The literary definition of a “hook” is “a means of attracting interest or attention; an enticement.” Much has been written about hooks, or writing to hook the reader. Some of my writing teachers selected opening lines from novels that they described as excellent hooks, and gave them to me and other students as examples of how to entice a person into reading a book.
However, I’ve never been hooked by an opening line in any book, including highly recommended Golden Oldies. Consider “Call me Ishmael,” the first line of Moby Dick, which appears on nearly every “hook” list. Yawn. I didn’t like the book either. Why did I read it? It was assigned. I wouldn’t remember the first line if so many writing teachers hadn’t told me it was wonderful.
Opening lines may be memorable because we enjoyed the book, not because the line was fabulous. Think about “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” My response to that line was, and is, “Who cares? I’m not interested in anyone’s dreams.” (I skip dreams inserted into novels, even when I like the novel and its author.) But I enjoyed Rebecca; and because I did, among the books I’ve bought, read part of and donated is Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale, which takes place twenty years after Rebecca’s death. I bought this book online, without having read a review of it. But when it arrived, I began to have second thoughts; it was 528 pages, and the back cover claims that “Rebecca’s tale is just beginning.” Hmm. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know that much more about Rebecca. I decided to follow the writing teachers’ tips, and check the first line to see if it “hooked” me. Uh, oh. The first line: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” I put Rebecca’s Tale down, and never picked it up again.
As I thought more about “hooks,” I realized I rarely ever look at the opening line before I buy a book, or before I check it out of the library. To find the kind of books I like, I typically buy the latest work by an author I’ve read and enjoyed, or get a recommendation from a friend.
But I’m a pushover for what I think is a great hook—a sequel or a continuation of a book I know and love. I own about fifty continuations and sequels relating to Jane Austen’s novels. I acquired them because I adore the original novels, and long to know what happened to Austen’s characters. In fact, I buy just about any sequel or book related in some way to a novel I enjoyed.
What are related books I like? The book that develops a minor character in an old favorite—like Jane Fairfax in Emma—into a major character with a plot of her own. (See Jane Fairfax by Naomi Royde Smith, 1940, or Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken, 1990). Another favorite is a retelling of an old favorite from another character’s point of view. I enjoyed Wicked, the wonderful Oz-related musical based on Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. I checked the opening line of the book, and it’s a good one: “A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.” But in this case, the concept was the hook.
Some sequels don’t work for me. In 2006, Geraldine McCaughrean produced a sequel to Peter Pan, entitled Peter Pan in Scarlet. A sequel to Peter Pan in itself is a hook, but so is the title. (Why was the green-clad elfin boy I know so well wearing red?) A good title can be a great hook. Here’s the beginning of a list of books I’d buy on title alone: The Secret Garden Revisited; More Adventures With the Little White Horse; Harry Potter’s Birth and Early Childhood; and Jane Marple at Twenty: Her First Investigation. (I’d like to write the Jane Marple book.)
I bought Peter Pan in Scarlet without reading a review, or even looking at the opening line, which is “‘I’m not going to bed,’ said John—which startled his wife.” Yep, that’s right. Not much of a hook. More of a put-off. I never read the book.
When I first read it, I loved Gone With The Wind, although I wasn’t ‘hooked’ by its opening line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” I read Gone With The Wind after I saw the film because it was a great love story. (I was hooked by the film.) I longed to know what became of all the characters, and rushed out to buy Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley’s sequel to Gone With The Wind. It didn’t work for me, but I’ve kept on buying sequels. I guess I’m hooked.