The Hook is a lie. Let’s just get that out in the open right now. Everybody talks about how you need to have your literary Hook, the thing that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to find out more, as soon as possible in your story or novel. This is true.
The lie is an indirect one – a lie by omission, a lie by understatement. Because you don’t need one Hook, you need lots of hooks. You need a trail of breadcrumbs. You need Reese’s Pieces leading through the forest. You don’t get to have one big hook at the beginning and then you can meander however you want to and trust that readers will stick with you just based on one thing that was briefly mentioned all the way back at the beginning of the story. The truth is, readers rarely take it on faith that you’re going to be interesting. These days, there are plenty of people who assume just the opposite, in fact: book = boring. Jeez, it’s not even in Hi Def, and there’s no surround sound.
A story needs some sense of direction, of forward movement, and a sense of mystery, and I don’t mean the genre, in this instance. An excerpt of my deskside dictionary’s definition of “mystery”:
(1.) something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret (2.) any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity … mystery is applied to something beyond human knowledge or understanding, or it merely refers to any unexplained or seemingly inexplicable matter.
Now, until your plot plays out, there will obviously be stuff that’s “unknown” to the reader, whether it’s kept secret or not, and the key component in the whole definition, in terms of what I’m talking about in this entry, is the phrase excite curiosity. You want your reader to wonder about things, to feel like a little kid again, asking, “And then what happened?” over and over, until the very end, and maybe even after they’re done reading your book.
Drop hints. Foreshadow. Give the reader subtext and clues that the characters miss sometimes. Throw in setbacks. Raise doubts. Bring up questions that will need answering. Give a glimpse of something bigger on the horizon, but only give enough to make your reader want more. Build anticipation. And make the payoff worth the wait.
A hobby of mine is looking through books and magazines on architecture, interior design, and landscaping. One of the things I read in a landscaping magazine really struck me, and has always stuck with me as a visual metaphor for what we strive for in writing. In garden design, this landscape architect was saying, one tries to simultaneously provide a view and obscure the view. While each “area” should look interesting, you want people to be drawn on, through your design, and the way to do that is to show only part of what lies beyond. Using arches, gateways, trellising (is that a word?), turns in hedges, etc., a designer will open up a glimpse, but not reveal the full effect of the next space in the garden. It builds a sense of intrigue, makes people want to fill in the rest of the information. And I thought, “A design hook. Foreshadowing with hedges!”
I don’t remember what magazine the article was in, or who the designer was, unfortunately, but I think of it often when I’m working on a plot, and particularly when I’m revising. What am I giving a glimpse of here? Is that enough to make someone want to take the next few steps down the path? Am I giving them too much, too soon? I’d better save something really good for when they get to that part of the story, because they’ll need a big WOW! after that much build-up.
And there you have it. The truth about narrative hooks! You must have lots of them, all through the story, right up to the end.
One of the mistakes I used to make a lot was thinking I needed to present quite a lot of info early on in order for the reader to understand what was going on. This is a big pitfall with fantasy fiction in particular, because we’re building a different world, and the instinct is to think you need to show as much of it as possible, as soon as possible, to prevent disorientation.
As a reader, though, you can follow the story on very little information to begin with – as long as there’s a steady, subtle trickle of information being given as the story progresses. And yes – it’s much more intriguing to have questions raised and hints given quite frequently.
It’s a tricky thing for the writer to manipulate, because we start from the point of view of knowing everything that’s going on. I think it’s a big thing to address in editing.