Critique Technique, part 5: Weak or Missing Hook

Before I begin, some thank-yous and a reminder. The thank-yous go to other members of the Cochise Writers Group because while I’m the one writing these posts, I didn’t come up with all of the topics. My fellow Cochise Writers contributed plenty.

Second, remember that for each of the items from now on, you have four questions to ask:

  • Did it happen?
  • Exactly where did it happen?
  • What exactly is the problem?
  • What can the author do to fix it?

OK, so what is a “hook” and how can it be weak or missing? Whatever you’re writing—fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose—you need to catch and hold your reader’s interest: you need to hook them. And you need to do it early. How early? Well, in a poem it has to happen right away, in the first few lines, since a poem is likely to be brief. But this is true even in a longer piece. In a book, you have a few pages, in a short story, maybe no more than the first paragraph.

The hook has a lot of work to do. A weak or missing hook doesn’t do that work, or doesn’t do it well.

To tell if a hook is present or absent, weak or strong, ask yourself questions like these:

  • Do I know who the important character(s) is or are?
    • If the answer is no or you’re not sure, why? Did two or more characters seem to have equal weight, for example? Did no one stand out?
  • Are the characters people I immediately become interested in? Do I care about them right away, even in a negative way? Uninteresting characters are FAR worse than unsympathetic ones—ones the reader doesn’t like. Writers want their readers to respond to their characters, even if it’s to hate them. But if the reader’s response is, “meh,” that’s a problem the author has to fix.
  • Do I know what the characters’ problem is? As a reader, you may not know the full scope and extent of the problem right away. Indeed, that may not be revealed until the very end, but the reader needs to know there’s a problem—and a big one—right from the beginning for at least one of the characters. If that isn’t happening, tell the author.
  • Do I at least have some sense of how big and important this problem is to the characters?
    • What’s at stake for them if they fail to solve it? What do they stand to lose?
    • What’s at stake if they do solve it? What do they stand to gain?
    • If you cannot positively answer at least some of these questions, then the author hasn’t identified the stakes.

A hook involves more than plot and characterization, however. The author’s “tone” or “voice”—how the piece sounds in the reader’s head—is also part of the hook. This is particularly true in poetry and so-called “literary” fiction, but it applies across genres and forms. Note that there is no “right” tone. Whining and sniveling, done well, can be as attention-catching and –holding as a slam-bang shoot-’em-up opening scene. Note, too, that “done well” is not the same as what you personally prefer. The question is not whether you LIKED the opening but whether it the grabbed and held your interest. If it didn’t, again, you need to identify why.

Pace, or lack of it, can also make a hook strong or weak, but it’s not a matter of fast or slow. A scene that goes screaming by may not be a good opening. If it fails at some of the other tasks we’ve already discussed, it may not hook the reader. Similarly, a slow scene won’t be boring if it succeeds at those tasks. Again, the questions are:

  • Did it catch and hold my interest?
  • Did it make me want to keep reading?
  • If not, why not, and what can the author do to fix the problem?

The hook also needs to introduce the piece’s setting and mood: when and where it takes place, what the physical, spiritual, and emotional environments are. A weak hook doesn’t establish these. For example, “It was a dark and stormy night” is a poor hook because:

  1. Nights usually are dark—it’s one of their defining characteristics, so this statement is redundant and silly.
  2. We have no idea where this dark, stormy night is happening.
  3. “Stormy” is vague. What kind of storm? Rain, snow, wind, dust? Was the storm physical, emotional, or psychic? From this line alone, we don’t know, and have to hope the next few lines will tell us more.

Wow! That’s a lot to demand of just a line, a sentence, a paragraph, or a few pages. Yes, it is, but that’s a measure of how important the hook is. If the opening doesn’t hook the reader, he or she will go on to something else, meaning a lost sale, or at least a lost fan. On the other hand, a strong hook will launch the reader into the piece. If they have to keep reading past the opening, the hook has done its job.

In your mind, what makes a hook strong or weak? Have any examples you’d like to share?

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