Monday, 27 April 2009

The First Chapter: The Hook

Fred was pleased to have fathered a baby before his penis turned into a hand.

I was ambling through town in the rain this morning and the charity canvassers were out as usual. A pretty girl stepped before me and invited me to come under her umbrella for a chat.
A good hook, I'd say, offering me shelter from the elements and a chat with a pretty girl.
I had to decline, because I was eager to get home to type up chapter fourteen, and to give some thought to a blog post about hooks.

I had a super day last Friday, trimming my opening four chapters, polishing that opening chapter, and I believe I'm getting somewhere at last. I also read Rachelle Gardner's blog (the link's down there somewhere). She invited a host of agent chums to twitter with advice. Amongst the words of wisdom, I noticed that old chestnut: Don't write in your query letter that the pace really gets going in chapter five.

It does seem to be something of a perennial problem, and it's not difficult to understand why. Once that first set-up or chunk of exposition has been delivered, we have something to develop and to plunge into a reveal. But there is nothing for us to work with at the beginning. Furthermore, we have all that exposition to weave in asap. Without forward momentum, the pace is dead.

Remember Jack Bickham's chum? Jack eagerly tells of his chum's multiple-page description of a sunset. The protag was to fight to the death at sunrise, and so the sunset became charged with suspense.
Here's how:
1) Dear reader: Something big is gonna happen at this specified time in the near future.
2) Space.
3) Something big occurs.

Agatha Christie reckoned that the thrill of the hunt was in the chase and not the capture. And given that so much of our writing occurs between set-up (hook) and resolution, we need to charge these spaces somehow. A good hook does this.

My opening chapter paves the way for all that is to come. However, many of these set-ups are invisible and are not charged. In essence, they allow for the creation of satisfying twists, all of which come later on.
To augment this, I developed a technique whereby I would create word palettes. These are still largely invisible, but I believe they create some sort of anticipation within the reader's subconscious.
However, on a less subtle level, I have worked in a highly visible hook, and have developed this hook in increments from the first paragraph through to the 'cliffhanger' at the end of the opening chapter. I'm developing a sense that the reader needs very frequent references to, or reminders of, something that is about to occur. These spaces between set-up and resolution need to be filled with anticipation. Whilst I believe that this anticipation can be created subliminally, I have no concerns about building in a visible hook too.

To this end, and to my ... surprise? ... perhaps apprehension ... I found myself working in a MacGuffin. Woo hoo! I think I get them! There are times when we're not ready to develop something, or to present a reveal; and, yet, we need to keep the anticipation rolling in those spaces, and a MacGuffin will perform such a function, holding the reader in place until we're ready to return to the key stuff. In particular, and with so much to accomplish early on, I can see how a MacGuffin keeps the reader's attention whilst we set about laying foundations.
And how does Murakami open The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? With a MacGuffin: with a woman who phones the protag out of the blue, and who offers anticipation, and who pops up whenever anticipation is required (presumably in those spaces where Murakami is busy constructing other set-ups and the like), and who simply fades from existence when she is no longer required (presumably because Murakami has established everything he needs by then) and is never referred to again.

Yes, I understand the difficulties of instantly grabbing the reader's attention (without resorting to melodrama!). But there are ways and means. They might feel like cheats (well, they still do to me), but really they're techniques, as valid as any other.
The hook charges the subsequent space with anticipation. Once the anticipation is in place, we can describe that sunset with all the flair and aplomb we desire.
Or, to turn that around, if we have passages in which nothing changes (typically exposition), we can charge those passages by slipping a hook before them, or by developing (or even repeating?) an already-open hook.

Hey, it's all still work-in-progress. Bear with me.

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