This article was originally printed in my local RWA chapter newsletter, but since it's so perfect for our week's topic, I've revamped it for the Diner this week.
Opening hooks are the topic of frequent how-to articles. From what I can judge, I don’t need to instruct many of you in how to write them. I just judged a bunch of contests in a row, and let me assure you that the denizens of RWA seem to have opening hooks down pat.
Unfortunately, with an emphasis on pat.
I love romance novels, folks. I believe the only formula involved in our much-maligned genre is the emphasis on the love story and the happy ending. But sensible advice — like that of the zippy opening hook — can morph into rules which authors then follow blindly, because that’s one less thing to worry that they’re doing the “wrong” way.
In regards to those poor slobs, I mean, talented aspiring authors whose entries I just judged, nearly every submission I read of, hm, fifty odd partials possessed an eye-catching opening line. Provocative dialogue was the favored hooker.
“Are you sure it will fit?” Julie asked, her eyes huge.
Oooh, Julie, if it doesn’t fit, can I have it? Then there’s the more obvious:
“I’ll trade you a Sex on the Beach for a Screaming Orgasm.”
With every one of the provocative quip hooks I read, readers soon learned the chapter had little or nothing to do with sex.
“Are you sure it will fit?” Julie asked, her eyes huge. She studied the massive loaf of bread and the Tupperware serving container objectively. Obviously Raoul had gone a little heavy on the yeast when he prepared the catering order.
“I don’t have time to worry about it. Steve called in sick, and I have to bartend as well as bake,” Raoul said.
“I’ll trade you a Sex on the Beach for a Screaming Orgasm.” Holly wrinkled her nose and shoved the fruity, pinkish drink at her friend Julie, who peered over the top of a massive loaf of bread she’d brought to the birthday celebration.
“Tell Raoul, not me. He’s bartending,” Julie said. She adjusted her crisp, white apron with the catering logo on the breast. “Would you like a slice of dark honey wheat?”
A lot of readers take this kind of bait and switch for granted. Open with something provocative, something to get people’s dirty minds churning, and then bat your eyelashes and act like you never meant such a scandalous thing. Start out with sex just to get their attention? Not you!
It does work, and can work well, if the insouciant tone that this type of hook generally requires matches the rest of the book. Even though it snags a reader, this opening wouldn’t mesh with a serious tale about trust issues in a relationship or the struggles of tortured, former Navy Seal Raoul as he attempts to salvage his family’s catering business.
Connected to the dialogue hook is the internal monologue hook. It’s like dialogue without the quotation marks and is a likely candidate for a novel written in first person point of view:
If I had my druthers, I’d never cater another birthday party for screaming, barfing, off their Ritalin, sadistic twenty-one year olds again.
Hm, does the speaker mean all twenty-one year olds? Or is this a special breed of twenty-one year olds? And what unfortunate event occurred to make the narrator feel this deep loathing for innocent young adults? Perhaps you’re hooked now, but if the narrator doesn’t continue to utter politically incorrect, grouchy pronouncements — for your benefit if for no one else’s — you may end up feeling dragged into the wrong kind of book. Particularly if it turns into an Oprah novel instead of jouncy romantic comedy or chick/mommy/nanny lit.
The internal monologue hook also works in third person:
He’d have to quit sleeping with his Glock under the pillow or he was never going to get laid.
Sex again, and no mistaking it this time. A preoccupation with guns and sex would definitely be traits of an interesting protagonist, as long as he remains that way. But don’t have your narrator utter something this blunt and hardboiled and then reveal that he’s a sensitive pastry chef who’s never shot a gun in his life and prefers baking to barhopping.
A third technique I saw during my readings, though less often than dialogue (which is the easiest), is the action hook. Start out in the middle of things and make your reader wonder just what’s going on.
Julie unglued her face from the birthday cake, sugary white icing wreathing it like a facial gone wild, and screamed at the top of her lungs.
How old is Julie? Presumably old enough to have a facial. Why is her face buried in a cake? Does it have anything to do with sadistic twenty-one year olds? Presumably she doesn’t like it being there — or doesn’t like being interrupted when she’s eating. Definitely eye-catching. But can you keep up that pace in the rest of the book?
Raoul’s huge, hammy fist drove into Steve’s face like a jackhammer, knocking him down and sending him scudding across the tile floor.
Wow! Poor Steve, getting knocked out by a brute like Raoul. It’s going to be a fast-paced action adventure with a violent beginning like that, right?
Wrong. The whole paragraph is:
Raoul’s huge, hammy fist drove into Steve’s face like a jackhammer, knocking him down and sending him scudding across the tile floor. Various smuts of sauce and stains decorated his monogrammed white apron, and the skein of hair across his nearly bald pate was crusted with cake icing.
“You should have shown up for your catering shift!” Raoul bellowed. “I’m a bartender, not a baker!” Then the man burst into tears while Steve rubbed his aching jaw in bemusement.
The rest of the book, the tone of the following chapter, doesn’t live up to the hook.
A fourth technique for hooks that has been touted across the Internet and beyond is the striking description. If you started out a story with:
Egypt Lake shimmered in the early morning light like a giant steam bath, trailers of fog nearly obscuring the body that floated face down near the algae-slimed wooden dock.
The combination of whimsy — a giant steam bath — and macabre reality — the floating body — may linger in a reader’s mind in the desired fashion. Keep thinking about me, your text whispers, and keep reading to see what happened to that body. The scents, the sensations, the contrasts — if readers can click into this, they’ll click into the rest of your story, right?
Right — if the rest of your story maintains that degree of specificity and scenic appreciation. If you only use a striking image at the beginning of each chapter, right after you do that cliffhanger chapter ending, of course, then it makes for inconsistent tone. Particularly if you get really poetic but the rest of your book is prosaic.
What if the rest of the paragraph was:
Egypt Lake shimmered in the early morning light like a giant steam bath, trailers of fog nearly obscuring the body that floated face down near the algae-slimed wooden dock. Steve hocked a loogie onto the body. He felt glad he’d never have to cater to Raoul, or for Raoul, again. Beside him, Julie cried till he wanted to slap her teeth out.
Hm, shimmering steam bath, trailers of fog — all graceful. Even “floated face down” has a watery consonance. But the sentences that follow are shorter and more, well, colloquial in tone. Not a match. Of course, it does prove Steve made good use of the Glock beneath his pillow.
In summary, while it’s all well and fine to grab your audience — I mean, the necessity of it has been jammed down our throats with a cannon ramrod — you need to be careful that what follows your hooker matches it in tone. Too often I see chick lit sarcasm in the opening and then bland, or just not comical, text thereafter. If your book doesn’t have a lot of attitude and cheeky one-liners, it’s probably not a good idea to start with one. Ditto with the violent or striking description or action and then having that be about the only place in the book you get that sort of keen edge.
Perhaps my view is jaundiced by pros on the contest circuit, by folks who polish and buff their partials and send them to repeated contests but never, somehow, finish a book and trundle it off to editors. They ensure the opening hook is all gussied up, but from there it’s a slow decline into mediocrity. Not where you want to be if you want to get an editor or agent’s lasting attention in this very competitive market.
Of course, these examples were written with proving my point in mind, and I’m sure you’d never write such rubbish, but I hope you know what I’m talking about? Author Marie-Nicole Ryan calls it “the hype falls flat” syndrome. If you crook your hook, make sure it’s not false advertising for the rest of the book!