A Writer’s Journey (Part Four): A New Beginning7 min read

by Oct 4, 2017Writing0 comments

Note from the Editor: A Writer's Journey is a series that follows writer Mark R. Hems as he weathers the challenging yet rewarding terrain of writing a novel. Series Posts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

Seizing the sword

In the previous instalment of my writer’s journey I learnt to recognise that the true reward for all those painstaking months of writing was not a finished manuscript, but something far more valuable: my growth as a writer. It no longer mattered that I wasn’t happy with the manuscript, because I knew I had broadened my abilities. So, I put that first manuscript on ice and decided to start again. But this time I intended to benefit from all those workshops I’d attended.

This time I had a plan.

Recognising my mistakes

One of the problems with the first attempt was that it had all started from a set of vague imaginings. A boy standing in a blizzard at the foot of a vertiginous golden domed palace; a girl clad in a barbarian’s armour; a space battle. All good and all vivid. But all without story. Though I’d done some planning, I didn’t fully understand how a good story works, and as a result failed to establish a good hook. But a good hook is essential, especially when it comes to selling the idea later. Otherwise, when you come to pitch the book you might end up sounding something like this:

“So there’s this kid and he’s having a tough time at school and, oh, I forgot to mention, he’s the descendant of King Solomon, from the bible? Anyway, he’s getting bullied and something snaps inside one day–when he’s running on a treadmill–and he ends up being transported to this alien land where he meets these other kids like him and they end up being hunted by this evil General who wants to reap their power, and, and–“

This is actually part of the plot for that first manuscript, and, while there could be some good stuff buried in there, because I never started with a good hook, I ended up rambling like Robin Williams on speed when I tried to pitch it.

So, what makes a good hook?

A good hook should be the essence of the story in just a line or two. This might be best expressed as a ‘what if’ statement or a high concept. For example, the hook for the Matrix might sound something like this:

What if you found out the world is a computer generated illusion?

As computers have become more and more advanced I’m sure this is a concept many of us have contemplated. So, prior to the movie’s release there must have been countless people like me chomping at the bit for a chance to see how that concept might pan out. It therefore fulfils the first objective of a good hook: intrigue. But it also forces you to ask questions:

“Why is the world computer generated?”

“Who’s behind all this?”

“What happens when someone discovers the secret?”

And all these questions aren’t just good for potential readers/viewers to be asking, they’re vehicles that can drive the development of your plot too.

Bite sized chunks

Another great thing with a hook is that it’s easy to test. As it’s so compact it’s easy to discuss with friends, family, colleagues–and you’ll know from their reactions whether it’s likely to appeal to a wider audience. Before going ahead and committing to writing a gazillion words.

I tried countless story ideas before I finally settled on one for my new novel. Here it is:

What if Jacob’s Ladder were real and the Devil tricked you into leading him to it?

I liked this hook for a number of reasons.

Number one: I knew that I wanted a powerful antagonist that would act as an inversion of my protagonist — a black mirror that would reflect the virtues of my protagonist in stark contrast to the vices of my antagonist. And what darker force could there be than the Devil himself?

Number Two: Though I’m not religious I believe there’s a certain amount of power associated with biblical concepts such as Jacob’s Ladder. An air of authenticity that promotes biblical stories above mere legend. Lends them a certain dusty credibility and imbues them with import. I wanted to leverage all of that but then base it in the modern world so that people asked the question, what if this were all real?

Number Three: As with the Matrix hook, here was a hook that prompted lots of questions:

“Why does the Devil want to find Jacob’s ladder?”

“What’s special about the protagonist that the Devil needs to trick him into leading him to it?”

“What’s the nature of the trick?”

Testing the water

So, after establishing a hook I spoke to friends and family about it and ended up talking for hours in some cases. Answering their questions, expanding upon where the story could go, exploring the characters, etc. And the more I talked about it, the more excited I became.

I had found my hook. Now I just needed to stick to it, which as it turned out, wasn’t so easy…

For more information about developing hooks, check out Graemme Shimmin’s website.

Join me in the next instalment of my writer’s journey where we’ll look at how I expanded my hook into an elevator pitch and how that lay the foundations for a detailed plan.

How do you go about writing a novel? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you start with a hook or just let it develop as you go? Tell me about your own writer’s journey in the comments below.


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