RE-POST: 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?

On Hooks & Crooks

The Whidbey Island Writers Conference is small and intimate. Just the place to get all your questions answered and pitch agents/editors without pressure. Or just socialize and take classes, which is what I did. So nice to be the student once in a while, and I got the lovely opportunity to work with Mary Buckham, a great teacher, who bent my brain about hooks.

Now, as a journalist we learned to write hooks. Fast. In 5 and 3-minute timed exercises. And the subject matter was completely new to us. Talk about pressure! Then studying screenwriting, I learned to get all those hooks at both the beginning and end of chapters/scenes. For screenplays the 3rd, 5th, 10th, 20th, and 100th pages demand turns and hooks too.


But Mary pressed me to create multiple hooks in one line ON PURPOSE. It's not that I've never created multiple questions for the reader in one line, but doing it on purpose, and knowing how they break down, was really empowering.

Using Donald Maass' theories of the various types of hooks (from "Writing the Breakout Novel"), she helped us combine many into our opening lines. Here's Maass’ list of hooks (but you should buy his book to understand how these play out and to see his examples):

* Action or danger
* Overpowering emotion
* A surprising situation
* An evocative description that pulls a reader into a setting
* Introducing a unique character
* Warning or foreshadowing
* Setting a tone or theme
* Shocking or witty/clever dialogue [internal or external]
* The totally unexpected
* Raising a direct question
[list excerpted from Donald Maass’ "Writing the Breakout Novel"]


So try choosing 3 of these. Or 5, or 7... see how many you can create in one line. For example:

“He buried the money, the jewels, and the girl in the same spot so that when he returned ten years from now, he’d only have to dig one damn hole next time.”

Can we say creepy!!! But this one opening line introduces a unique character, a surprising situation, foreshadowing of ten years from now, a shocking kind of internal dialogue, and the totally unexpected. But more than these, it raises multiple direct questions: what happened to the girl, and why did he dig more than one hole this time (and who’s in it the other one)?

That’s 6 in one line! In an industry with so much competition, less is not more. More wins contracts.

Go forth and do damage, Angels.
Your Editor Devil