When I was a child I loved going fishing with my Dad, Grandpa, and big brother on Little Salk Lake in northern Minnesota. I remember sitting in the boat, drifting in a breeze that ruffled the water, with my bamboo pole slung over the side, my bobber floating above some poor, submerged, waterlogged angle worm tethered to the hook.
Then I grew up, took creative writing classes, attended writers’ meetings, and learned another definition of hook. My first encounter with an author’s “hook” was listening to Ying Chang Compestine, author of Revolution is Not a Dinner Party, answer a question from one audience attendee: “What is a hook?” Surrounded by more experienced writers, I was relieved to learn I was not the only one in the audience unfamiliar with this implied key element of a well-crafted story. (I never bought into the “Don’t worry, there’s no such thing as a stupid question – only a stupid answer,” theory. I have asked more than my share of less-than-intelligent questions, sometimes getting sensible answers, sometimes not.) The hook is the grabber and the backbone of the plot. The thing that awakens the reader’s brain, opens their eyes, makes them wait in anxious anticipation, propelling them to continue reading. No subtleties here please. Just intense anticipation, curiosity, emotion, mystery. This hook can be conjured from past secrets, present odd behaviors, or future surprises, guaranteed to pull the reader into a protagonist’s pending dilemma. Every good first line, first paragraph, and first page has a respectable hook.
Charles Dickens was a master at using this device. He had to be. He needed to sell weekly installments of his novels and keep his readers coming back so his newspaper publishers kept those checks coming in to feed his family. He started each episode with his hook, “the best of times and the worst of times” etc., etc., and ended with a cliff-hanger – the dynamic duo. He pushed his characters to the limits, out on the limb with the villain sawing off the branch. His audience salivated, waiting for the following week’s update. Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code is a more contemporary example, crafting his chapters to keep the pages flowing and the late night candles burning. He had a cliffhanger at the close of every chapter and didn’t have all that many cliffs to work with. And I thought this stuff only happened in the soaps and serials on TV (think Jack Bauer on 24) or blockbuster, armageddon style movies.
I had my own dilemma: my story, based on real life, was not the greatest page-turner material. I needed to conjure some twists and turns to begin and end each of my forty-something chapters. What to do? The twenty things that can happen — that’s what. Start with about forty outrageous occurrences, take the best, narrow the list to twenty, and go from there. This is the point where I realized I needed some fictitious characters to wrestle with and overcome those events. And born here were Spats, my Chicago gangster, Ray, my easily manipulated county sheriff, and Rubin, my mild-mannered yet intelligent hero. Along with this, I had to embellish Patsy and acquaint myself with Virgie, a true life person I never met. And I had to make darn sure every chapter ended with my reader holding their breath — a tall order. As a result, guess what: NOT ALL THE EVENTS DEPICTED IN MY STORY ARE TRUE! The plot thickens.