On an almost daily basis, I stringently employ my 3-paragraph rule: if a book, magazine article, online article or online anything does not interest me after 3 paragraphs, it’s curtains. There must be an adequate “hook” to keep me on the line!
For an example of a hook that is not only swift and sharp, but huge, I offer the introduction to Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. I am reading the masterpiece in the French, but this hook is capable of catching the reader in any language. The author explains that several years earlier, while ferreting through Notre-Dame, he saw a single word, un mot, inscribed in stone.
This word was composed of capital (ancient) Greek letters that had been gashed into the stone of a dark hidden recess of a somber tower in the innermost portion of Notre-Dame. (Note how we are meticulously led into the deepest part of the cathedral.)
The author knows not what the word means or who inscribed these letters centuries earlier, but they strike him as lugubrious, even fatal. The man who engraved this word has been effaced. The inscription was then whitewashed and, in time, disappeared. With flawless logic and grave emotion, Hugo posits the possibility of the same fate – being erased from the earth -- for la cathédrale herself.
“C’est sur ce mot qu’on a fait ce livre.” It is on this word that this book has been built.
Of course the book will consist of two volumes. One cannot reasonably expect Victor Hugo to compose or construct less than 600 pages for a story based on a single word. And I’d eagerly awaited my first archaic French word. I came across it none too soon! Moult, which means “much,” appears on the second page of the text of the novel.
The introductory tone is somber, compelling, grand, and so intriguing that I have mentally outfitted myself to scale all of the architectural details of a tale that promises to be heart-rending. Cette logique est parfaite. This logic is perfect: The hook went straight for the heart.
I’ve been told that my expectation of a swift and sure hook is severe, but, alas! I have only so much time and energy to devote to the written word. (Music is a similar matter: if the first three lines do not get to me, it’s over: fini!)
I was not always aware of this salient quality of mine for being bottom-line. Indeed, it took the chair of the journalism department at the George Washington University to inform me of it. This man was Professor Robert C. Willson (“two l’s, one ‘s’,” he intoned in his whiskey baritone). When at the age of twenty I confided to him that I was pursuing a career in journalism to become a writer, he boomed:
“Good God! Do not do such a fool thing! It will ruin you as a writer!!”
“Really?” (I had no Plan B. At the time, I inhabited the dream-world past of the H.L. Mencken path to great writing.)
Professor Willson just stared at me. He did not often proclaim his profundities more than once. He then enumerated for me all of the ways in which a journalist is not a writer.
I did not disagree. Quite matter-of-factly, I requested a change-of-major-slip.
His round brown eyes grew wide. “You don’t have to change majors right this minute. We need young, bright, intelligent people like you in the world of journalism.”
This time I was the one who did the staring.
As we silently eyed each other, perhaps we each recalled an unforgettable lecture from this unforgettable professor: the journalist as dinosaur.
I’d found the lecture quite good. Even better was the image of the pea-brained Tyrannosaurus Rex. There was T-Rex, with his huge swollen head. The head was so over-sized because it had to accommodate the jaw – anatomy, or form, is function: Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!
Frantically, T-Rex runs, staggering in the mud, his short arms drooping, his teeny hands grasping for anything, his little brain getting smaller and smaller by the Cretaceous minute for lack of use. The image (or “visual” as the adjective is misused today) is so good that I still chuckle at it today.
With a sigh Professor Willson intoned to me, “You don’t waste any time getting to the bottom of things. That’s another reason we need you in the world of journalism.”
I smiled. Professor Willson meant “the world of investigative journalism.”
By the tender age of twenty, I’d already been through enough “shoot the messenger” scenarios to know that (a) this messenger was going to find a different means for her message; and (b) the journalistic messenger of the future would not be shot; he – or she – would be artlessly flattered; bribed with favors, proximity, and “access”; corrupted by any of several rather easy but effective methods; and wined, dined, and seduced into a sycophantic position that was far from the adversarial one of the Fourth Estate (portions of which have begun to form a Fifth Column).
The “press” was becoming “electronic news gathering” and just the mere sight of a camera into which a reporter could look and utter (pontificate) mere words (sonorities) would soon transform a once hard-working profession (long on pride, dicey on principle) into a pompous, ethically empty echo chamber of appearances, images, and spin, lots of spin.
Professor and student knew all of the dismal ways that the world of journalism was changing, even dying, as this gentleman of the press and this budding writer looked at one another. He knew that I was being smart, very smart, not to sacrifice my nascent talents to a profession that was becoming far less professional and talented each day.
In a matter of mere minutes, I filled out the form. Professor Willson scrutinized it. He’d be losing me to American Literature (which would vie with French Literature). Hastily, he signed the bottom line and handed it to me.
“It’s a damn shame. But you’ll make one hell of a writer.”
A good way to become one hell of a writer is to not waste precious time on problems, subjects, interests, and words that are not worth your time. And there is only so much time and battery energy that my laptop and I have to devote to reading. One of the cardinal rules of writing fiction is that the reader must be hooked very early in the story. The Hook comes in the form of an attention-grabbing, riveting, or otherwise undeniably irresistible series of sentences that simply must be read.
Increasingly, however, I find that the Hook is all too often turned into The Fork. “Stick a fork in him, he’s done” is the phrase applied to a pitcher and directed to the manager as he walks with slow determination from the dugout to the mound, usually with his head hung low, real low. Many online articles, reviews, and even websites of a literary nature have, unfortunately, been set loose from any rules of time, timelines, time-sensitive (anything sensitive), and timely timing. They need to be forked.
It used to be that a newspaper writer had X amount of space that he could fill, due to the demands for advertising space. If there really was news, the X became x (although the advertising space did not diminish). For the cynical among the journalists of yore (and I was one), the News is filler for the advertising.
With the advent of almost unlimited digital space, the amount of throat-clearing has become sizable, even substantial, before “we” come to the topic the writer set out to write about. There’s a ton of mucous being coughed up!
One morning, after breakfast, I engaged in some online reading about a matter a bit more weighty than shoes and quilting fabrics. This article began with a pointy enough Hook:
Examining the reasons why one side of an “issue” gets to define a faux issue and what the other side of the “issue” would say if it were not purportedly “silenced.”
The writer then went on to silence himself!
He spent no less then 2 computer screens explaining his reasons why he wanted to write about this topic; detailing how he became interested in writing about this topic; hoping that the person who first inspired the writing of this topic did not mind that he, the lowly peon scribbler of digital text, was purveying these thoughts when it was, in fact, the much-idolized August Thinker who had first mentioned the topic.
There then came the apology for stealing what by now was not much thunder from the August Thinker (who probably handed the scribbler this throw-away topic as a throw-away topic). I was by this point on page 3 of the 5-page article. Curiosity compelled me to read another few paragraphs, just to see if the “reasons” were ever presented for the snatch-and-grab of a faux issue.
Curiosity did not kill this cat. I became so utterly disgusted with the lost opportunity and my mis-allocated time (I do not believe that time is ever lost) that I clicked to another site, one that offered a massive sale on mediocre clothing. I felt not unlike the disgusted readers of a recently published novel who thought they’d purchased a book about coming-of-age, not coming-of-rage.
This writer had completely yielded time, space, energy, and who knows how many brain cells to the very subject matter that he’d stated he was going to balance with an alternate viewpoint. Hint: When you surrender space (ground) to the opposing viewpoint (side), it wins!
I do believe that the author of these thoughts wanted to succeed in his effort. I also believe that he thinks he did succeed.
This failure to rein in one’s horses of thoughts that then go stampeding all over the digital landscape is becoming more and more commonplace online. The discipline of scribblers of yore who were forced to compose below a specific word count or within a measured column size has been all too often replaced by “the electronic sky’s the limit.” The stream-of-consciousness overflows the computer screen bank!
This problem could be rectified not with that magical blue pencil that I still have in my pencil cup (I use it for marking up fabric) – but with simply getting to the point! Whenever I see such uncombed strands of sentences, I feel much like Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers – “But what is the point!” I mean, every Hook should have a point!
“The Builders” is Episode 2 of Season 1 of the incomparable BBC series, Fawlty Towers. Basil and Sybil Fawlty take a rather brief vacation during which time the incomparable hotel is undergoing renovation by O’Reilly, about whom Sybil warned, “You get what you pay for.”
Basil is discussing the work on the phone with O’Reilly who is, shall we say, not an educated chap. The one-sided phone conversation goes as follows:
Basil: “So, next week’s definite then, is it? Oh, good. Well, that’ll be nice, won’t it? I mean, we’ve waited for that wall about as long as Hadrian.”
“No, no. Hadrian. The emperor Hadrian. He had a wall . . . It doesn’t matter . . . "
Whilst reading this online article by a very witty writer of a very witty periodical, I envisioned the Hook in two forms: that of the literary fishing implement, and that of the cane whereby the performer is yanked off the stage.
The Fork I prefer to use only at mealtime.