IF I don’t manage to write a brilliant novel, there is no telling what I might do.
Got your attention? Good, that was my aim. Have no fear, despite dwelling in my fair share of writer’s angst, I am not about to throw myself in front of a bus, I am only imparting more of what I am discovering about how to tell good stories, and, if you’re still reading, my first line seems to have snagged you.
Many years ago while at ARTTS International media college, television producer John Sichel sat and imparted some basics about writing, tips he’d picked-up working in the trenches of the BBC.
The one thing I recall vividly was John’s demonstration of what he called the ‘shit, click’ moment.
Leaning back in his chair, he mimed a remote control in one hand, turned on an imaginary television, and made us feel we were in the living room with him, about to sit down in front of the ‘next big thing’ on the box.
Only the opening scene of the program wasn’t that great, and John said “shit” as he “clicked” over to another channel.
His improvisation imagined a writer failing to engage their audience.
In storytelling parlance, the antidote to the ‘shit, click’ moment is called a narrative hook. Good use of the classic five-part dramatic structure is all very well, but whether writing a novel, a short story, a screenplay, a play, or telling a ghost story around a campfire, your story needs to avoid the ‘shit, click’ moment.
There are endless ways of writing hooks. One of the most often cited is Jane Austen’s opener for Pride and Prejudice – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
In only 23 words, Austen distills for her reader the energy behind every plot point of her best-known and best-loved novel, which continues to engage readers two centuries after its publication. Love her or hate her, Austen knew how to engage readers.
Austen does this by making an assertion which might be interpreted as both a joke and as deadly serious – she buries opposing forces deep within her hook. You might continue to read because you completely disagree with her, or because you’re nodding your head in assent.
In a screenplay, the narrative hook need not be dialogue, in fact in film and television they work far better as a purely visual moment, and can unfold across the entire opening scene.
Action movies and thrillers make great use of the narrative hook, indeed the example we were shown at college was the 1987 film Robocop (screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner), the opening scene of which shows a semi-futuristic board meeting at which a prototype robot designed to police the streets is shown to a group of unwitting execs in suits (warning: the scene contains graphic violence).
The unit is revealed as both aggressive and docile when it is ordered to be, but when the confident designer hands one of the execs a gun and asks him to wield it at the robot to demonstrate its police skills, things go horribly wrong and the exec is slain mercilessly by the prototype in moments of sheer terror.
I was instantly hooked, because I needed to know where that story went after such a scene of corporate horror.
Another excellent reason for having a great narrative hook is when submitting work for consideration. So often a publisher will want to see only the first few chapters, or an agent requests the first ten pages of a script for consideration.
If there is no narrative hook in those brief pages, the publisher or agent may not find what they are looking for, which is access to an entertained readership or audience. They need to make sales, not friends. Even if your novel or script has great material in part three of its narrative structure, they’ll probably only see your idea as a dud.
So, while “It was a dark and stormy night” might not cut it, and “once upon a time” has been done to death, writers need to seek great narrative hooks for our work.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
An extract from Write, Regardless!