Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Finding the “Hook”

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 11

In most forms of storytelling, from novels and short stories to television programs and movies, creators constantly search for the right hook to hang their story on. We all want to find the perfect, innovative element that will make our manuscripts stand out from the crowd, attract attention from readers (and, often more importantly, editors or agents), and give our stories a unique perspective that sets them apart from every other variation on a theme ever written. 

Take the fascinating Netflix series, Russian Doll, which premiered in early 2019. The hook in this "Groundhog Day" story is that the main character's time loop always occurs at the moment of her death. This not only gives her ample reason to break the loop, but provides for some incredibly dramatic character moments. This same idea is utilized in the 2020 Oscar-winning short, Two Distant Strangers, with the hook that the main character (a black man just trying to get home to his dog) dies at the hands of police every time, making it a powerful statement on policing and race relations today. Seriously, watch this short movie. It is important and moving.

The Need for Hooks

For many writers, hooks are a way to characterize their story when describing it to an interested party (another author, a reader, an editor or agent or, if they are lucky, a Hollywood producer). It's that piece of the story you insert into your "elevator pitch" to differentiate it from another story the person may be more familiar with. For example, my first novel, Judgment, is Apocalypse Now, but set on Dominaria (one of the worlds of Magic: The Gathering) with a barbarian mage named Kamal standing in for Martin Sheen's weathered military officer forced to travel into the jungle to face his destiny.

I would argue, however, that a more important facet of the hook is that it helps authors find the spark in their own stories. Like most authors, I have plenty of story ideas, but I often find I don't pursue any particular story until I find the hook that draws ME into writing it. I think I speak for most writers when I say that I don't want to just write the same story everyone else is writing. And I don't want to write the same story I've written before. To get me interested in spending time writing a story, there has to be something in there that sets it apart, something that intrigues me, something that gets my blood pumping with excitement.

This thought occurred to me while I was preparing to cook dinner last week. As I have mentioned in this space before, I often look for some piece (often a side dish) to hang an entire meal upon. Sure, I have prepared lots of meals that were nearly identical to every other version of the same meal. I mean, taco salad is always going to be taco salad (although even my staple meals have evolved and become more complex over time). But, sometimes I want to be inspired and I flail for ideas for a meal until I find that one piece that pulls it all together.

This night, last week, I was planning to make pork chops, which I have cooked a thousand times. I was less than enthused about the prospect, but also had very little energy (or time) to find a new recipe and try something completely different. That's when I remembered I had picked up some fun, take-and-bake garlic rolls from the store that morning. I pulled those out and added them to some other staple side dishes and suddenly (for me anyway) that meal transformed into something new and fun and creative. I had my inspiration, which drove me forward into meal prep.

I realized at that point that I do the same thing with my writing. Sometimes, I am not inspired and the writing feels labored. But when I have the hook in place, it pulls me through the writing and it almost feels like I can't stop until the entire story is down on paper. This happened to me recently when I wrote a 9,000-word short story in four days. It's an adventure story about a small group of aliens working behind enemy lines to pull off a caper. 

The original idea came to me when I began thinking about how cool it would be to take the concept of Hogan's Heroes and set it in space in the far future. Now, the story evolved from there and bears little resemblance to that 1960s sitcom, but that hook got me so excited, the story practically gushed out of me.

This is what a good hook does for a writer. Hooks inspire us to write just as much as they inspire readers to read and viewers to watch.So, the question becomes, where do you find the right hooks for your own writing (or for your meal prep if that's more your thing).

Searching for Hooks

Hooks, like ideas, can come from  anywhere. But like ideas, just about every hook has already been used by someone somewhere in some story. We are all just writing variations on the same old tales about love and hate, life and death, friendship and betrayal, growth and decay. The trick is to find a unique angle — perhaps something from  your own experiences — that provides a fresh take on an old story. Here are a few ways to help jump-start that process.

Thematic Juxtaposition. I touched on this in the preceding paragraph. What is the theme of your story? Is it all about living a good life? Then perhaps adding a hook related to death will spark ideas for the story. Perhaps the death of a loved one or a cherished pet (or even just a random death reported in the news) is enough to make your character re-evaluate her life well lived. Blade Runner is a story about a human detective sent to take down killer replicants, but those same replicants know more about living than the dead-inside human sent to kill them. Thematic juxtaposition can turn your story on its head and make it memorable.

Variation on a Theme. You don't always have to turn your story upside-down to make it memorable, however. Varying a single piece of your story from a tried-and-true plot can make it stand out from the rest of the crowd in that particular trope. For example, I recently wrote a story about the Norse god Baldur for the Turning the Tied anthology that I wanted to feel like an actual legend straight out of the Norse myths. The plot of the story was a simple hero's journey akin to Prometheus bringing fire to man. The variation I added was that the entire journey was a trick by Loki to try to trip up Baldur. This took this simple story idea and twisted it to the side a little and added an edge to it.

Random Research (Rabbit Holing). I often start out my search for a new idea with online research into the subject I want to write about. For example, when coming up with the proposal for my Kolchak novel, Strangled by Death, I spent days researching supernatural legends, looking for some monster that hadn't been used over and over in popular media. I eventually happened on stories about "Hands of Death," which were, according to the stories, used by thieves to put entire households to sleep so they could rob them. Before I got there, however, I had gone deep down many Wikipedia rabbit holes. 

What I love about this method is that it allows your brain to lead you to places you might not have gone before. One link leads to many others. You follow one over another because it appears more interesting, which then leads you further down the rabbit hole into more and more things that jump out at you for whatever reason your brain find them interesting. It's like a spark generator that just keeps firing until you have immersed yourself in a series of hooks that are making the synapses in your brain fire like a gatling gun. That's when you know you're hooked on the idea you've found at the bottom of that hole.

Bypass the Easy Answer 

Obviously, there are other ways to find your hook. Things like listing random ideas on a board and then grouping them together thematically, studying an image and visually identifying relationships between them and your problem (VIR). Honestly, any good brainstorming process will help you find that piece of inspiration you need to raise your story idea up a notch. Google, VIR, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and SCAMPER (substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to other use, eliminate, rearrange) for other interesting techniques.

But, before I am done today, let me just talk a little about rejecting the first and easy ideas that pop into your head. This is just good advice for many aspects of writing. In fact, it is one of the best (and oldest) pieces of advice I was ever given about writing. 

When you are contemplating your hook (or some obstacle in front of your characters or a plot twist or a character growth moment), it is almost always a bad idea to go with the very first idea that pops into your head. Why is this? Because that first idea is invariably the easy answer. It is also the idea that every other author will think of first (or has thought of before many times) as well. It will almost invariably lack originality.

So, dig deeper. Go past that first idea and find one that will challenge you (or your character). Find one that will change your story in ways you can't even imagine, which will make the writing fresh as you try to keep up and get ahead of the mess your new idea makes of your plot line. It's amazing where rejecting the easy answer can take you.

In Soulless Fury, my most recent Necromunda novel, both main characters (who are adversaries) have incredibly powerful pet companions that just made every fight easier for them. At one point, I realized I needed to remove the pets from the story to make life harder for the characters. 

That change colored much of the rest of the book because both characters had to deal with those loses in their own ways, which forced them to grow and gave them some common ground when they eventually were forced to team up. This really helped turn what was a simple chase plot into a story about loss and growth and change. It helped me dig deeper into the story of two powerful and complicated women trying to find their way in (very male dominated) brutal world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Art of the Appetizer

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 10

This week, I want to write about small plates and short stories. Both serve similar audience niches in their respective settings. Small plates (or appetizers in most American restaurants) give you a taste of a particular dish or meal without filling you up. They also can provide a wonderful complement to the subsequent main dish. Likewise, good short stories give readers everything a novel provides — plots, perhaps a subplot or two, character growth, and a satisfying or thought-provoking conclusion.

Another similarity small plates and short stories share is that my skill in both suffers from an aggravatingly similar issue: I try to put too much into them, which makes them just a bit messier than I'd like.

A good appetizer is packed with flavor from some non-singular number of different elements but is bite-sized so all that flavor explodes in your mouth at once. Bacon-wrapped prawns and crab-stuffed mushrooms are good examples. For fancier gatherings, spring and summer rolls filled with all sorts of meats and herbs and mini tostadas topped with cheese and fruit or seasoned meats are wonderful and can literally explode in your mouth when done right. 

A good short story can weave an intricate tale with fully-developed characters that transports you to another world in just a few thousand words and makes you feel deep emotions when those characters ultimately succeed or fail. One of my favorite short stories of all time was 

Where I Go Wrong

I believe the problem I have with both small plates and short stories stems from how I learned to cook and to write. I started cooking on a regular basis when I became a stay-at-home dad and freelance writer. At the time, I was cooking for a family of five with three growing, school-age children. I cooked large, easy (often ready-to-make) meals at first, which eventually transformed into large, slightly more complicated (more often from scratch) meals as I became more skilled in my cooking. 

The common element in all of the meals I have made in the past 20 years was that they were large. I am well-known within our family for loading the table down with too much food, and not just on Thanksgiving day. Likewise, when I started writing fiction, early in my writing career, I was tasked with writing novels. Sure, I sought out and wrote short stories at the same time, but it was the novels that really sparked my interest.

A typical novel runs anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 words. I have written shorter novels (sometimes called novellas, but not always), and big-name authors have written numerous 300,000-word novels. The point here is that novels are large. The typical short story you find in magazines or anthologies, on the other hand, run between 3,000 and 7,000 words. I've seen great 1,500 word short stories and there is a category of shorts called "Flash Fiction" that run no more than about 500 words.

My short stories probably average somewhere around 9,000 words. The reason, I have often thought, is that I write short stories like I write novels. In a novel, you have time to explore the setting and the minor characters, and space to allow the plot to meander a bit as it works its way through the 3-act structure toward the culmination of the final conflict.

Short stories, like small plates, require the author/chef to be frugal with their elements/ingredients and maximize the impact from every piece added to the mix. A good hors d'oeuvre has a small piece of meat and/or cheese topped with a sprinkling of fresh herbs or a dollop of seasoned stuffing spooned into a perfectly cooked mushroom cap topped with a few shred of melted cheese.

I tend to be more of a dumper when I cook. I keep adding crab flakes or crumbled bacon to my stuffing mixture until I have too much to comfortably stuff into the available mushrooms. I cut my slices of meat or fish too large because I worry there won't be enough there to bring out the flavors. I over-stuff and I overfeed, again most likely because I am used to making large meals instead of small plate. I have never mastered the art of getting big flavor from finely-balanced combinations of smaller portions. 

Build Smaller or Cut Back

I long ago accepted my shortcomings with short stories and small plates and have a developed a few tricks to help me deal with my tendency to  cook and write big. For my small plates, I have learned to make my dollops smaller. I use a melon-baller or a small spoon to fill my mushrooms. I try to worry less about what to do with extra filling or meat and either put it away for another time or find some other small plate where I can incorporate the extras.

When it comes to short stories, I have a different tactic. Instead of forcing myself to write small, I allow my expansive nature to control the first draft. But, when I go back through that initial first draft, I try to trim a good ten percent of my words. I seek out overly complex passages and tighten the prose. I look for spots where the plot has gotten a little out of hand and see if I can get those plot points across in less space (or drop them entirely if they are not adding to the flavor of the whole). If I have two or three sentences of description, I cut back to just the best bits of all of them. 

When I am writing a first draft, I try to keep my scenes short so the story moves along more quickly. Where I like to write 1,000- or 1,500-word scenes in a novel, I try for 500 words max in a short story. This helps constrain my wordiness and give me enough scenes to fit in all the plot. 

The one piece I can still do better on is to not try to pack quite so much plot into my short stories. In my two most recent short stories (one in the Turning the Tied anthology and another that will appear in a Renegade Legion digital anthology from Budgie Smuggler games), I definitely created plots that were too intricate and expansive for the story-size requested. Even after trimming and tightening, both of these stories ran a bit long.

Don't get me wrong. I am proud of both of these stories. I think they are well-paced well and believe they read as easily and quickly as shorter efforts from other authors. I just have never mastered the skill of telling a deep, compelling story in a small space and maybe that's okay. I happen to like a little more meat in my meals and my stories.