This week author Crys Cain is joined by special guest Kathrese McKee. They discuss the process that goes into creating your story’s hook and why it is so important in attracting your readers.
70 Kathrese McKee on How do you find your story’s hook?
Crys: Hello and welcome to The Author Life Podcast. I’m your host, Crys Cain with a special co-host today, Kathrese McKee. Welcome, Kathrese.
Kathrese: Hey. Thanks for having me, Crys.
Crys: So happy to have you. Kathrese is one of our three-story method editors which is how we got to know each other better, even though we’ve been in the Author Life community for a while. And she is an author, an editor, a podcaster. She writes epic adventure with a fantasy edge. And her podcast is Writing Pursuits, which we were going to share those all again at the end.
And one of your kind of specialties is, even though I know that you have edited on multiple levels, is looking at the beginning of a story and how it’s set up. Is that right?
Kathrese: That’s right. That’s actually my first service, the get to know you services of first chapter analysis. So yeah.
Crys: Excellent. So the question that we’re going to be discussing is: how can you find your story’s hook? And can you give us a setup for anyone who’s listening and doesn’t know what a story hook is? Can you tell them what a story hook is?
Kathrese: Well, a story hook is where you make a promise. You’re making a promise of conflict, answers to questions, a satisfying story. You set up your story as well. You probably introduce your main character. You definitely open up in a certain setting. And you strike a certain emotional tone by your word choices and so forth. And also, I guess the last thing I would mention is you’re meeting expectations for your genre, so they know they’re in the right place, that this is the book they were wanting to buy.
Crys: Now do you think that most authors know what their story hook is when they start to put words to the page?
Kathrese: I really don’t. I think we struggle a lot with that. What I have always said, and what I found out that works for me, is I have a standard opening sentence. “This is the first sentence, period.” And then I start telling myself a story. And I let myself off easy on the first chapter and I just continue to struggle through the story. When I get to the end, I go back to the beginning, cause aren’t we always going to do that anyway. And then that’s when I really put the pedal to the metal, if you will, and turn the screws on how to make a really great first chapter. So by the time I get to the end, maybe I can make it a circular thing where I come back and I introduce it at the beginning.
A really easy example is the Harry Potter movies, not necessarily the first chapter of the real Harry Potter book, but the Harry Potter movies, is where he starts out as a powerless orphan who lives under the stairs in his Muggle relatives home. But by the end of the series, he is arguably one of the most powerful wizards in the world, and he’s beloved by all, or at least most. so knowing what the end was, then she could set up the beginning where he was powerless.
So I think that’s what you need to do with your book is get all the way to the end and then go back to the beginning and really set it up. Because then you know what it’s going to happen, you’ve worked through all those issues, and you can make a stellar first chapter. Unless you just happened to know right off the bat what the very first line is, and it’s come to you in a flash of lightning, that’s only happened to me once.
Crys: Yeah, the flash of lightnings are nice, but definitely not to be depended on.
Crys: So when you finished a book and you’re going back to that first chapter, or you’re working with an author looking at that first chapter, do you have a process or like specific things that you’re looking at that our listeners can consider when they’re doing this process?
Kathrese: Yes, and I’m going to plug my little thing here, like promote it. I developed a first chapter rubric that I use now. And it starts out with the hook, which is super, super important and I only give an author about that first page, which is only really half a page, to get their hook in and make it solid. And they have to come in with that opening line. And it’s really good if they can introduce all five of these particular characteristics. And I’m looking for these things in the hook, and then I’ll go onto the rest of the chapter and we’ll do an overall thing that sometimes revisits those things.
So I want them to establish point of view. I want them to establish setting and a tone and mood. Set some kind of a tone, an emotional tone. And then meet some sort of a genre expectation so that the reader knows they’re in the right pace place. Because what a reader does is they look at the cover and go, oh, yeah, that looks like what I want. They look at the back cover and they read the description and then they open to the first page and they read the first page. And if it’s just not interesting, they’ll put the book back on the shelf, theoretically. If it’s an eBook, they look inside, they look at that first page too, and you don’t get much longer than that.
Same goes if they’re trying to sell it to a publisher. They’re looking for any excuse to discard that book so the hook is super important, and I only give them about that first page to do it. And then from then on, I’m looking at other things like, again, point of view. I want to make sure that they’re staying consistent and the setting is communicating a time and a place, an era, a backdrop, that sort of thing. That they’ve shown me the normal world, the before snapshot. Again, that they’re honoring their conventions and expectations. They’ve set a stake, some kind of stake is in play. Even if it’s not the final stake, it can be something tiny, but they need to have something at stake.
They need to have conflict, and if possible, a small choice. And it may seem inconsequential at the time, but the reader can know that something is going to happen. There’s going to be consequences for that. And then finally at the end, I’m looking for some sort of a cliffhanger.
Crys: Of the chapter?
Kathrese: Yes. And if it’s a scene, they need to have a cliffhanger at the end of the scene.
Crys: For anyone who’s not familiar with the term rubric, I just want to throw this definition out there or explanation before we move forward. This is something that we use a lot as three-story method editors, and it’s like a grading tool, like some of your teachers may have used this in school. But like those five things that Kathrese listed out, she’ll look at each one of those on a scale of poor to excellent, correct?
Kathrese: I used underdeveloped. But underdeveloped, fair, good, excellent. Yes. Yeah.
Try not to diss people with, oh, it was so poor.
Crys: Yeah, totally agreed. Underdeveloped cause It can be upgraded.
Kathrese: It can be improved. Absolutely.
Crys: It’s all good until that paperbacks printed. Even then we can have a little leeway.
But For each of those elements you will be told how well you match that expectation. So if it’s is your point of view clear, do we know which character we’re in? Is it consistent, you’re not switching back and forth? Is the sense of place, the setting very clear and developed? And so you’ll just be graded with notes. And this helps take a little bit of the subjectivity out of the editing process. I still think that all art is subjective, and so our editing process and our writing process are all going to be subjective to some degree. But this helps explain the why behind the comments that we as editors make.
Kathrese: Right. I feel like this is really great tool. The story rubric that J made, his scene rubric, the non-fiction one, this one, and I know there are others that are being developed. But I think it’s a great tool for self-assessment. Before you even talk to somebody, you can download these things and use them for yourself. And you’ll go, oh, The hook is original and interesting immediately, and some form of conflict is clear. And you can go into that and readers want to keep reading they are hooked, that’s a promise. You’ve made a promise.
So that’s the good column. And then the excellent column I made it ridiculously difficult. Like the hook is likely to be quoted from now on. People are going to print it on t-shirts and stuff.
Crys: In the hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.
Kathrese: Something like that, or the first line of Pride and Prejudice.
And I’ve had people stray into that excellent column and then they really know they’re onto something, but most of the time I’m looking for all good, you know, And if we can move something from fair to good or underdeveloped, I’ve even had people that the setting wasn’t immediately clear and it took three pages to figure out they were wherever they were. And I think that’s too long. You need to give people context.
Crys: Yeah. That white room syndrome. I’m guilty.
Kathrese: Unless somebody is actually kidnapped victim and they’re locked in a black closet that they don’t know where in the world they are, then that’s probably
Crys: Okay. But at least we know they’re locked in a black closet very quickly.
Kathrese: Yeah, you would think so.
Crys: So when you sit down to write, you’ve got a bucket of books and even more editing projects under your belt, do you think about this a lot as you’re starting that first chapter? I know you said you have your starter line and then you write. Or do you personally hold all of this off, as far as like evaluating, until you’ve hit the end?
Kathrese: I pretty much can’t help judging what I’m doing at the moment because the editor hat is very firmly attached to my head. It’s hard to take it off and just let things go and let the ink flow onto the page, if you will. But when I’m starting the story, the main thing I try to nail down is who is the point of view character. And I’ve seen way too many stories where it’s not immediately obvious and somewhere I’ve gotten to the middle of the book, and it’s still not obvious who the story really centers on. And I think you need to have one, or at the most maybe two, who are really the main characters or main focus of the story.
But the other thing I’m looking for is setting because setting will change your story radically. You can’t say, oh, it’s in France, without telling me when in France we’re talking about. And the when really changes everything. So if you’re in the middle of the French revolution, well, that’s one of the big determining factors of what’s going to happen in the rest of the story or what’s at stake, or whatever. So I think setting is a big part of it. And of course it has a big impact on the character as well.
Crys: For sure. So when you go to back after finishing that first draft and you now know your character fully, you really know where the story takes place cause you’ve gotten deep into the story, and when it takes place, and you’re going back to edit, how do you know that you have started the story at the right place for this character?
Kathrese: I personally prefer to have it start right before something goes wrong, where you see them and it may not be a great existence, but it’s a normal existence just for a bit, but not for that long. And then things start to roll. And going back to setting, I want them to be in something that’s representative of themselves.
So I can’t help thinking about this story that I just went through this process with. He had it open in the kitchen, and the main character was chopping beets in the galley of a spaceship. And fantastic. That was his place. He was a kitchen scrub on a spaceship and that was his normal existence. And then things started to go wrong. And it was excellent, it pulled you right in, it told you who this character was, it told you their place in the world and their struggles, without burdening it down too much. And without explaining, it just showed it. And it was very, very well done. So yeah, that’s what I’m looking for.
Crys: All right. Are there any more bits that we haven’t covered, that you had thoughts on that you wanted to add in?
Kathrese: Not really. I think that every story should begin its own way. I do think there are some things to avoid. There’s some very well hammered things that I don’t like to see in the beginning. The waking up from the nightmare, the looking at oneself in the mirror, those have been done to death. And I really think people, especially beginning authors, should avoid those things because they’re so normal and so overdone.
Crys: Yeah. I think that those particular scenes can be used well, all things can be used well, but it is unlikely to be used well at the very beginning of your story.
Kathrese: And at the very beginning of your career as well. I think that you just need to really stretch yourself to find a unique angle for that first chapter.
Crys: Yeah. Excellent. Thank you so much for having this chitchat with me.
Kathrese: Thank you so much for having me. I do appreciate it.
Crys: Can you tell everyone where they can find you on the internet?
Kathrese: You can find me at writingpursuits.com and you can find the rubric at firstchapterrubric.com. I’ve made it easy.
Crys: Excellent. I will have links to all of that in the show notes so that people can find them. My question for our listeners this week is: what is the hook for your current book that you’re writing? Please let us know.
Kathrese: Oh, that’ll be great.
Crys: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for joining us this week and every week. If you are interested in the topics that we discussed here on the podcast, then please check out www.theauthorlife.com.