At last count I've accumulated about 2,900 rejection slips, both email and hard mail, dating back at least 24 years. We writers agonize over just about every word in these little snippets of rejection death, attempting to decipher some type of meaningful logic out of these one or two-line zingers. Yet even in the form variety, there are a few that stand out over the rest which indicate a more specific problem, and they usually begin with, "I'm afraid I wasn't pulled into the story," or "the front bogged down," or "after a few pages, I wasn't compelled to read any further." Something to that tone, anyway. What we have here is a failure to communicate up front with that all important "hook."
The hook is that mystical teaser, that draw that pulls the reader into the story, and it usually begins on page one, and really never lets up. You can craft a hook by using dialogue, action, narrative or even description, but the one thing it does is present a unique problem that is not answered immediately, or is a set of circumstances that confounds the reader, asking more questions that it's answering. I think a really great hook uses deceit or subterfuge. It presents a "What the hell's going on here" in the reader's mind, or a "why or how could this be happening?" Setting a good hook, I later learned, is a crafting trick--a tactic. There's nothing artistic about it. Just like a magician uses sleight of hand, so too does the writer create an unfathomable scenario that begs explanation and further reading. Of course, it's wise to take the reader up to the confusion threshold but not beyond it, where incidents and plot seem random or haphazard. There must be a method to your madness, allowing the reader to glimpse that sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.
I can pontificate all day long about how stunning and fast-paced my second and third acts are, but when I read and interpret those pesky rejection slips, the ones that hint at boring, tepid, stuffy first-page or fist-chapter passages, I know then that I've failed in capturing my reader's attention--he/she will be reluctant to invest further reading time if I cannot CHALLENGE them to unravel a mystery or solve some problem. I've opened the door and invited them to ride along, but they're inclined to pass and let me drive off into the sunset by myself. Back-story is a killer, as is prologues, heavy, multiple character descriptions, uninspired dialogue, weather reports and heavy handed scenery that tries too hard to be literary.
I can have a dynamite query letter, but the editor or agent won't get past page five if I haven't pulled them into the story and forced them to wonder or agonize about something. The hook scene doesn't have to be complicated. (First Page--First Paragraph)--Imagine average Joe Blow pulls over in a picturesque grove of trees, gets out of his car and lights up a cigarette. He's on his way to work but has a few minutes to kill. He happens to notice a church a few hundred yards away and the church parking lot is filling to capacity. The back of the church looks to be occupied with a reception area, filled with chairs, tables, colorful streamers and a small stage. But no one is out there celebrating, meaning that the festivities must still be under way inside. He crushes out his cig butt and happens to look up, being prompted by the sound of a twig snapping in the boughs of a large tree.
He sees a woman in a full wedding gown, balanced precariously on a limb high up in the tree. The woman has a terrified look on her face; she is breathing hard and sweating profusely.
You've just set the hook. You don't have to have this guy figure out exactly what she's doing up there, but we have a pretty good idea. Or do we? We won't really know until the writer let's these two exchange dialogue. But we're not going to do that either. Joe Blow has decided, against his better judgement, to help this woman out. He can sort it out later once he gets her in his car and down the road away from the church. But when it comes time for her to confess her plight, she's evasive. He ends up being late for work, has to call in sick, then gets a phone call from his fiance, wondering if they're still on for their date that night. Now we have conflict, while still nothing has been resolved. And that's what you're doing--leading the reader along, who thinks he/she is on the main storyline highway, but are actually ending up on a lot of dirt roads. I think you get what I'm trying to say. Don't be predictable. Don't underestimate your reader. Shock and surprise.
How important is the hook? It is the most important page or pages of your entire manuscript, and that includes the query and/or synopsis. You've got one chance, one pair of editor/agent eyes to entice, to compel, to convince the reader to keep turning pages. Any lull or stoppage in the text is the mark of death, and it means your bait is inadequate, it stinks of age or it's missing entirely. Does your book really start on chapter 2? Then dump chapter 1. Is Chapter 1 a slough? Then cut and burn out everything that isn't thrusting the plot forward, arousing conflict and asking new questions. Yeah, but Chris, you should read some of these dud first pages in these bestsellers; hardly grabbers. Let those brand name authors craft their books the way they see fit; they're not hurting for readership. Study some of the debut author's works and see if you can't find those subtle hooks--those attention grabbers.
In Planet Janitor, I had a one of the worst chapter openings of all time--heavy character profiles, a boring, meaningless bar scene, no action, and a blatant "By the way, Bob" dialogue sequence that was just excruciating. My publisher suggested I write an entirely new action-paced first chapter, then follow it up with a drastically cut and revised version of the original chapter 1. It was the only way to save it. You can always do a "flash-back", which is exchanging chapter 1 for 2, but this is kind of an old trick that has been used since the printed word, and should be avoided unless there's no other way around it.
SO BAIT THAT HOOK!