Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Oh Captain Hook, how you taunt me!

How's that for a catchy title?

No, my post has nothing to do with Peter Pan and evil pirates with hooks as hands. I am talking about that wretched hook at the beginning of the book without which nobody will want to read on. 

Am I being facetious? Why, yes. 

To an extent I agree with the general idea of a hook. What I rebel against is how it seems to have taken on a life of its own in the writing circles, not unlike query-writing. Agents and other gatekeepers are now lamenting that often the manuscripts fall short of the standard set up by the very polished queries.

This isn't the first instance I am dissenting under the yoke of the hook --in my nook of books. (Sorry, being rebellious and frustrated brings out the groaniest of jokes from me.) So why am I ranting right now?

Because I am considering yet another idea about the structure of my YA novel. My original scaffolding had the prologue (oh wait, prologues are no-nos. So I'll just call it the first chapter) showing the inciting incidents. I would introduce my two protagonists (wait again; multiple POV characters are frowned upon) at the moment their lives are changed by the deaths of a loved one. Over the course of the book, we see how the girls deal with their grief, their scenes interspersed with short, flashback chapters (speaking of no-nos...) that show the relationships between each girl and the loved one.

The other night while mulling over a different problem of the novel, an idea occurred to me: that I shouldn't start with the deaths but I should just show these two girls having difficulty navigating their lives. That way, I set up a question, a mystery of sorts: why are the girls acting and thinking this way?  I'll keep the flashback chapters to show the relationships. It's only in the middle of the book, after readers have come to know those loved ones that I reveal their deaths. Hopefully the mourning and grief my protagonists feel will be shared by the readers who have come to know them.

But who wants to read a book that starts with two girls starting a school year pretending everything is fine? 

Where's the hook?


scott g.f.bailey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scott g.f.bailey said...

If I understand you correctly, everything is not fine, but the sisters are pretending it is. The tension there and the mystery about what's not fine is--combined with your beautiful prose--is what will keep the readers moving, right?

My work-in-progress has two protagonists. You don't find out what's driving the female lead until chapter 4. You don't see the big danger for the male lead until like chapter 9. This is the best work I've ever done and it obeys none of the rules. So forget what I said in the first paragraph. You know what will keep readers reading? Good writing and compelling (interesting) characters, not formal games about where the "hook" is placed within the narrative.

Yat-Yee said...

Scott: you've expressed my sentiments exactly. I know rules are there for a reason and I want to be sure that I'm breaking them for even better reasons.

Characters. Writing. Authenticity. These are the reasons I read and I hope my work will be all about these and not external reasons.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Whenever I think about formal rules, I think about Bach and Haydn. Bach is the all-time master of the fugue, but he never once wrote a textbook fugue. He broke every rule. Haydn was a master of the sonata and he also broke the textbook sonata rules with every one he wrote.

Write the book you want to read, not the book that will fit into the narrow pattern everyone is flogging on the web.

Yat-Yee said...

Your mentioning of Bach brought up another thought. He never wrote any book on how to write fugues and if we look at his output, there are definitely many instances that have broken strict counterpoint rules. I have two further thoughts about that.
(1) Who cares when the result is magnificent? Rules are there to try to ensure good results and if good results can be achieved without obeying those rules, well, then put all them rules aside.
(2) There are a lot of other instances when he did subscribe to those formal rules.

So I wholeheartedly agree with you. I must write that book that I must write, rules be damned. On the other hand, I don't think rules are there just to be broken either. There are very good reasons they have been established, many of them anyway. Barring any other reason, we should probably start within their confines and see where that goes.

I sound as if I'm disagreeing with you, or maybe arguing just for argument sake. But really, I agree with you about what I need to do in writing my book. Wholeheartedly.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Well, yeah, the rules of counterpoint (and the rules of grammar and the basic conventions of narrative) exist so that we can create coherent music (and stories). Haydn gave Beethoven lessons out of Fux's book, after all. Language and music are systems, and the best users of those systems are the folks who understand best how the systems work. But in the end, we have to use the systems, not the other way around.

Anyway, whenever you write about how you're pushing against these common and arbitrary ideas about what a book is supposed to be, I think you're on the right track!

nutschell said...

ah yes the almighty hook! I've heard it often enough how important it is to have one--much more to start your book with a hook right on the first line!


E. Arroyo said...

Yeah, the hook. That's a good one. Let me know if you find the answers to that one. I'm still trying to figure it out.

Domey Malasarn said...

I'm not a hooker myself. My feeling--based on very little actual data--is that the hook rule came about as a consequence of people thinking that modern readers need to be thrown right into the action. As a reader myself, though, I only want to be thrown into the action some of the time. Other times, I like a book with an appetizer first.

Julie Dao said...

So many things seem to be frowned upon. Multiple POVs. Flashbacks. Too many adverbs. Lack of an obvious hook. I think one day these things will be so "taboo" that someone will bring them back into fashion and we won't remember why they were outlawed in the first place. I think you should start however you want to, whether it's with the deaths or with the girls struggling during their school year! Your decision's a good one - introducing the characters' struggle without immediately pinpointing the reason is a good way to set up mystery and put them at the forefront.

Lydia Kang said...

So true. The hook is very important. It doesn't have to be a cataclysmic event, but enough to make you crave turning the page.

Laoch of Chicago said...

I guess I would try an have some sinister overtones in my opening, despite surface placidness.