First Line Hook’s in the Fantasy Genre

An author friend of mine posted a positive review of the Kindle book Writing Active Hooks by: Mary Buckham. I’ve heard hooks referred to as lazy writing, and a literary device. As a novice writer I know there’s plenty for me to learn, and other reviewers touted the assignments in the book as great. I’ve taken some Master Level Marketing courses, and I learned a great deal about retail marketing while working as a store executive for Target. I enjoyed learning about the psychology behind where things are placed and why it grabs interest. My interest with this book was peeked, and I bought it.

It’s a quick read, and there’s useful information. Buckham illustrates each of the “classic hook’s” by highlighting writers works in the same way Browne  & King teach with samples in their book Self-Editing For Fiction Writers. None of Beckman’s samples demonstrated hooks I would dub as lazy or read like a literary devices.  A few samples show the progressive improvement of the first line through several drafts. These were very compelling examples and it certainly taught me what each hook is comprised of.

It is Buckham’s assertion that the first line in every book should contain at least one hook, and depending on the genre three to four. She has several reasons why, but the reason that grabbed me was a novice author’s increased chance of their manuscript immediatly standing out against the others floating accross agent and publisher desks.  Is this a fear tactic or solid advice? I think it’s something that can’t hurt, and is worth consideration.

One of Buckman’s assignments is to go to the bookstore or library, seek out new works in the genre you write, and read the first line of eight books.  If there was a Prologue we are to consider this as the start of the story. Buckham also wanted the books examined to be written by new authors, or a new publication. Her rational being how the market changes, and what sold books several years ago does not necessarily sell them now.

Reading this assignment made me grin and sigh.  I’m no expert, but I’m familiar with the fantasy genre. It’s the genre I prefer to read and it is what I write in. I knew before setting foot in the bookstore or skimming the first page of books in my collection that the probability of finding hooks in the first sentence of any fantasy was slim to none.

Eager to see if I was wrong I went out and did the assignment. I was still not holding my breath, as I approached the Fantasy/Science Fiction new release aisle.  The entire end cap by it was filled with leather bound copies of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and no-neither one of these have hooks in the first sentence.

I know I’m being very general, but here’s a list of what I did expect to find.  According to my experience as a Fantasy consumer, the first scene in an epic fantasy usually opens with one of these things:

  • A recitation of who the protagonist is and/or thier heritage.
  • The protagonist observing nature and/or the environment.
  • The protagonist fighting or in a battle of some kind.

Was I right? Yes.

My four year old daughter was with me, and while I sent her on a mission to find book covers with dragons, I compiled my list. I’m grading the number of hooks used based on what I learned from Buckham’s book.  I’m not going to ruin Writing Active Hook’s by explaining the five hooks to you. In all honesty, with what I found, I don’t think I even need to.  The sentences without hooks are not compelling. These writers haven’t failed in their craft. It’s simply a fact they chose not to use a psychological hook at the opening of their book.

The following had no hooks within the first sentence:

  • “My name is Uhthred.”-The Empty Throne by: Bernard Cornwell
  • “Flashes of lightning seared the turbid night sky, illuminating the drawn faces of the men hearing the long wooden oars of the Viking Longship as it fought against the roarings of the unforgiving sea.”- The Eye of Heaven by: Clive Cussler
  • “Shiva gazed at the orange sky.”- The Imortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi
  • “They stood together on the cliffs surrounds the Ultan and stared accross the rain forest.”- Elves: Rise of the TaiGether by: James Barclay
  • “Thomas Cole suffers no hysterical delusions of uncontrolled behavior beyond that of his sour nature.”-The Beating of His Wings by: Paul Hoffman
  • “Lightning split the night sky above the mast of the Bantu Rey.”- Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk

The following had hooks within the first sentence:

  • “Lady Isabel Amaral plucked another pair of drawers from the chiffonier and tossed them in her companions direction.”-The Golden City by J.Kathleen Cheney
  • “Harkin cracked his whip with an urgency wrought of terror.”- The Highwayman by: R.A. Salvature

Just for fun I went to my collection at home and grabbed eight fantasy books. I took note of the first sentences, and found none of these contained a hook.

  • “Rukbat, in the Sagittarius Sector, was a golden G-type star.” Moretea: Dragonlady of Pern by: Anne McCaffrey
  • “Grand Duke Tremane shivered as a cold draft wisped past the shutters behind him and drifted down the back of his neck.”-Storm Rising by: Mercedes Lackey
  • “This night have dispatched to you four birds, bearing in two parts our agreement with the dragon Tintaglia, to be ratified by the Rain Wild Council.”- Dragon Keeper by: Robin Hobb
  • “Both moons were high, dimming the light of all but the brightest stars.”-Tigana by: Guy Gavriel Kay
  • “A cold wind blew down from the snow-covered mountains, hissing through the narrow streets of Thebe Under Plakos.”-Troy: Shield of Thunder by David Gemmell
  • “Smells of earth and dung drifted slowly past the fog in Errol’s brain.”-A Cast of Stones by: Patrick W. Carr
  • “Kalam rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast.”-The Way of Kings buy: Brandon Sanderson
  • “He had many names.” Blood Song by: Anthony Ryan
  • “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.-Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The lack of hooks in this short sampling of data I find fascinating as both a writer and a reader.  While validating my assumption felt good, it had me wondering why. As a fan of fantasy, why am I tolerant of writing that typically does not hook a reader until anywhere between the five and thirty page mark? Is there something more pressing then pulling a reader into the story and engaging them right away?

When I first started reading Fantasy what drove me to pick up a book was the following, and listed in order of importance as: The cover art, my devotion as a fan to tried and true authors, and the blurb on the back. There was only one book in a fifteen year stretch of reading Fantasy where I did not finish a book. That was The Deeds of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon.  I read one hundred or so pages and I was never attached to either the protagonist or the plot. Did her hook’s not resonate with me, or was I just bored to tears? I’m not sure and I never made it past 200 pages.  Moon’s book illustrates my point best in that I was conditioned for long exposition narratives. I was patient and willing to let Moon talk about mud and this female soldier from a farm. I wanted to see her move on to becoming a great warrior but her journey was boring, and Moon had surpassed our trade off.

In my opinion a trade off exisits in the fantasy genre between the reader and the author. If the reader is willing to read one chapter, or say a prologue and one chapter, the Fantasy author will provide a hook, or the big “So What?” Why must the Fantasy reader be so accommodating? Because Fantasy, and I would say Science Fiction as well, takes you someplace you have never been before.  You can’t just drop into the protagonist and automatically understand the daily operations of a Dragon hold, a wizard school, or kingdom full of blue people that eat sand.  Most of the time, in order for the Fantasy story to make sense-for the hook to make sense, the reader needs to be exposed to the fantastical place and learn some important things. Bring the reader up to speed on things not typical in other genre’s. Like a whole new culture or race of people; a magic system; where dragons live; or what army is out to destroy the world.

I don’t think a hook is needed in the first line of a fantasy novel, however I’m not necessarily against finding them. Especially if they are as well crafted as the samples in Beckman’s book.   At some point in every novel hook psychology is present.  We are given the big “So What?” and “This is why you should read more.” It would be no surprise to find an increase of Fantasy authors using hooks in the first sentence of their work. What would be more surprising is if their target audience ever takes notice. It’s my opinion the average Fantasy reader will forgive a new work if a hook is missing from the first line. However in a saturated Fantasy market, for the unpublished and unknown writer, it’s a risk we might want to avoid.