I never expected Aunt Mildred to get the Plague.
(Ignore that for the time being.)
The hook in the first paragraph of a novel has got to be the hook of all hooks – it’s got to be intriguing; it’s got to hit you there, in the centre of curiosity (somewhere between throat and midriff); it’s got to set a time-bomb fizzing in your head. In short, a Captain Hook-sized hook.
Someone browsing in a bookshop, or doing the “Look Inside” thing on Amazon – may if you’re lucky peruse your first line, and if you’re very lucky, your first paragraph.
No point in putting wonderful hooks at the end of each chapter, starting each new chapter with a bang and all that stuff they tell you in How to Write and Become Famous and Loved by Everybody treatises if your novel starts with a view Milton Keynes on a Saturday afternoon or features a Victorian kitchen maid (a character of no importance to the plot in any case) rambling on about the best way to peel potatoes, or some lengthy description of the eighteenth century Cornish countryside.
There are many splendid first lines to novels:
I met him in the street called Straight. (Mary Stewart: The Gabriel Hounds – hook, masterful (mistressful?) – book, not so good but worth reading all the same, to pay tribute to the hook.)
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Rebecca: Daphne duMaurier)
Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick: Herman Melville).
If you could have written the opening to any novel, what would it be? Or to put it another way, what would you die happy, having written?
The opening to Pride and Prejudice?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
1984 by George Orwell?
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
Mine would be the first paragraph of Dickens Bleak House:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
This, plus the famous and labyrinthine ‘fog’ metaphor that follows it. Note, a hook doesn’t have to a one-liner; it can go on for as long as you can sustain it, but bear these two points in mind:
- Readers nowadays have less time for reading they did in Victorian times, and a vast choice of reading matter. When Dickens was writing there was no internet, no social media, no television. People were hungry for entertainment and had been brought up to concentrate for long periods of time. Internet use, so the theory goes, is resulting in an ever-shortening attention span.
- Dickens was a mighty, a powerful writer – a genius. Until you’re sure that you are in his league best to err on the side of caution and get that massive hook well and truly hooked into ’em, if not in the first line, in the first short paragraph.
The same principle applies to blog posts, although on this micro-scale you can overdo it. You might get away with starting one post ‘Third World War Declared’ or ‘I never expected Aunt Mildred to get the Plague’ but if you keep it up you’ll annoy people. Unless of course your Aunt Mildred really did get the Plague.
The problem is, your post then has to live up to it’s introduction – and nobody’s capable of writing a Third World War or Aunt Mildred post every single time. Most posts are more modest – conversations, really – ideas, points of view, helpful hints, funny stories, sad stories, random thoughts as to the Meaning of Life. You can’t start every one of them with a whizz, bang, wallop.
I’m not too happy with the beginning of this post, for example. I mean the real one, not Auntie Mildred. It has the virtue of being brief, and the Captain Hook image is quite a whizz-bang one – but it could be better. Maybe you can tell me how it could have been better. Noticing and analysing the ‘hooks’ of other bloggers – or their absence – is an excellent way to learn. What was it about those few lines that persuaded you to click and read the rest? What was it that made you gloss over the one before it?
Think of it as a tweet-sized shop window. Or a Tweet Shop Window…