Today’s Deep Story moment. Today we’re gonna talk about hooks. Which are hard to talk about because hooks are not science. They’re not even art. They’re alchemy. Voodoo. The blackest of magic. But they’re also one of the most important elements of story.
The average novel today is around 90,000 words. The average screenplay is 25,000. Marketing copy? I don’t even know how short it averages, but I do know it is VERY short indeed. Why do I bring this up? Because in a screenplay, a HEAVILY gatekept industry, you’ve got 1-5 pages to hook a reader or you’re dead man walking. In a novel, you’ve got a chapter. In copywriting, a field I should mention I have zero personal experience, you’ve got maybe a sentence.
The truth? The truth is, in novels, screenplays, essays, blog posts, and ad copy, you really don’t have much more than a sentence. The first sentence a reader reads sets a mood and an expectation. In today’s fractured and bifurcated media landscape, you want that mood to be excitement. Intrigue. And you want the expectation to be pure enjoyment.
That’s what a hook is. It’s a “strange attractor” to use the screenwriter Terry Rossio’s phrase. Strange: it’s odd. It t-bones you from an angle you’re not expecting. Attractor: it compels you forward. It draws you into the story.
Writers of any medium need to figure out how to start with their hook, their strange attractor. They need to move it up as far forward in their storytelling as possible. To help us, there’s a latin phrase: in media res. It means in the middle of the action, basically. Every James Bond movie begins in media res. Bond is finishing up a mission. Fight Club begins at nearly the end, with a gun in the narrator’s mouth.
In media res is the construction that allows you to start at the UNDENIABLE every time. Start with the strange attractor, the most interesting moment, then go back and fill in the earlier story bits you skipped.
Want examples? Fine. Here are a few of my favorite first sentences of novels:
“They shoot the white girl first.”
—Toni Morrison, Paradise
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“I’m pretty much fucked.”
– Andy Weir, The Martian
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.”
—William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
“Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.”
—Lynda Barry, Cruddy
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”
—Dennis Lehane, “Until Gwen”
For me anyway, every one of these makes me want to devour the next sentence, and the next, and the next. Strange attractors. I don’t know what comes next, and I must find out. Go forth, and write your hooks today.