26 December 2010


In past posts, we have emphasized that it is important to try to get our attention on the first page of a story, preferably the first paragraph. Sometimes I get the impression that authors are trying too hard to grab a reader's (or editor's) attention. For lack of a better term, I will call this an "over-hook." One example is a story that starts in mid-action. For example, the first few lines of a story are as follows:
Jordan's fingertips clung to the cliff edge. He knew he'd never survive the 1000-foot fall if he let go, and yet his fingers burned with agony. This must be the end . . .

A protagonist in immediate peril--who could ask for more? Well, me, for one. I don't know who Jordan is, so I really don't care that much about whether he falls off the cliff. In fact, I'm not at this point very much concerned about his burning fingers. Other than the fact that this story has "action" I have no clues about plot or genre. I'm left with the impression that the author is trying to sell me a story rather than tell me a story.

A second example of an over-hook is simile overkill. I think authors should be weary of similes in general, but a whopper in the first sentence or two smacks of an over-hook. For example, Bob's head pounded. If felt like a thousand scorpions were tap dancing on his frontal lobe.

An author creative and clever enough to come up with a unique simile--who could ask for more? Me, for one. Sometimes a simile can be an effective tool, but, in this instance, if feel like the author is screaming "LOOK AT ME!" I'm not looking for a clever author, I'm looking for a stunning story. If I get to the end of the story having ben lost in the author's world for a time, then I realize the true talent of the writer.


lesleylsmith said...

Your title here is very provocative!
Good advice, Editor Dave.
I have to say, it can be tricky to start in the middle of action and yet have a character the reader cares about...
Any suggestions on how to make the reader care on the first page? :)

David E. Hughes said...

But it is so much easer to talk about what NOT to do . . . :)

Ed Robertson said...

I propose calling over-hooking "gaffing."

I was thinking about this post again while I was on a plane tonight starting Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. I'm 60 pages in and I just hit what might be generously described as a modern hook--but the writing's been so nice, I didn't care. Of course, being a captive audience didn't hurt.

As helpful as publishing blogs can be, some of them--especially agents', I think, though again, extremely helpful at times--are obviously putting some bad habits into our heads.