The Hook: More Than The Opening Line
By Tommy Dean
Think about your favorite verbal storytellers, those people in your family who have passed down the history of the joys and tragedies, the small coincidences, and the shared DNA that results in a similar nose, an ornery disposition. My grandfather is a great storyteller, who knows the value of a hook, who chooses details with precision, who creates a tone and a mood for each story, engaging both minds and hearts. Think about how quickly our body language shifts when we encounter someone boorish or—worse— boring, not knowing how to choose specific, concrete details that move the story toward its conclusion.
Novelists fight these two extremes with every book. A published book only gets one opening line, one first page to engage a reader who may be too quickly drawn to the lights of their cell phones. We, writers, are in the fight of our lives, against an ever-changing technology. An arresting and beguiling first line of a novel certainly is necessary to hook the reader, but how does the writer craft an alluring first page that keeps the reader in their chair or bed, book open into the night?
So let’s take a look at Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard, published in 2016, and see how she manages to set up so many parts of the story on the first page:
They were on the road later than they intended. They’d wanted to make Indianapolis by noon, but they overslept. Mark offered to walk the dog while Maggie packed up the car. He’d wanted her to pack up the car the night before, but Maggie said it was nuts to leave a car full of luggage on a side street in Chicago.
“Every time,” she’d said. “We go through this every time.”
“You worry too much, ” he said.
“Maybe you don’t worry enough.”
It was dark by the time they’d had this argument and late, which meant Maggie had already won.
And so, in the morning, it was Mark—as promised—who took the dog out so that Maggie could arrange the car. But downstairs, in the private entrance to their apartment (Private entrance! It had taken forever, but three years ago they’d finally found the perfect apartment with its own perfectly private entrance, which they didn’t have to share with a single other person, a fact that, to this day, continued to bring Maggie sharp, if fleeting, joy) was…
The first line here is not fraught with beautiful prose or pyrotechnics, but it does establish the conflict, a kind of domino or butterfly effect waiting to happen: “They were on the road later than they intended.” A good opening of any story should get the reader asking questions. Who are they? Does leaving later really cause a problem? Even without the names of the characters, we start to get a glimpse of the characterization of the “they” mentioned here. They have intentions that they already can’t meet. What conflict will arise from these missed intentions? We also know that the setting of this story probably will be in flux by getting on the road.
A good reader would never count the repetition of a single word, but they’d feel the weight of this reverberation in their subconscious. Pittard uses the word they seven times on this first page. These characters, Mark and Maggie, are a narrative unit, a marriage, a foil, a pair of Gemini, who will merge and split throughout the novel in order to drive the conflict toward its eerie last line, “Anything is possible.” So what does Pittard accomplish with this paired point of view? She creates an osmosis of tension, characters that flow from the joined puddle of water to individual spills of personality. The reader can predict that the source of most of the novel’s tension will come from the straining of two people with divergent personalities trying to love one another while maneuvering around each other’s foibles. Drama in its purest form.
The opening of the novel relies on some generalized conflict expected in most marriages. Squabbles over how and when to pack a car, oversleeping the morning of a long car trip, and the caretaking of a pet. Pretty typical, but mundane marriage material. But Pittard continues to zoom into the grievances of Mark and Maggie until their marriage becomes more specific. Take this line, for example: “He’d wanted her to pack up the car the night before, but Maggie said it was nuts to leave a car full of luggage on a side street in Chicago.” Characterization deftly handled by not only adding a setting, with an element of danger, but also Maggie’s choice of the word “nuts.” On the sentence level, Pittard is creating room for both character’s perspectives by creating a hinge of two independent clauses from both character’s side of the grievance using the conjunction “but.” This form of narration increases tension on the micro level by refusing to favor one character over the other. Our narrator promises if not a completely fair view of each character, at least an equally weighted balance.
The use of dialogue brings us closer to each character, another glimpse of their dichotomous outlook toward coping with life. Pittard is leaning hard on Charles Baxter’s definition of “counterpointed characterization.” “With counterpointed characterization,” Baxter says, “certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response to each other. A latent energy rises to the surface, the desire or secret previously forced down into psychic obscurity.” The mark of a good fiction writer is her ability to add tension, and thereby suspense, by the pressure that a character puts on another to behave in normalized behavior. Mark and Maggie refuse the latent stereotypical marriage because from the start they have their own dreams and fears, their opposite actions and reactions. True, this might be a marriage you already know, but Pittard promises the reader with her word choices that something specifically dramatic will happen to these characters and their marriage.
Pittard gracefully demonstrates the power of counterpointed characterizations by showcasing how important the aura of anxiety will be in this novel by using a quick exchange of dialogue after the first paragraph.
“Every time,” she said. “We go through this every time.”
“You worry too much,” he said.
“Maybe you don’t worry enough.”
Again, none of this is fancy writing on the surface, but Pittard is doing so much with this short exchange to show the reader how the verbal push-pull between this couple will lead them to reconsider their entire relationship. We get to glimpse the fissures already created before the story even starts. A peek into these characters’ pasts which will become ever more important as the story moves forward. The best part is that Pittard doesn’t labor over this backstory, but moves the reader forward, launching them into the present, making the past more mysterious, creating tension not from pushing the boundaries of language, but by stewing in the basic, making each word add to the characterization until, hopefully, we have no choice but to keep reading.
At the end of the first page, Pittard takes a risk by launching into two sentences of backstory, which bounces from an omniscient point of view to Maggie’s, where her thoughts are provided in a four-line parenthetical aside to end the page, and thus my definition of the end of the hook.
The paragraph starts with Pittard moving the characters into position. “And so, in the morning, it was Mark—as promised—who took the dog out so that Maggie could arrange the car.” Notice the small mention of the word “promised” above. This word is a fiction catalyst, a ticking time bomb. One way or another Mark is going to achieve or fail with regards to his promises. Even keeping a promise often comes with hardship, an innate conflict, where characters and those in real life as well, often have to make sacrifices to fulfill the vows. Pittard is promising the reader that these characters will face a myriad of problems as they prepare for this road trip.
The page continues with Pittard’s second run of a repeated word or phrase. Here we see the phrase “private entrance” used three times offset by that parenthetical dip into Maggie’s private thoughts:
But downstairs, in the private entrance to their apartment (Private entrance! It had taken forever, but three years ago they’d finally found the perfect apartment with its own perfectly private entrance, which they didn’t have to share with a single other person, a fact that, to this day, continued to bring Maggie sharp, if fleeting, joy) was…
Maggie is a character that wants to be left alone, that craves the safety of the private, who worries too much, who finally will fight for her point of view. She has bested Mark in her desire to pack in the morning, and she has found joy in looking for three years for a private entrance, something she clearly views as necessary to her safety and sanity. The very act of going on a road trip, though it goes unstated, has to be terrifying for a character like Maggie who clings so tightly to the illusion of privacy, and the connotations of safety offered by this privacy. A good storyteller, like Pittard, has everything she needs to make Mark and Maggie face these fears, these elusive safe harbors, that will vanish in the rearview mirrors of their lives as they drive farther away from their home.
So it often takes more than just a great opening line. The entire page should be considered when drafting a hook, especially in a novel that focuses so much on the interiority of each character to reveal its plot. Small, but deft, touches, add up to a bigger picture when the first page forecasts specific believable characters. Pittard crafts a seething world of mystery and anxiety, one that readers will quickly get lost in, hanging onto the spine of the book until the last page.
TOMMY DEAN is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, The MacGuffin, Split Lip Magazine, Spartan, HawaiiPacific Review, and New Flash Fiction Review. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.