Story, Plot, and Hook
In this chapter, I talk about the difference between story and plot and the hooks that are needed to grab readers’ attention to keep them reading the whole story.
STORY A story is merely an account of events—typically with a beginning, middle, and end—targeted at readers for their enjoyment. What makes up a story is simply the main characters and what happens to them. Think of a story as a journey for one or more characters that starts in one place and time and ends up somewhere else. For example, the story line in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter: The Sorcerer’s Stone is: Orphaned Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard and embarks upon an adventuresome journey after enrolling in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The above statement explains who the main character is and what he does—the essence of the story. The ability to write a great story is an awesome skill that involves a deep understanding of basic human emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) and what motivates people to do what they do. If you couple this with a unique situation and a main character battling against all odds to achieve his or her goal, you have the makings of a great story. So how does one go about doing this when crafting a story line? I write literary fiction, so my stories are more character oriented than plot oriented, and my protagonists’ conflicts are usually a combination of internal and external forces. I have my characters seeking something that is universally understood—acceptance, purpose, the truth. I think that pushes readers to appreciate and be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of the characters, perhaps even living vicariously through them. When people you care about are treated unjustly, you tend to care about them even more—it’s human nature—so I sometimes weave that into the story. When the character faces danger, grief, or some other adversity, readers tend to feel their pain—another good strategy to get readers interested in the story because wounded, vulnerable characters tend to reveal what is at their core, which tugs at the reader’s heartstrings. If you’re reading this book, you probably already have a story line in your head—one that will intrigue readers, entertain them, draw an emotional response from them, take them on a journey they have never experienced before. But if you don’t already have a story concept, there are ways to arouse ideas in your head. --Check out one of the many online story-idea generators. You’ll find a list of them at writerswrite.com/fiction/plot- generators/. --Let someone else’s story idea influence you. It’s not okay to steal it outright, but you can use certain aspects of other stories to shape yours into something unique. --Create a unique story from a real-life situation. --Play the “what if” game. What if an up-and-coming politician fell in love with a covert operative from another party? What if a small country was secretly planning something that would affect the rest of the world? What if someone discovered a drug that would make people more intelligent? For inspiration, here are some great story lines that are unique and have sold well, some of which have held the interest of an untold number of readers for many years: Alice in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is the story of a girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by an assortment of peculiar creatures. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the heartbreaking coming-of-age story of a reclusive young woman locals refer to as “the marsh girl,” and who is suspected of murder. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is the story of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits who attempt to overcome the dark forces of villains out to destroy a magical ring.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is the tale of a struggling young novelist with a severe case of writer’s block who learns more than she bargained for after having accepted a dubious yet generous offer from a woman working for an obscure company. Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is the story of a woman on a commuter train who witnesses something shocking in one of the backyards along the route. She reports it to authorities but gets into trouble when she decides to conduct her own amateur investigation. Anyone can write down an account of events that add up to a story, but it takes great skill to write a compelling story line—one that makes the reader think and feel, one that captivates their attention. PLOT The plot—the main events that make up the story—is important to the story in that it highlights the primary characters and their roles and connects the events in an orderly manner. “Plot is structure” seems to be a standard belief in literary circles. I’ve also heard, “Plot is the skeleton or the framework that holds the story together,” and also “Plot is the series of events that make up a story.” A compelling plot gets readers emotionally embroiled and keeps them entertained. Using the Harry Potter story line as our example, we can appreciate J. K. Rowling’s skill as a master plotter. Orphaned baby Harry Potter lives with his aunt and uncle Mr. and Mrs. Dursley and their son Dudley. When they go to the zoo one day, Harry communicates with a snake, steals it from its cage, and brings it home. Soon afterward, mysterious letters start arriving for Harry, and his uncle, who is furious about the letters, takes the whole family to a deserted island to escape all of the mail. But the letters eventually catch up with Harry, informing him that he’s a wizard and that he’s been admitted to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At Hogwarts, Harry makes many friends, and they begin taking classes in magic. During his first broom-flying lesson, Harry realizes he’s a natural at flying, and although he often breaks the rules by flying unsupervised, he is rewarded by being put on a very important position on the team. One day, while Harry and friends are hurrying to get back to the dorm, they discover a hidden part of Hogwarts where they bump into a three-headed dog that is guarding what they learn to be a magical stone that can guarantee immortality. After revealing too much about the stone to other people, Harry and his friends suspect that others are after it and try to retrieve it. In their attempt, they face horrific roadblocks including running into nemesis Voldemort. In the end, Harry defeats Voldemort and saves the stone. This plot summary reveals and connects the events within the story. While researching the basic categories of plots, I ran into quite a difference of opinion—everything from there being one basic category (the main character wants something that he or she has to work for) to 1,462 (too many to list here) categories. Then I discovered author Christopher Booker’s theory of seven basic plot types—a conclusion he arrived at after spending thirty-four years working on his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Anyone who spends thirty-four years on this topic deserves some recognition, so it’s his list I’ll use to break down the various plot choices you can make. OVERCOMING THE MONSTER: The protagonist must defeat an antagonistic force (most often a person but can be the protagonist himself via internal conflict, a social/cultural issue, or even the weather) that keeps goals out of reach. Historical examples: Dracula, The War of the Worlds, The Guns of Navarone, Star Wars. Contemporary examples: Attack on Titan, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter.
RAGS TO RICHES: The main character begins in poverty and/ or hardship and makes something of himself or herself after overcoming great odds. Historical examples: Cinderella, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Prince and the Pauper. Contemporary examples: The Servant Boy, Fortune Is a Woman, The Windfall. THE QUEST: The main character(s) sets out to acquire something important and along the way faces substantial obstacles and temptations. Historical examples: King Solomon’s Mines, Jane Eyre, Brave New World. Contemporary examples: At the Water’s Edge, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. VOYAGE AND RETURN: The main character travels to or somehow ends up in a strange land where he or she faces and overcomes daunting threats. Historical examples: Alice in Wonderland, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man, Apollo 13, Gulliver’s Travels. Contemporary examples: Maiden Voyage, Finding Nemo, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. COMEDY: The main character(s) triumphs over adversity in a humorous way that results in a happy ending. Historical examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Contemporary examples: Eleanor Oliphant, Never Have I Ever, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. TRAGEDY: The main character is brought to ruin or death by a sorrowful or terrible event that results in a fall from prosperity to disaster, often through no fault of his or her own. Historical examples: Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bonnie and Clyde. Contemporary examples: Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Ordinary Grace. REBIRTH: Important events force the main character to amend his or her ways, which results in the character becoming a better person. Historical examples: The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol. Contemporary examples: A Separate Peace, The Kite Runner, Because of Winn-Dixie. Some would argue that you can’t start writing a story without a plot in mind. Others say it’s possible to plan the ending first, and then later create the plot that leads to that ending. Still others say it’s possible to just start writing and let the plot evolve on its own. There are planners (those who prepare an outline and develop major plot points before they start writing), and there are “pantsers” (those who do no planning but write by the seat of their pants). The truth is there is no right or wrong way to develop a plot. Just remember that regardless of the method you choose, plot development is a process that occurs throughout the story, so it is important to never lose sight of it. HOOK Most people won’t spend time reading the first fifty pages of your book to get into the story, so when readers pick up your book, it has literally only seconds to impress them. One good trick is to begin the story at an important moment that makes readers desperate to know what happens next. That’s the hook. Hooks need to be crafted in a way that draws readers in, and the first one needs to appear earlier rather than later. Here is the first sentence in Lie Down with the Devil by Linda Barnes: A man with plenty of secrets, Sam won’t tell her anything, much less let her help—and she isn’t having any more luck getting info from her old friends at the Boston PD. Sam’s exile could have something to do with his mob connections, but it can’t be that simple. Nothing involving Sam ever is.
That’s a first sentence that will hook most readers to reading further. Here are some ways to create “hooky” opening sentences for your book: Curiosity A screaming comes across the sky. —Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon Contradictions It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens Ambiguity I am an invisible man. —Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison Intrigue “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smog- less Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” —Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Temperature The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations—especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight. —The Stranger by Albert Camus Sarcasm/Cynicism If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger Emotions “She left me the way people leave a hotel room. A hotel room is a place to be when you are doing something else. Of itself it is of no consequence to one’s major scheme. A hotel room is convenient. But its convenience is limited to the time you need it while you are in that particular town on that particular business; you hope it is comfortable, but prefer, rather, that it be anonymous. It is not, after all, where you live.” —The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison Shock and Awe They shoot the white girl first. —Paradise by Toni Morrison But hooks can’t stop with the first sentence—you need to intertwine them throughout the story to hold the reader’s attention. You can do this by keeping readers intrigued, guessing, shocked, bewildered, humored, scared, and/or saddened every so often. Here are some places to consider hooks.
-- Begin and end chapters with a hook. Force readers to start reading the next chapter by ending the previous one right in the middle of high drama.
-- Just when the narrative is rolling along at a gentle pace, give the reader a sense that something is “not quite right.” Make it subtle yet deeply unsettling.
-- Use foreshadowing (a subtle clue to the reader about what is going to happen in the future without completely revealing it) to give the reader a hint of what is to come later in the story.
Knowing how to craft a captivating story, properly structure the plot, and hook readers into it are key to writing successful novels.
Kantey, Jordan. Now Novel (blog): How to Plot a Novel: 7 Tips for Success. https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-plot-novel/.
Shepard, Sara. BookBub Partners Blog: How to Start Your Novel to Hook Readers. https://insights.bookbub.com/start-novel-bang- hook-readers/.
Sweetland, Robert. “Elements of Story or Fiction.” Home of Bob. (No date.) http://www.homeofbob.com/literature/genre/fiction/ ficElmnts.html.
Whitcomb, Laura. “Rescue Your Story from Plot Pitfalls.” Writer’s Digest. May 1, 2009. https://www.writersdigest.com/writing- articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/rescue-your-story- from-plot-pitfalls.