The Hook: More than the Opening Line

Much has been said about the first line of a novel and there are some especially famous ones, but I’ve always been drawn to looking to at least the first paragraph, if not the entire first page as the hook. As most readers are fairly generous, the writer may have more time than they believe to keep the reader reading. So let’s take a look at a book published in 2016, Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard, and see how she managed to set up so many parts of the story on this first page.

The first line here is not fraught with beautiful prose or pyrotechnics, but it does establish the conflict, a kind of domino or butterfly effect waiting to happen. “They were on the road later than they intended.” Even without the names of the characters we start to get a glimpse of the characterization of the “they” mentioned here. They have intentions that they already can’t meet. What conflict will arise from these missed intentions? We also know that the setting of this story probably will be in flux by getting on the road.

Mark and Maggie have overslept. They have agreed to split responsibilities between Mark walking the dog and Maggie packing the car. Pretty typical, but mundane marriage material. But Pittard continues to zoom into the grievances of each character until their marriage becomes more and more specific. Like this line: “He’d wanted her to pack up the car the night before, but Maggie said it was nuts to leave a car full of luggage on a side street in Chicago.” More characterization deftly handled by not only adding a setting, with an element of danger, and Maggie’s choice of the word “nuts.” True, this might be a marriage you already know, but Pittard promises the reader with her word choices, which the reader doesn’t quite know yet, but which highlight the themes of the novel, that something specifically dramatic will happen to these characters and their marriage.

The theme of anxiety is quickly touched upon too by a quick exchange of dialogue.

“Every time,” she said. “We go through this every time.”

“You worry too much,” he said.

“Maybe you don’t worry enough.”

Again, none of this is fancy writing on the surface, but Pittard is doing some much with this short exchange to show the reader that anxiety will be very important to the character’s lives and therefore the plot of this story. The verbal push-pull between this couple will lead them to reconsider their entire relationship. We get to glimpse the fissures already crated before the story even starts for the reader. A dizzy peek into this character’s past, which will become ever more important as the story moves forward. The best part is that Pittard doesn’t labor over this back story, but moves the reader forward, launching them into the present, make the past more mysterious, creating tension not from pushing the boundaries of language, but rather stewing in the basic, making each word add to the characterization until hopefully we want to continue on.

So it often takes more than just a great opening line. The entire page should be considered when drafting a hook, especially in a story that focuses so much on the interiority of each character to reveal it’s plot. Small, but deft, touches, add up to a bigger picture when the first page forecasts specific believable characters.



The Simple Language of Our Souls at Night

While reading Kent Haruf’s last novel Our Souls at Night, I’m struck by how simple the language is and yet how much power is conveyed through a quiet, subtle novel. The story at the center of the novel is quiet itself, in that, it tells the tale of two widows that come to an agreement to meet-up at night in order to “come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.” Here you have the inciting incident in Addie Moore’s own voice. This is not a pyrotechnic plot about unreliable narrator’s covering up murders. We have a story of two lonely people trying to find their way in a world that doesn’t make much sense now that their spouses have passed away.

So here is where the choice in diction and language is so important. Raymond Carver’s was lauded for allowing his character’s to speak in their own voices, no matter how simple or how full of inarticulate rage. Haruf too, realized that these character could and should talk simply about their wants and needs, their misunderstandings of a forgotten world, and how they hope to live out the rest of their lives. Here is an example of an exchange between Addie and Louis after Addie has asked Louis to spend the night for the first time. Another writer might have used language meant to dazzle the reader and create something akin to melodrama, but Haruf has a subtle and deft hand. He allows the reader to share in the creation of tension. Haruf’s prose is so unobtrusive that he even got rid of the quotation marks. I’ve added them for citation purposes here.

“Don’t you have any faith,” she said.

“In you, I do. I can have faith in you. I see that already. But I’m not sure I can be equal to you.”

“What are you talking about? How do you mean that?”

“In courage,” he said. “Willingness to risk.”

Notice here that there is no posturing, no grandstanding, or even attempts to give stage directions. Thankfully, these characters are talking honestly, their vulnerability is front and center and this creates the tension needed to carry the reader through this scene and into the heart of the novel. Simple language sure, but the themes are universal and heart-breaking, the attempts of trying to fight back loneliness in the face of impending death.

Now not every story could handle such unadorned language. Most stories would crumble under the weight that these simple words have to carry. These characters have to be honest, have to show their fears, and risk the reader’s indifference because that’s the reason for literature. To show us how others live, so we can find solace in our own lives, our own loneliness, our own vulnerability.