Hook vs. Heart in Story Openers

Many students in my recent Create Characters That Last! class asked me about introducing a main character in the first scene of the book and what was required to make the intro powerful.

Well, besides the necessary scene details--setting/location, time (at least night or day, future/past or present) and POV--we should get a physical and emotional glimpse of the main character. A few details will suffice.

Sketch details set in context work great, such as "she wore a short-brimmed hat over her straw hair and wide-toe flats beneath her pantsuit, so she looked more like a grumpy clown than the corporate attorney come to rattle our CEO's cage." That gives us enough physical elements to latch onto the woman while giving purpose and characterization to her presence.

But most of all we need a hook and a heart to the story. Just one or two lines to tell us her unique dilemma (hook) and why we should care (heart). Maybe even tell us what she’s after (goal). Most classes and books teach you to include the hook on page one, but they never mention including a heart. Or what I call the heart they call the character goal (either internal or external).

But I say the heart advises these goals and lays the foundation for the reader’s emotional attachment. In fact, the heart is the only reason to care whether the character achieves any of their goals. Heart gives humanity to the book. And humanity, not the cleverness of a hook, endears the reader to the story. It gives readers emotional entrance not just mental entanglement.

Again, a hook is some unique character situation or problem that intrigues us, while a heart is something about that character’s plight or their situation that warms us and make us empathize with them. Because the modern reader won't wait till page 20 to get emotionally hooked into your story, you need to deliver hook and heart early. Agents and editors know this, and they want that meat on page one.

One of my students wrote a story with a woman arriving in a remote airport who finds she has no rental car. She's stuck. That's the crux of the first scene. I advised the author to layer in a hook and a heart and see how that transforms the character and her plight enough to propel a whole story. Otherwise, the scene's just a cranky woman stuck in an airport. Not a story builder.

Now, a woman having the best day of her life who finds out she's stuck at a remote airport in a third-world country with an orphan she just adopted, a child who needs a heart medication refilled ASAP... that’s a hook. And let’s say this woman is one of those Doctor Without Borders nurse volunteers who helps kids get surgeries. And let’s say that she’s been waiting to adopt since she discovered ten years ago that she can't have children, which broke up her first marriage. That's a woman we care about, a woman who deserves a little happiness of her own and we want to cheer her toward that goal. That’s a heart. Get it?