly, a column, nor full of advice. [Ed: It's actually one of six million, but we'll let Mr. Writing Person have his fantasy for now.]

Our question du jour comes from Greg Winnemucca of Reno, Nevada, who is having problems. (Allow me a sly snicker.) Problems writing hooks, that is:

Q. Hi, I'm Greg Winnemucca--

A. Yep. We knew that.

Q. --and I'm having problems--

A. Knew that, too.

Q. --writing hooks.

A. Oh.

Q. I can come up with a good first sentence, but the first paragraph is nearly killing me.

A. Only nearly? How disappointing. Shoot us a first sentence, then, and we'll fix it up.

Q. Okay, here goes:

Elaine stared out at the street below, wondering if she ought to plug the guy downstairs.

A. That's it?

Q. Yeah. Catchy, isn't it?

A. It has major problems, Mr. Moccasins, major problems. The first is, it needs another sentence.

Q. Yeah, that's what I--

A. Here's a revision:

Elaine stared out at the street below, wondering if she ought to plug the guy downstairs. He was a robot, see, and he was leaking out all over the place.

Q. He's not a robot--

A. Stick with me, here. What readers hate most is to have something left undescribed, especially when it's essential to the plot. They need things 100% clear. We didn't know what "plug" means in this context, and we didn't know why Elaine wanted to do it. Now we do.

Q. Okay.

A. Next, readers need a sense of mystery. Not a lot, because a mystery can't carry a hook, but just enough to keep them interested. The easiest way to do it is to name your character something unpronounceable, like "Myxinxy'jhidingmts" or something. This keeps them guessing every time they read it. A more nuanced approach is to lead with a pronoun (which, incidentally, is Latin for "easy to pronounce"). I prefer "it":

It stared out at the street below, wondering if it ought to plug the guy downstairs. He was a robot, see, and he was leaking out all over the place.

Q. But she's a woman!

A. Exactly! "It" is gender-neutral, which means we can change it later. It's part of the mystery! The first question your reader is asking is, "What gender is this person or thing?" A mystery! Isn't that clever?

Q. Sure.

A. This leads me to pacing. If you start with a tight sentence like that, you need to follow it up with something slower. We've already started slowing down, so let's finish:

It stared out at the street below, wondering if it ought to plug the guy downstairs. He was a robot, see, and he was leaking out all over the place. "It" was named Elaine, a woman, really, and she lived in a two-bedroom, 600-square-foot apartment at the top of a 49-storey high-rise that was named after Abraham Lincoln. A cloudy sunset cast its molten gaze across her silhouette like an orange cookie cutter pressed into warm asphalt.

A. Isn't that wonderful?

Q. Yeah.

A. Readers also love imagery and lots of details, so we threw those in, too. Now, one major problem with this is a total lack of conflict. One great trick you can use is to start off with some emotionally-charged dialogue. You can also sprinkle the paragraph with emotional words and imagery. We're partly there, so let's dribble some more in and add some dialogue:

"You idiot!" she screamed.

It stared out at the street below, wondering if it ought to plug the guy downstairs. He was an angry robot, see, and he was leaking out all over the place. "It" was named Elaine, a short-tempered woman, really, and she lived in a two-bedroom, 600-square-foot apartment at the top of a 49-storey high-rise that was named after Abraham Lincoln, who occasionally got into fistfights. A cloudy sunset cast its molten gaze across her silhouette like an orange cookie cutter pressed into warm asphalt.

Q. What do Abraham Lincoln's fistfights have to do with anything?

A. Just anger, that's all. It adds to the atmosphere. Notice that we didn't change the last sentence, because it already has "molten" in it, which is a Greek word for "hot-tempered" (think of a volcano). Also, we've made another pronoun switchup. Think of how fun it'll be when the reader discovers that "she" and "it" are one and the same!

Q. I'm not sensing conflict, here. I'm just confused now.

A. Sure, sure. That confusion is called mystery. Read enough books and you'll get used to it. But if there's not enough conflict, you can always throw in a corpse:

"You idiot!" she screamed as she tossed the corpse aside.

Q. She threw a dead body.

A. Isn't that clever? We all threw a corpse! Here's some more conflict, which arises from uncertainty:

"You idiot!" she screamed as she tossed the corpse aside, wondering what she was going to have for breakfast now.

Q. That's sick.

A. Conflict, young grasshopper! Conflict! Now we have one remaining problem. The reader might not trust us to string two words together--

Q. Not anymore.

A. --so we have to prove to him that we're bona fide wordsmiths. Let's take a look at the final version, in which we've chosen more colorful synonyms to replace our blandest words:

"You cretin!" she witticismed as she catapulted the carcass aside, marveling about what she was going to gormandize for her daybreak repast now.

It rubbernecked out at the corduroy below, wondering if it need obstruct the hombre on the lower underside. He was an apoplectic and shirty intelligent appliance, see, and he was absconding out all over his undersurface. "It" was nomenclatured Elaine, a cantankerous mademoiselle, really, and she populated a two-bedroom, 600-square-foot penthouse at the summit of a 49-storey bungalow that was baptized after Abraham Lincoln, who occasionally indulged in fisticuffs. A cloudy sunset cast its molten gaze across her silhouette like an orange cookie cutter pressed into warm asphalt.

Q. That's amazing.

A. Isn't it? I suggest you find a thesaurus and learn how to use it.

Q. Sure.

A. I have some homework for you. Add another paragraph, and rework the whole thing so the point-of-view character changes twice. It's a fun game for readers that I like to call "Who's really the POV?" Most people love it.

Q. I'm not sure I--

A. That's because you're an illiterate Philistine. You can change that only through much practice, young grasshopper.

5 Comments:

At 10:16 PM, Blogger Viola said...

Nice Blog :)

 
At 11:52 PM, Blogger Clarissa said...

Dear Mr. Writing Person,

You are a total genius! I can't wait to see what other advice you have to offer to aspiring writers.

But I have to admit I'm a little confused. I really appreciate the rules you lay out - but it seems like a lot of published authors get away with breaking those rules, which is TOTALLY NOT FAIR, but I guess once you're all famous and stuff you don't have to follow the rules.

But I look at something like the opening to "Moby Dick" and it looks like poor Mr. Melville could really have used your help on his opening. I know he's dead and all but maybe it is not too late - can you apply your skills to "Moby Dick"? I think we'd all learn a lot.

Thanks!
-Clarissa

 
At 4:52 AM, Anonymous vatyma said...

Hi Mr. Writing Person!

Good to see establishing your own place, all of us hatrackers will be sure to visit you:)

 
At 9:10 AM, Blogger Mr. Writing Person said...

Why, thanks! I'll try to keep it updated. That shouldn't be too hard, since I've got so many great ideas and you poor illiterate Philistines are so undernourished in the ways of good writing.

 
At 7:41 PM, Blogger Minister said...

HaHaHaHaHa!!!!!

That's really all I've got to say about this. Oh, and that before you go too far with this, you might want to consider publication rights with this internet posting.

 

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