This little essay is about the term used by practically all story theorists, which they call “The Hook.” God in Heaven! I hate that term. And the reason I hate it is that not only is it misleading, but it is the impetus behind some of the worst storytelling ever created. It’s generally defined as an event right up front that “hooks” the reader’s/viewer’s/audience’s interest and pulls them into the story. Having been told this, the author will then simply add something grossly sexual and offensive, or some horrible act of violence, and think now that that is done s/he can then get on with the story.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s a much better approach. First of all, the hook is not something separate from the rest of the story. Your story should have a central conflict that spans its entire length. The story really begins when the author locks that central conflict and ends only when that central conflict is resolved. Here then is what theorists are trying to get across to the author but don’t know how to conceptualize it. And that is to lock the central conflict with some event that is interesting and meaningful to the full storyline. Locking the conflict is the hook. It is the only hook.
This leads directly into what makes a good trailer. It must indicate both the central conflict and what that conflict is about. The distinction I’m making is that you can have two people fighting without knowing what they are fighting over. It can be just two people in close proximity who want to demonstrate physical or some type of social dominance, but it can also be over something more profound, e.g., slavery, poverty, feminism, sexual preference, a teaching position, etc. What the central conflict is about constitutes the theme of the story. The point is that when you lock the conflict, theme should be apparent. Just telling someone they should have a hook to get their reader/viewer/audience interested is a really poor way of describing what should happen up front. On the other hand, if you say to lock the central conflict and tell what it’s about, this is something actionable. Otherwise, it may just result in being a shot of a girl pulling off her panties, which will certainly hook the audience’s interest, but if her sexual proclivities aren’t the cornerstone of the central conflict, the reader will lose interest when the true story starts to unfold.
So the word “hook” is a poor description of what has to be accomplished at the very beginning of a story. Now, as a little illustration of what I’m talking about, I’ll write the first lines of novel, or you could view it as a voiceover at the beginning of a movie, about that girl I mentioned in the previous paragraph. We’ll assume it’s a first-person narrative with the girl telling her own story:
As a freshman and as some said the prettiest, best built girl to ever hit high school, I promised myself that I’d save my virginity until college and for a man of substance, so what am I doing on New Year’s Eve pulling off my panties for Tommy Wooster, the lowlife, bottom-feeding, trash-talking skateboarder from down the street that I’ve hated since third grade? I’m a senior now and only have five more months to go before I’m out of here, and there goes my virginity, my reputation, undoubtedly college, and my life because he doesn’t have a condom and I lost my willpower when I let him put my hand down the front of his pants about ten minutes ago and felt my whole world throb in sympathy with his physical condition.
As is readily discernible, this young woman’s intellectual plans are in direct conflict with her physical desires, and undoubtedly, since she is so pretty, with the intent of every boy in her high school. This then better be the story of how her willpower finally failed her and how her plans for the future either melt in a puddle of bodily fluids or if she learns how to come to terms with herself and the young man or men in her life. On the other hand, if it’s a story of how she won the district debating competition, the reader/audience will soon abandon this story because they have been misled. This is the problem with “the hook” as usually conceptualized because it’s half-baked and needs further definition before you can act on it with any degree of certainty that it will work as it should.
Sometimes the author will pull a crucial event from within the story, put it up front as a hook and then flashback to the beginning. I don’t like this approach although I must say some really good storytellers use it. I will even agree that for some stories it’s a necessary approach, but generally it’s used as a crutch to cover up poor storytelling. It does have the distinct advantage of being tightly connected to the story.
How to integrate this central conflict and turn it into a complete story plot is covered in Chapter 3 The Plot Pentagon of Story Alchemy.
I’ll leave you with just the opening sentence of my novel, The Escape of Bobby Ray Hammer, one that echoes throughout the novel:
Papa had a pistol.