Thursday, April 9, 2009


narrative hook--a dramatic device intended to draw a reader into a story; placing an interesting character in a situation of stress or vulnerability; using a mystery or puzzle to intrigue readers; any combination of narrative circumstances and circumstances that arouse interest and curiosity in a reader; an effective scene or situation placed at the beginning of a story with the intent of building sympathy or an empathetic connection between reader and character.

Some narrative hooks are so simple and straightforward on the surface that they completely belie their subversive intent, almost to the point of daring the reader to set the work down without thought of returning to see what happens next. This observation is made to suggest the infinite varieties of narrative hook, ranging from those of the plot-driven story (a man or woman in immediate trouble) to the more character-driven (a character is confronted with an intriguing choice which must be made almost momentarily).

Regardless of the genre and appropriate ominousness of the circumstances confronting the characters, narrative hooks have as their goal gaining and keeping the attention of the reader. The key is some form of action or a deliberate inaction in the face of some need to perform, meaning the narrative hook is action based, often with little or no support by way of explanation or reference to past events which might have some effect on the present moment. Indeed, some narrative hooks are little more than effective opening lines, such as "Call me Ishmael." Having decided to compose a novel based on the merest fact in Melville's Moby-Dick that Captain Ahab had a young wife, Sena Jeeter Nasland needed for her own novel, Ahab's Wife, a first line that was appropriate competition as a narrative hook. Her own first line is a masterpiece of narrative hookery: "Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last."

Since they are in large measure circumstantial, narrative hooks work best when they explain least, using innuendo, implication, perhaps even double entendre, certainly more action than description, emphatically more action than thought. Description often slows the narrative hook from its intended effect, suggesting that the writer is well advised to see a specific goal of the narrative hook the goal of causing the reader to have questions at roughly the same time as the reader digests the situational plight of one or more characters.

After the hook has been"set," which is to say the reader has become engaged to read the work through to the very end, then the writer may begin offering some clues and explanations of what the reader may expect down the road. To do so before the reader is caught up in active concerns for the characters and the outcome is to misplace the dramatic information. It is always better to withhold information than it is to provide it at times when the reader is not likely to be interested. A better dramatic effect is had when the reader is put on the information diet, rather than being force fed details.

In terms of percentage, the formula of sixty-five percent action to thirty-five percent dialogue and description is a useful suggestion for deploying dramatic movement and information such as backstory.

See also opening velocity

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