It is pretty obvious that most publishing houses ask for the first three chapters of your novel to evaluate if the novel has enough zing to propel the reader on. What’s not obvious is, what exactly is the publisher looking for in those first 3 chapters?
We have already looked at the first thing
Within the first chapter we must have an introduction to one of the 3 main characters.
The second thing on your list (yes it is the second most important thing not the most important) is the HOOK
Your first chapter must have the HOOK
This second point will lead on to the third thing your first 3 chapters must have; more on that later.
In my last post I had mentioned about the lynchpin and how easy it is to start with the lynchpin to provide the HOOK. It’s only fair we look a little more deeply into the hook.
The HOOK is just short for ‘narrative hook’. It’s the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention and prods him to read on.
A novel especially one in the genre of mystery, thriller, or romance must hook the reader’s attention in the first paragraph and, if possible, in the very first sentence. It must create in the reader an urgency, the immediate need to know how this situation described plays out or is resolved.
Sometimes you know how it’s resolved but you want to know how it plays out. Consider Erich Segal’s master opening in his most popular work ‘Love Story’:
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?
That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.”
So you know the girl who loves the narrator dies, you want to know how it plays out.
Sometimes, the hook is merely a portent of what’s going to come
Consider Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, the novel that ensured she never had to look back.
“Mrs Ferrars died on the night of the 16th – 17th September – a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.
It was just a few minutes after nine when I reached home once more. I opened the front door with my latchkey, and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning. To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried. I am not going to pretend that at that moment I foresaw the events of the next few weeks. I emphatically did not do so.
But my instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.”
In the above cases, the hook is the major problem or the major situation, in many cases however, the hook is just a minor problem that leads the hero or protagonist into his most important bind and that resolution forms the crux of your story.
Consider John Grisham’s classic The Chamber (You must have guessed by now, I am partial to this particular work). This is how it opens: “The decision to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was reached with relative ease. Only three people were involved in the process. The first was the man with the money. The second was a local operative who knew the territory. And the third was a young patriot and zealot with a talent for explosives and an astonishing knack for disappearing without a trail. After the bombing, he fled the country and hid in Northern Ireland for six years.”
It’s enough to want you to read on, but it’s not the main problem and a skilled writer like Grisham doesn’t spend too much time on this lynchpin. Once done with the failed assassination he moves to the main problem: “How to get clemency for Sam Cayhall.”
Almost all of Dan Brown’s novels start with a murder but it is not the murder that is being solved, the murder leads to the larger problem. In “The Da Vinci Code”, the murder of curator Jacques Saunière sets in motion the events where the main problem is protecting the Holy Grail from falling into the wrong hands. This kind of a hook leads to a more convoluted ‘problem-resolution’ setup and works only if the transition from one problem to another is seamless. If you looked carefully, you would understand that while the hook was the murder, the starting problem was Langdon trying to clear his name and prove he had nothing to do with the murder. Very quickly the problem shifts to puzzles and riddles and while throughout the entire book, the aim is to prove his innocence, the main problem shifts from solving the murder to locating the Grail. It’s not often that such seismic shifts in focal points make for a good read. Not everyone has the research and pace of Dan Brown in creating a hurtling thriller peppered with jaw dropping “facts” that make you forget the incoherence in plot structure.
It’s much more difficult to pull off the second kind of hook. It needs excellent storytelling skills but more importantly finesse in seamlessly moving from the minor problem to the major one.
Another idea has been to go where the action is and start your story from that point and then go into flashbacks and back-stories as the novel progresses. I have come across some fantastic novels that have successfully managed to pull off the difficult task of going back and forth, but it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Not to mention it is the leading cause of manuscript rejections. It is extremely easy to lose your way in a story spanning a couple of hundred pages or more and you wouldn’t want your reader confused.
The most common and unfortunate interpretation of the HOOK has been action instead of dramatic action. The use of action as the hook is so widespread that dramatic action has often been interpreted as actual action.
The story doesn’t necessarily need to start with actual action. A husband splitting up with his wife could act as the dramatic action. The husband doesn’t have to kill his mother-in-law because he can’t get along with his wife.
Although we are talking about fiction, there is such a thing as a fictitious HOOK: one that is outlandish and has been created just to serve as a gimmicky attention grabber. Readers aren’t going to forgive you for leading them on.
The HOOK is a masterful device but don’t treat it like a prop or device. Make it your own and it will serve you well.