We’ve spoken about mystery boxes before, and I promised to do a segment on them. I would just like to tell you, this isn’t it. Right now, we’re talking about narrative hooks. Narrative hooks are a form of mystery box that helps to keep your audiences attention. It can be anything from an unanswered question, to an unfulfilled promise. It’s simply an element of the story that the audience has to “wait to see” happen. It’s an expectation, and that expectation helps them hold on even when the story is dragging.
The best place to put a narrative hook is in the beginning, when you’re first trying to grab your audiences attention and near the middle, when your audience is most likely to be losing interest.
WritingHood gives a fantastic example of one way of using narrative hooks to improve your story,
The first concept that you must understand is the difference between the story that you tell yourself and the story that you tell the reader. Here is an example. I will now tell you a story idea in chronological (time-line) order:
- John is born into an upper-middle class family
- He has a successful school career and goes to college to become a doctor
- He meets his dream girl, starts a medical practice and buys a home
- He loses his medical license to a malpractice suit
- He finds out that his considerable nest-egg has evaporated, a victim of bad investing
- He loses all of the luxury items that he bought when the money was rolling in
- Finally he loses his house to foreclosure and moves into a seedy motel with his wife and child, totally shamed
- He hits rock bottom, losing everything. Even his wife is threatening to leave him.
- Thorough work and perseverance he begins a business
- He struggles and fights his way back into prosperity and has a happy ending
Now, when I begin to write this story, where should I begin? Many writers want to start telling the story “at the beginning,” which seems logical enough. In most cases, this is a mistake. Being as a story needs a narrative hook, we must put the most interesting part of the action first. In this example, I would open Chapter 1 with John and his wife being evicted from their dream home.
A mean, hulking cop is standing by, making John feel like a criminal. His 4 year old son is asking Daddy why they have to go away. His wife is in tears. He barely feels like a man as he stows their meager possessions into a second-hand station wagon to take to some seedy motel on the outskirts of town. He is totally disgraced, stressed, reeling from pillar to post trying to deal with this blow. If I succeed as a writer you will finish Chapter 1 feeling sympathy for John and his family, wondering how they ended up in this mess and hoping that they’ll find a way out.
Take another example, this is a clip from the season finale promo of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. In it we see the cast discuss, well, we’re not entirely sure yet but by the end of it we’re certainly wondering what they seem so concerned about. This wondering, Fox hopes, will get us to watch the full episode to find out the answers.