It’s all about the hook.
You know what I mean—that curved piece of metal at the end of a clear nylon filament that snags a trout or bass or whatever fish you fancy. Except in writing, the hook is the concept that catches the author’s attention, that brings him into the story to the point where he forgets everything else.
Many of my hooks come from my childhood. They come from the movies I watched or the books that I read. Films about about zombies or vampires or aliens. Books about possession and ghosts. When I read The Exorcist, it scared me so badly I stayed awake for two straight nights. All of these images—some recalled as fragments and some remembered whole cloth—bubble up in my imagination and provide the fodder for my hooks.
One of my favorite movies growing up was The Day the Earth Stood Still. (The original with Michael Rennie, not that godawful remake with Keanu Reeves.) The story was both terrifying and hopeful. Terrifying for its premise that aliens existed and monstrous robots like Gort could destroy the world; hopeful in that those same aliens could also end up helping us as a race. That was the tension (the hook) that made the movie work so well—would humanity learn and survive, or would it resort to the mindset of the era (McCarthyism and the paranoid suspicion about everyone labeled as “different”) and attempt to destroy Klaatu? The stakes were high. The entire planet could be wiped out!
What a great plot line.
It got my blood pumping as a child, and I still watch it when it pops up on Turner Classic Movies.
In writing, the best hooks evoke the greatest tension, but they could often be summed up quite simply. Consider Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, one of the best supernatural thrillers of all time. How many words could describe this classic? Thousands and thousands. But for me, here’s the hook, “Ghosts force an old curmudgeon to bear witness to his broken life in an effort to save him from eternal damnation.” Think about it. Ghosts. A broken life. Eternal damnation. Who wouldn’t want to write that story, learn more about the old curmudgeon and how his life turned out so poorly? That hook still sends chills up my spine and it’s over a hundred years old.
Could you see this as a contemporary story? I could. The best hooks never age. They only improve with time.
Hooks are an essential part of my writing. If the hook draws me into a story, it will likely do the same for my reader. And for a writer, finding the right hook is like finding the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.
For The Conveyance, the hook became “how far would someone go for love, even if that love ended up hurting others?” With that theme in mind, I developed three subplots, all variations on the hazards of love. I’m not talking about healthy love, either. I’m talking about toxic love, or misplaced love, or jealous love. Love that hurts. Love that challenges our moral compasses. Love that can kill.
I’m a horror author; shiny, happy people don’t make the cut.
So the next time you’re reading a book and you find yourself immersed in the story, where you lose track of time and forget to feed the cat (or your kids), think about what happened.
What took you by the hand and drew you into this imaginary world?
What got your blood pumping?
What was the hook?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian W. Matthews’s latest book is The Conveyance, a horror/science fiction novel about a child therapist who uncovers a secret long kept hidden form the world. Together with his friend, police detective Frank Swinicki, he doggedly follows a trail of murder and madness, eventually exposing a sinister conspiracy that threatens the existence of the human race. The Conveyance can be purchased directly from the publisher at www.journalstone.com or from Amazon.