Hook isn’t just a pirate in a book who is continually pursued by a giant crocodile that has already taken his hand. He’s character with heaps of symbolic meaning. He’s past his prime. He’s already had a brush with death, and his resentment is focused on a character who represents eternal youthful life. He hates the boy who never ages and fears the monster with a clock in its belly, that is a continual reminder of his inescapable death. He’s not just reminded of it. He’s consumed by it. It’s that fear that drives his resentment and that resentment pushes him to not only flee a monster, but become one.
But a hook is also a narrative device. It’s this thing that grabs the attention of the reader or audience and lets you know, that the story you’re starting is going to be worth your time. It presents a question that creates a curiosity for the audience. And unresolved curiosity creates suspense and leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next? How is this protagonist going to make his way through whatever it is? And ultimately, how will this story end? The only way to find out is to forge ahead.
It’s the opening scene to the Batman movie, The Dark Knight, where a team of villains, wearing clown masks, rob a bank. The camera cuts to each of them in their own particular jobs, discussing their mysterious boss called The Joker. In just a few minutes the director establishes the tone of the movie and the brilliance and cunning of the lead villain. The audience is hooked. There are so many questions that need to be answered.
It’s the monologue at the beginning of American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey’s character opens up the film with the following line, “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I’m dead already.”
But, for a hook to work, the author of the story has to create something that isn’t predictable. The audience needs to seriously wonder how whatever impossible scenario has been created, can possibly resolve. You can’t keep your audience engaged if you give them too much information. You keep them engaged by withholding details and letting them search for the answers.
So the single most important thing that a good story cannot be is predictable.
Nobody wants to read that story. And truth be told, not too many people want to live it either.
Perhaps one of the reasons human beings are so connected to stories is that the same elements that make a good story also are the same elements that make a good life. This is why it is so important to consume good stories and tell good stories. They’re more than entertainment, they’re sea charts to cross oceans into unknown places. They’re roadmaps to life. This is why certain stories hang with us and some fade away. The really good ones imprint themselves on us because something in our soul is telling us that it’s worth remembering because that story is going to help us understand something about life.
You can tell a lot about a culture from the stories it tells. You can tell what it values and you can tell what it fears. Stories tell us what should be praised and what should be feared. It’s no coincidence that the Godzilla films came out of Japan after World War 2. Stories about monsters, fueled by atomic radiation, that were capable of immense destruction. We should probably ask ourselves why those types of movies are coming into vogue again? It’s also been in the past decade that zombie movies made the shift from creatures rising from the grave to creatures created after being infected by some virus or some pharmaceutical drug gone wrong. These are stories of unintended consequences of someone playing god.
But stories don’t simply tell us what to run from, they tell us what to pursue. They give form to abstract values. They don’t just tell us what a virtue is, they show us. They give shape to archetypes. They show us how a good man or woman behaves. They show us how those characters move through their world. But, they also show us how fools and villains move as well.
One of the books that used to be required reading for my graduate classes was Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Though I taught journalism and not filmmaking, that book has much to offer. Good journalists tell stories that reflect the state of humanity. And in non-fiction, just as in fiction, the same rules to a good story apply. To quote McKee, “Good story’ means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task…But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.”
So I guess we need to spend a little more time with Mr. McKee and find out what it takes to create a good story and ultimately a better boat.