Fishy, Fishy–More Hooks

The first hook you write in your plot may be its most important one–not so much in terms of story advancement but in catching a reader.

After that, how many hooks do you need and how often should you place them?

For grins, I’ll divide hooks into divisions and title them as

                        Minnows

                                       Marlin

                                                Sharks

                                                        Whales

Let’s deal with them in reverse order, or from least used to most used.

Major hooks (whales) should be set at key turning points in the plot’s progression. They’re huge plot twists. They should really surprise readers, maybe even galvanize them out of their chairs, saying “Whoa!”

You need a whale of a hook (groans, please) in the center of your book. For example, [**spoiler alert **] in the middle of the Dick Francis novel, HOT MONEY, the house is blown up.

A book will probably have two such enormous hooks, possibly three, depending on its genre and the intensity of the stakes. The advantage of these hooks should be evident. The disadvantage of using them is that each successive whale should be larger. You must keep topping yourself through the course of the story. Agatha Christie’s mystery, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, ends with a massive plot twist so effective that I’m not going to reveal it to you here.

Use the whale too soon, and your story dries up to a disappointing finale. Use a whale too often, and you’ll either become absurd and/or campy.

So, use a killer whale in the middle of the story and a humpback in the story climax.

Moving on … the hooks I consider to be sharks can be plot twists or turning points. They should be startling and intense. I often think of them as “stingers.” In thrillers, a shark is the first revelation of the villain to readers. Each time viewpoint shifts back to the villain, another shark is placed.

Sharks may also appear at the end of chapters, because you never want a chapter to close without grabbing the reader in some way.

Sidney Sheldon’s book, IF TOMORROW COMES, opens with a shark-level hook: “She undressed slowly, dreamily, and when she was naked she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

The marlins are strong and agile. Like their real counterparts–the actual sporting fish–marlin-type hooks exist to keep the reader entertained and the pace moving along.

Marlin hooks fall at the end of scenes. All scenes should end with hooks. Some will be quite small. Some will be intense. But ordinary scenes advance the story via strong setbacks (your marlins). I also recommend that, whenever possible, you open your story with a marlin as well.

Think of it leaping from the water, flashing bright in the sun, catching the reader’s eye and heart.

Okay, now for the minnows. I know they skew my metaphor because they aren’t salt water fish like the others. But minnows are small, insignificant creatures. We don’t even eat them. We only use them for bait.

Bait … a key word. Don’t you set a hook with bait?

Yep. Minnows are small questions raised in readers’ minds. We use one, or three, or five at a time. We fill a page with them, or a chapter. Minnows seem insignicant when they appear, but they’re niggling at the back of the reader’s thoughts. Slip in enough minnows, and you create a worry for the reader, a concern about a character’s safety or situation. You use minnows to build anticipation for a coming event. You let minnows entice readers into turning another page, and another, and another unti–pow!–was that a shark that just hit?

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