Wednesday, March 11

A Look at An Author's Hooks

Elizabeth Strout is one of my all time favorite authors, so gifted with prose that I often have to set her books down to take a deep breath. She's made me laugh and cry, sing and shake my head, and ultimately have flutters in my heart, literally. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of four books, all of which sit close to my writing desk.

She has a talent for hooking her readers with the very first paragraph. How does she do it? Let's find out...

From The Burgess Boys (Random House 2013):
My mother and I talked a lot about the Burgess family. "The Burgess kids," she called them. We talked about them mostly on the telephone, because I lived in New York and she lived in Maine. But we talked about them also when I visited her and stayed in the hotel nearby. My mother had not been in many hotels, and it became one of our favorite thin: to sit in a room--the green walls stenciled with a strip of pink roses--and speak of the past, those who had left Shirley Falls, those who had stayed. "Been thinking about those Burgess kids," she'd say, pulling back the curtain and looking toward the birch trees.

From Olive Kitteridge (Random House 2008):
For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wilder road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.

From Abide with Me (Random House 2006):
Oh, it would be years ago now, but at one time a minister lived with his small daughter in a town up north near the Sabbanock River, up where the river is narrow and the winters used to be especially long. The minister's name was Tyler Caskey, and for quite some while his story was told in towns up and down the river, and as far over as the coast, until it emerged with enough variations so as to lose its original punch, and just the passing of time, of course, will affect the vigor of these things. But there are a few people still living in the town of West Annett who are said to remember quite clearly the events that took place during the wintery, final months of 1959. And if you inquire with enough patience and restraint of curiosity, you can probably get them to tell you what it is they claim to know, although its accuracy might be something you'd have to sort out on your own.

From Amy and Isabelle (Vintage Books 1998):
It was terribly hot that summer Mr. Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead. Just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the center of town, dirty yellow foam collecting at its edge. Strangers driving by on the turnpike rolled up their windows at the gagging, sulfurous smell and wondered how anyone could live with that kind of stench coming from the river and the mill. But the people who lived in Shirley Falls were used to it, and even in the awful heat it was only noticeable when you first woke up; no, they didn't particularly mind the smell.

All four of these first paragraphs hook the reader, because they all contain two key ingredients: the main character and motion. Our curiosity about the character is established and we're moved forward with wanting to know more, so we read the second paragraph.

In addition to character and motion, Strout's poetic language weaves in setting that allows the reader to immediately feel immersed in the environment.

Ultimately, it is Strout's ability to combine character, motion, and setting with a voice that hooks the reader!

Sunday, March 1

Don't Test the Water With Your Toes... JUMP IN!

Can you sit through the opening musical credits of 'Mary Poppins' or read pages and pages of introductory story setting like we used to do once upon a time? The invention of the Internet has infected us with instant gratification. Readers of younger generations want 140 characters or a smash of meaning in a text. In terms of literature, this spills into jumping right in with an opening hook.

Rough drafts often include a first chapter of backstory or a scene that precedes the main action. Take an ax and chop it off. Try sprinkling some of that backstory or action where it counts, in your new first chapter, so the reader doesn't get bogged down.


A writer has a book stashed in every place imaginable, both inside the house and outside. They are there not just for reading whenever the opportunity presents itself, but they are there for inspiration and guidance. I pull one up from between the car seats and read the first line. Did I like it? Could I write something equally meaningful and captivating? Does this hook differently today than when I read it last?

Take a break from writing and stockpile hooks. Drift throughout the house and read the opening lines in books of different genres, for different ages, from magazines as well. Write down the hooks, the good and the bad. Practice writing the style with your own writing.

Obessed or Just Really Darn Serious

An entire blog devoted to hooks? Really?
Sure, why not?
I love to be hooked, especially by the first sentence.
So as a writer I want to do what others have done before me, and what better way to improve.
I can say what I like, what I don't like, and why about any opening I come across in literature.
We can discuss what works and what doesn't.
And with any luck, I can build this as a forum for others to post opening lines of their own for readers to critique.

Hooked on Hooks

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."
(Dodie Smith in I Capture the Castle)
You know it when you read one.
"It was a pleasure to burn."
(Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451)
Your eyelids raise. 
Your mind brightens. 
Your lips form "Wow." 
You get giddy.
"In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street."
(David Markson in Wittgenstein's Mistress)
You're hooked.
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."
(Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita)
And it all happened within a breath of a few words.
How do you write an opening that hooks the reader
and nails her to her seat?
We're about to find out!