Wednesday, May 4, 2011


This is one of those writing rules you hear all the time: You have to grab your reader by the collar and shake the fuck out of them or they're going to give up and go back to watching Celebrity Apprentice.

In a novel, it's allegedly got to be in the first page. In a short story, it's supposed to be sooner than that--in the first paragraph or even in the first sentence. Because we have attention spans equivalent to that of fish or, um, another animal with a short attention span.

To me, if you haven't already guessed, this is all a bit nutty. I'll read at least two pages of a short story before deciding it's not worth it. With a novel, if I'm not into it by page 50 or so, then it's probably not happening.

In those first few pages of a short story, there's got to be something that sets the story apart from all the others--an interesting voice, a quirky character, a strange setting, or just old-fashioned suspense. So maybe I do want a hook but have a very liberal interpretation of what that means.

But this isn't carte blanche. I (started to) read a story the other day at some esteemed literary journal and the first two pages were all setting. And the setting was a coffee shop. Not a single character or even a hint of what it would actually be about. Some nice turns of phrase and amusing observations, but I gave up on this "story." Why the editors liked it I'm not entirely sure.

Guess I should stick with reading genre fiction.

Do you give up on a story and do you plow through? Do you think hooks are necessary or just another stupid rule?


  1. There was a reason Tom Wolfe said, back in the Nineties, that the only creative, new fiction being written these days is genre.
    I had the rare privilege of sitting and talking writing with George Clayton Thomas (Oceans Eleven: book and screenplay. Logans Run: novel and the only good parts of a bad movie. Plus a bunch of Twilight Zones) for a couple of hours. His dictum for a short story was, "First line grabber makes the reader and editor interested enough to continue reading. A novel should have a good enough first line -- without screaming at the reader -- to keep him reading until the bottom of page three or four; at which point, he'll either trust you or not. If he trusts you by then, he'll keep reading. If not, bye-bye book."
    I always thought that was pretty good advice.

  2. I have to agree with grabbing the reader at the start. I read so many stories that there has to be something to separate one from the other. Now it doesn't always have to be blazing guns and naked bimbos being decapitated in the first sentence. If that description of the coffee shop is fresh and vibrant then I’m there. But not many writers can pull off two full pages without a single character or the hint of something going to happen.

  3. i try to give writes the benefit of the doubt but if I have to keep coming back over and over for a reread to find the flow... a bad sign. i don't have a rule other than if i'm not enjoying what i am reading, i won't finish it..

  4. Good post. I'm just reading Les Edgerton's 'Hooked', coincidentally.

  5. Interesting points. AJ: Who am I to argue with a seasoned professional? But I'll give it a go anyways...

    The first sentence? Seriously? That seems crazy harsh. There are so many excellent stories that have average first lines. I guess editors are busy people and all, but sheesh.

    I like Michael's rule--if I'm not enjoying it, I won't finish it.

  6. maybe what we're looking for is a net rather than a hook. my favourite shorts often have a first line that does set me slightly off balance in some way, but it doesn't have to throw me about. i'm not sure about this, but i'm also thinking that i rarely find a blisteringly good first line that's followed by a rubbish story. there has to be something in it, but there will always be exceptions.
    here's a question for you. do you write a story, then look for that hook of a line, or spend a while working on that line before you go on? just curious.

  7. Yep. George was stating the editorial policy of the day. The market was so competitive then, that magazine editors would literally toss your ms. on the slush pile if the first line didn't knock their socks off. John Campbell was famous for that. Although he frequently would cruise the slush shelf to see if there was anything there worth pursuing or requesting a rewrite from the author. I believe he came up with Robert A. Heinlein that way.

  8. Pretty much those of us who both read and write fiction are looking for the narrative hook. As a writer, I want to engage readers from the first paragraph, but as a reader, I'm patient. I'll give a novel at least 50 pages to see how it's developing.

    Jacqueline Seewald
    THE TRUTH SLEUTH/Five Star/Gale May 18th release

  9. Wow, AJ. Those kinds of pubs, man, that's some hardcore business. But I guess if you want to be the best-of-the-best you have to start (and end) with killer lines.

    And that's a totally valid point Nigel--a good first line is almost always an indicator of good things to come.

    But to me the slowly developing story--the one that just chugs along and builds to a point--is a bit of a lost art. (Sandra Ruttan posted on this recently at Do Some Damage.) Engaging the reader from the start seems like a necessity, but a lot of stories (and novels) now slam the gas and never let up, as if the reader is about to jump ship at all times.

  10. Yeah, Chris. That's called consistently rising action -- every page a grabber, every chapter a Perils Of Pauline, certain death, cliffhanger. I'll only put up with that from James Rollins, mainly because his subject matter is always fascinating and he documents which is speculation and which is fiction at the end of the book.

  11. I don't really need a super amount of action to intrigue me out of the gate, but something needs to spark my interest and that could very well be dialogue, which is another bullshit "rule". "Never start a story with dialogue". One thing that will turn me off to a story is descriptions of the weather, and as you mentioned Chris, over done setting details. Most of the novels I read, are recommended by someone, so I give it a fair chance before I turn in the towel. Excellent post by the way.

  12. Chris, this is a good question and it comes up a lot in my critique group because we're always trying to hook the readers.

    I try to give a short story some leeway. It's such a small space to work in, so I figure give the author a chance. But on novels, I'm like you. I give them 50 pages. If I'm not enjoying it at 50, I quit without regret.

    A fun exercise is to pick a half dozen novels off your shelf and read the opening lines. A lot of the lines are just average, while the books themselves might be very good.

  13. Mark -- yeah the first lines of some great novels are surprisingly routine!

  14. I could passionately argue for each side of this issue. I think a storyteller looking at a story as a woven tapestry would say a hooker line is just a scam, like a woman trying too hard to be sexy to get attention. I think an editor trying to sell a story to a crowd wouldn't look at a story if it didn't have a good first line (bikini top with a boob lift!). Before I was interested in storytelling, I'd read the first and last line, if I could figure out the plot of the book, then I'd put it away on the shelf. Eventually I graduated to reading the first paragraph and resisting reading the last line (that just spoiled everything- um, duh) ). If the voice was passive I'd put it away. If the voice was annoying, anal retentive, or tried to sound overly important (like most literary works today), I'd put it back. It's probably subjective to the taste of the reader. I'm not too fond of following The Rules for writing, but I realize I'm a weird. This probably doesn't help much at all, but there's my penny. ;-)