Fantasy Writing 101: The Hook – A cheap lie to start a lazy book.
DISCLAIMER: This is only in the vaguest of ways a response to Artemis_Aquarius’s reddit post. It’s closer to a short essay on The Hook as a literary device.
SECOND DISCLAIMER: It’s also an old post from Tumblr. And one that swings between criticizing lazy, blatant world-building exposition and The Hook proper. This is why structure is important.
Let me, with a deep sense of irony, start this with a bit of a hook: If a “critic” stopped reading the book after two pages, they are not really a critic.
BAM! Soundbite. Sure, it’s over-broad and doesn’t represent my true feelings on the matter, but HEY! That’s what we’re advocating for, right? Indulging the shortening of attention spans while we push our word counts ever higher. The true complaint about that “critic” from above goes deeper and requires a bit of explanation. Such as, is the reader bored because they’re not being pandered to with pointless action/excitement/thrills/spills/chills/etc? Let’s take a walk through the garden of my disagreement!
In my mind, the hook, a concept that we’ve co-opted from movies and comics and video games (to an extent), is more or less little lie and I’ve grown to hate it as a part of fiction, especially fantasy fiction. What these intro bumps do is make a promise that is often either forgotten or is simply there to entice the reader to take a bit more of their precious time to indulge in our books. This seems like an innocuous thing on the face of it, but I would argue that it’s anything but.
The argument is as follows: We should adopt an idea that works in a visual medium, where much of the work is being done simply by looking. We’re trying to stay relevant by being more and more like what is seen as a replacement to the written word. This is very often accepted as gospel and yet it is an entirely modern ideology. The Fellowship of the Ring could not start more dully if it tried and even the Harry Potter series could be accused of beginning too slowly but choosing to start AFTER the attack, rather than having a prologue during. Certainly, watching Voldemort kill people is more exciting than watching Vernon Dursley be normal is a slower opening, though the first chapter might contain an amount of intrigue worth following through.
But ignore the Potter world and look back to a time when movies and television were not the go-to and our conversations were longer than 140 characters. Books began much more slowly and tended to build with some sense of idle purpose. The Lord of the Ring, a book that gave us most of what we are as a genre, certainly feels much, much longer than its hundred-fifty thousand-ish words per book. We do not complain when we read it because people more patient than us have assured us that the book is worth the time. It is a passing from the patient or, some would argue, people who genuinely enjoy reading to those who do not wish to waste their precious time on stories that do not immediately attempt to pander to their need for intrigue.
But I’m spinning wheels. The meat of the conversation becomes one that truly bothers me. Is the art of constructing a novel something that we are willing to reduce to the ability to write a compelling introduction? This sort of thinking breeds bad writing, at worst, but even at its best requires that a truly good story spends its opening moments making promises to a flippant audience.
I would hate to blame the audience for it, but they seem to be harming themselves with this attitude. Imagine that what TRULY drew you into A Song of Ice and Fire was the first book’s prologue. More than two decades hence, promises made by that prologue have yet to be fulfilled, though a world that now seems only tangentially related sprawls beautifully before us. The message was clear “There’s monster’s coming. Doom monsters.” And so we read on, quickly forgetting about them behind incestuous royals and valorous men of the north.
Was it really the prologue that made the book worth reading? If you had given me that prologue and then the fourth book of the series, I’d have told you to go and politely fuck yourself. Ah yes! Shimmering mystery monsters, and then nearly 1100 pages of the history of some city we’ll likely never see again. Thank you, Brienne. Truly, yours is a story worth forgetting.
There is, I’d say, a problem with the format that is an altogether new thing. And I think that the hook exists now to bolster this problem rather than to solve it. The problem is that fantasy writers and, to an extent, fantasy fans have become so convinced that their world and magic system and whatever insubstantial wankery they’ve developed are the TRUE fantasy. The stories of what George R.R. Martin began have been lost under the tide of the more recent books, where history trumps advancing the plot and where lineages seemed to be more of a focus than the protagonists.
This is not a narrowly seen problem. The sprawling texts of Sanderson and Rothfuss (among so many others) seem to feel a deep need to flop about in pools of their own self-congratulation as though they feel that what you MOST want to hear about is the history of whatever manner of nymph they’ve thought up. There is no delicacy to the writing, no concern for the reader. Only indulgent rambling about the particulars of this brand of magic or that. Grandiose histories presented as though they matter well before the characters themselves are established in true deeds. And what suffers is the reader. So they are lulled into a sense of attachment by being sold a prologue with action and excitement, only to have it snatched away. Sure, glimpses will shine through the cracks in the walls made from desperate attempts to tell you every piece of back story they though of, but only short bursts. And then they are often put in as morsels of excitement to keep you from remembering that you’ve been reading for nearly 600 pages and the characters have gone from standing outside near a boat to standing inside near a desk. Or from sitting in a cart to sitting near a cliff, brooding all the while because HEAVEN FORBID SOMEONE NOT FEEL AT MAXIMUM VOLUME!
So I submit that the hook, with its flash and its excitement, is a scourge. A tiny lie to sell you a world that is more important than the people in it. It is a menace of good storytelling. They do not only occur in prologues and in opening pages. They are littered all through modern fantasy. Sign posts marking when the author came out of their own love for world building long enough to remember the story has to move forward.
There is something inorganic about the hook. Something trite and forced. It is a product of marketing research and not of value in storytelling. It is effective, I’ll never argue that, but I despise it just the same. Truly, it is an effect of the modern media patterns surrounding visual forms. One only need look at the opening to The Fellowship to see it. Where before there is a shire and an old halfling preparing for a birthday, now we have orcs. And war. And villains. AND HEROES!
I will readily admit that my post here is an opinion first and foremost. I am deeply dissatisfied with the way world building is handled. It is tactless, blatant, unsubtle. I feel that this is to the detriment of our genre and only seems to be more and more the norm as time passes. We can build rich worlds without being blatant. We can even make such things very rewarding for the reader. Subtly revealed context to our world makes a reader feel intelligent when the pieces of put together. They do not stand in the way of story but add depth in an intelligent way.
In the end, opinions will vary and I respect that. I suppose it comes down to what you are willing to ask of your audience and, to an extent, how much faith you have the the product is worth their time beyond the hook. To me, the hook does the idea of storytelling a disservice and many writers would be better served considering how to tell a better story.
Those of you who read through this, I thank you for your time and look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.