Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Classic Hook

The hardest part of a novel is the opening. Your opening story questions must hook the reader. You must decide whether to pose long-range story questions about the core conflict or catchy short-range story questions about exciting action or dialog in the opening scene. Which can hardly be about the core conflict, because you haven't set up the core conflict yet.

Here's an example of the classic, literary-fiction style opening with story questions about the core conflict. It's the opening of The Great Gatsby, literary fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had."

The story questions (hooks) he thus plants are Whom is the narrator about to criticize? and What advantages does he have that they lack?

These are long-range story questions answered in the book as a whole at the end. The narrator (Nick) criticizes New England sophisticates, who lack the advantages of his upbringing in the Upper Midwest — advantages that leave people from the flyover states "deficient" in some quality necessary for "Eastern life" and therefore "subtly unadaptable" to it.

Now, that opening doesn't create gripping suspense. In fact, for a long time I didn't know how wonderful this book is, because the first time I sat down to read it, it didn't hook me. I never got past the first few pages.

Nonetheless, these opening story questions elegantly 'squeeze the universe into a ball and roll it toward the overwhelming question' posed by the story as a whole. Still, The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925, and it lives on its reputation as a classic — Fitzgerald wouldn't get it first-published today without changing the exposition in the opening pages to immediate scene and making them compelling with catchy hooks.

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