Monday, June 28, 2010

Hook or Gimmick?

I'll be honest - the word "hook" bothers me. Sure, I understand what it means - giving your work that little "extra" punch, that unique story idea, in order to get the reader interested. It's weird, because as a reader, I appreciate a good hook. Just like anyone else, when I pick up a book and read the back cover and get interested in a unique plot, it reels me in. But for some reason, as a writer, the word "hook" puts a bad taste in my mouth. I think because it implies, on one level, a slight manipulation of your reader, whether intended or not. The writer's primary goal, with a hook, is not to write well or have strong characters, but to create instant interest - to reel the reader in. It feels a bit shallow. And beyond that, the writer is in great danger of turning the "hook" into a gimmick. On the other hand, a book without any sort of hook becomes bland.

So, how do we know the difference? And how do we avoid a hook becoming a gimmick?

For me, I like to look at already-produced works as examples. For this post, I'm going with romantic comedies because they often have strong (and sometimes outlandish) "hooks" to lure movie-goers, and most of us have seen or heard of them, so they're easier to talk about (I also realize my selections are entirely subjective -- movies that I wasn't crazy about might be your all-time favorite, or vice versa)...

HOOKS that worked (for the most part):

* The Holiday - two unlucky-in-love women, on different continents, swap houses for the holiday and find love again. (Cute, sweet, charming. Not perfect, but for me, the hook delivered).

* Letters to Juliet - engaged girl travels to Italy and discovers a letter "to Juliet" written 50 years ago, then sets out on a quest to reunite the woman with her "Romeo." (The trailer looked cheesy, and yes, parts of this movie were, but the romantic in me LOVED the idea).

* While You Were Sleeping - woman falls in love with man, who falls into coma, who has a brother, who falls in love with the woman, "while he's sleeping." (I'll admit - when I first saw this movie trailer, I thought the movie would be totally stupid. But it was so charming, so well-written, that it sucked me in, and became one of my all-time favorites).

*honorable mention goes to Return to Me (David Duchovny, Minnie Driver). The "hook" is downright ridiculous, in its over-the-top/uber-coincidental plot - man loses beloved wife; her heart ends up inside a woman who needs a transplant - who also just so "happens" to fall in love with him a year later. But - the execution of this story is nearly flawless. Witty, smart, heartfelt, charming. One of my all-time favorites.

HOOKS that turned into GIMMICKS, or just didn't work (again, just my opinion, here...).

*Sleepless in Seattle - yes, I know I'm risking blasphemy with this choice, lol - this is a HUGE classic, and I adore Meg Ryan. But - for me - the "hook" (two people "meeting" long-distance through a talk radio show) didn't work, because of the ending. We never got to SEE their relationship truly form, and I felt like the movie just began when they laid eyes on each other and walked into the elevator. It left me hungry, unsatisfied. Good hook, weak execution.

* Runaway Bride - she's a runaway bride and he's the reporter covering the story. The dream team, Gere/Roberts, couldn't save this film for me. The hook was clever, but something about the writing fell flat and felt very contrived.

*Kate and Leopold - time-travel "hook" - gorgeous Hugh Jackman, a 19th century duke, is transported to modern day and falls in love with Meg Ryan. I'm on the fence about this one - I wanted to love it - the cast is tremendous - but again, the execution fell a little flat for me.

Just in viewing those examples, I would say that authenticity and execution were what set the good apart from the bad. You can have a FANTASTIC idea for a novel, but if it's not executed well, it won't matter. If the plot doesn't flow and make good sense, or if the characters are doing things, well, out of character, then the hook doesn't matter. It becomes a gimmick.

On the other end, if the hook itself feels contrived or manipulative or totally unrealistic, it probably won't work - no matter HOW well it's executed ("Return to Me" is the exception for me). But if a hook itself feels very natural, feels somewhat plausible, then yes, I think the reader will be happy to go along with it.

What are some other examples you can think of, regarding hooks and a gimmicks? They don't have to be romantic comedies. I'd love to hear them!


  1. This is probably a bit of a stretch to your topic, but as I was musing over your challenge to consider hooks/gimmicks, a particular instance came to me.

    I read some fantasy/sci fi, but it's not my favorite genre because it seems so much of it is repetitive and predictable. You've read one, you've read them all, so to speak. However, someone turned me onto a trilogy years ago that was a typical motley group of characters on a quest. The story was not particularly original, although it was well written, but one of the characters was mysterious and fascinating.

    He is a Drow (dark) elf, a member of the most notoriously evil of all of the races within the fantasy world. The Drow are a stomach churning group. This character is also a ranger. Rangers are among the most decent, conscience driven, purest living of all of the "professions" within the fantasy world. The character was an oxy moron, a polarity so extreme you could imagine he was created by someone who casts those reality tv shows where the families swap moms.

    As such, this character could have been ridiculously trite, an in-your-face cliche of the duality of man and the contrast of good and evil. Instead, he was so well written and so interesting that fans of the trilogy literally begged for his back story. The character became the hook.

    I read an interview with the author one time where he talked about his surprise with the overwhelming response he received concerning this particular character. He was supposed to be a supporting member within the quest, and he was, but the audience universally yearned for more.

    I am curious if the backstory had been written first, and the back of the book explained that it was the story of a Drow who became a ranger, if many people would have passed it over, seeing the premise as gimmicky. I am certain I would have been one that would have put it back on the shelf for that very reason.

    As it turned out though, his backstory remains one of my favorites of all time, and is easily my favorite within its genre.

  2. Love that example - thanks for posting it! Yes, I agree, that sometimes an initial hook can certainly seem gimmicky (like you were talking about, if you'd read that particular hook first). But as long as the writing is strong, I think just about any hook could work...

    What's the name of the book/trilogy? *curious*

  3. The Dark Elf Trilogy by R. A. Salvatore

  4. Oh, I've heard of that! Thanks for the link...

  5. Very interesting post. Enjoyed reading your movie examples!