The History of the Telling Hook: On Writing Science Fiction in Scene
Lately I’ve been encountering a recurring credo among fellow writing workshoppers and conductors of said workshops that goes something along the lines of “you’ve got to hook your reader in the first paragraph” of whatever it is you’re writing, hit them with the premise, the conflict, and the protagonist’s goals, or else you’re gonna lose that reader and the whole intro to your book.
I mean, the advice is valid. I don’t have any beef with the substance of what’s being advised here: give your reader something that piques her interest, as soon as possible, and usually what piques interest is a conflict or a motivation or an interesting premise. I attended a seminar recently that purported to be about upending the old adage “show, don’t tell” — a liberating three-hour session where we were shown examples of writers doing a lot of telling up front that situated the reader just as effectively as any amount of showing might. But what the seminar really was about was writing hooks without a scene — how to write a hook with purely “telling” prose rather than “showing” prose. The difference might be that you open with a few sentences that straight up declare your premise or theme, the exact nature of which the reader is going to learn over the course of the story. Here is the first sentence of A Wizard of Earthsea, a hook that “tells” rather than “shows”:
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.
The alternative to this hook would be to render a scene with a character doing something atop those mountains, with the writer carefully slipping in world-building details as the character inhabits the space.
I’d like to call this technique the “telling hook,” and its antithesis the “hook in situ,” where the story plunges the reader in media res, thereby diminishing the role of the narrator. For example, from the opening of The Dark Tower:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Both of these hooks make the reader want to keep reading. We want to keep reading in Ursula’s opening because we want to learn about this “land famous for wizards” — we’re hooked by its mysterious quality. We don’t have a protagonist yet, we don’t have a conflict, we don’t know anything about the premise other than the possibility that magic might be involved — and even that we already know, because we selected this book from the fantasy section of the bookstore and it’s called A Wizard of Earthsea. In the Dark Tower example, we similarly don’t know the premise, but we do have a conflict and we do have characters in action. What hooks us here is the momentum of the chase, rendered by the scene.
Now, these hooks don’t do all the stuff we often advise our peers to make their hooks do. We don’t have stakes yet. The premise is protected for some time — several paragraphs, a page, several pages, a chapter or two, even. The reader is not given a comfortable context in which to understand the world immediately. In fact, I find that in the vast majority of contemporary genre writing (in the novel form, and particularly in science fiction), writers have a slow rate of revelation, blending world-building factoids scene-to-scene, rather than in front-loading blobs. I think this has something to do with the general public developing a familiarity for science fiction and what it promises over the course of the twentieth century. Interestingly, the tendency to use the telling hook vs the hook in situ increases with the age of the novel. Let’s start with a few science fiction novels published prior to the 20th century.
Being about to give a narrative of my singular adventures to the world, which, I foresee, will be greatly divided about their authenticity, I will premise something of my early history, that those to whom I am not personally known, may be better able to ascertain what credit is due to the facts which rest only on my own assertion. I was born in the village of Huntingdon, on Long-Island, on the 11th day of May, 1786.
A Voyage to the Moon, George Tucker (1827)
My name is Arthur Gordon Pym. My father was a respectable trader in sea-stores at Nantucket, where I was born. My maternal grandfather was an attorney in good practice. He was fortunate in every thing, and had speculated very successfully in stocks of the Edgarton New Bank, as it was formerly called. By these and other means he had managed to lay by a tolerable sum of money. He was more attached to myself, I believe, than to any other person in the world, and I expected to inherit the most of his property at his death.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allan Poe (1838)
The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumours which agitated the maritime population and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several States on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (1870)
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.
War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1897)
These books all begin with telling hooks. They give the reader the premise, the background of the protagonist, the theme broadly, or lead with mystery. All start without a scene. This technique for opening a science fiction novel prevails throughout the early twentieth century, as science fiction begins to take form as a genre. My suspicion is that the introduction of the pulps in the thirties, with their emphasis on adventure and sensation, had something to do with de-intellectualizing the hook, which set the stage for the genre to become more accessible to the public, in the form of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and in other new media, such as the film Metropolis. This not only had an effect on the character of the stories, but on the way they were told. The Modernists transformed the genre with literary dystopia after World War I, in turn re-intellectualizing the genre, but the early 20th century scifi still relied heavily on the telling hook to open its stories. Consider the following:
Observe now your own epoch of history as it appears to the Last Men. Long before the human spirit awoke to clear cognizance of the world and itself, it sometimes stirred in its sleep, opened bewildered eyes, and slept again. One of these moments of precocious experience embraces the whole struggle of the First Men from savagery toward civilization. Within that moment, you stand almost in the very instant when the species attains its zenith. Scarcely at all beyond your own day is this early culture to be seen progressing, and already in your time the mentality of the race shows signs of decline.
The Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1935)
His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times on the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.
Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1942)
He was Ptath. Not that he thought of his name. It was simply there, a part of him, like his body and his arms and legs, like the ground over which he walked. No, that last was wrong. The ground was not of him. There was a relation, of course, but it was a little puzzling. He was Ptath, and he was walking on ground, walking to Ptath. Returning to the city of Ptath, capital of his empire of Gonwonlane after a long absence.
The Book of Ptath, A.E. van Vogt (1943)
It isn’t until we get to the Golden Age of Science Fiction — the late forties and into the sixties (when New Wave writers took the genre into the realm of literary fiction) — that the telling hook starts to be supplanted by the hook in situ.
It was a pleasure to burn it. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.
The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul’s room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.
Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Surprised — it always surprised him to find himself awake without prior notice — he rose from the bed, stood up in his multicolored pajamas, and stretched. Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes, blinked, then groaned and shut her eyes again.
“You set your Penfield too weak,” he said to her. “I’ll reset it and you’ll be awake and — ”
“Keep your hand off my settings.” Her voice held bitter sharpness. “I don’t want to be awake.”
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick (1968)
During this period we start to see hooks situated in space and time, with characters doing things and talking to other characters, before any specific context is given about the premise or the theme. Fahrenheit 451 starts in scene, books burning “with a brass nozzle” in the protagonist’s fists. A Wrinkle in Time starts with a deliberate cliche, and a very tangible storm. Despite Princess Irulan’s epigraph that precedes the opener, Dune’s first page jumps right into a scene with Paul Atreides and the gom jabbar, which focuses on the resilience of the mind with a description of physical torture. Philip K Dick’s Androids starts immediately with a conversation, in a taboo-among-writers “waking up” scene, no less!
In all of these examples, world-building is done in-scene, and there is little exposition except to render the immediate environment the reader finds herself in. The expectation of the novelist is that the genre reader is familiar enough with science fiction to understand its tropes and its conventions. The writer is withholding context not because she’s insecure about the strength of her story, or because she’s trying to build suspense, but because she’s trying to create total immersion for the reader. What is familiar to the characters is not going to be familiar to the reader, but it breaks immersion to pause and make the unfamiliar known through narration, therefore the reader must puzzle out context as scenes are rendered. Likewise, overarching themes (what the story is “about”) become emergent properties of the work; they’re never explicitly stated, they’re only ever surmised by the reader.
Novels in the subsequent decades (sixties to eighties) continued to eschew context for action, placing the reader directly into a world unknown. By the eighties and onward, the telling hook becomes a rare choice to open the science fiction novel.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.
Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The door was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
The Consul awoke with the peculiar headache, dry throat, and sense of having forgotten a thousand dreams which only periods in cryogenic fugue could bring. He blinked, sat upright on a low couch, and groggily pushed away the last sensor tapes clinging to his skin. There were two very short crew clones and one very tall, hooded Templar with him in the windowless ovoid of a room. One of the clones offered the Consul the traditional post-thraw glass of orange juice. He accepted it and drank greedily.
Hyperion Cantos, Dan Simmons (1989)
The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent. Roberta Carter sighed, and stared out the window. From the clinic, she could hardly see the beach or the ocean beyond, cloaked in low fog.
Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton (1990)
Writing of the cyberpunk era (in the late eighties and nineties) reflects its physicality, and so it only makes sense to see openings that start with the physicality of a scene over its intellectualized “telling” alternative. But once we get to scifi of the twenty-first century, the language of the hook is stripped even further bare of the ephemerality of telling. Less is more, and scene-based action drives the opener above all else:
An everyday doomsayer in sandwich board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophesy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read forget it.
Kraken, China Mieville (2010)
Freya and her father go sailing. Their new home is in an apartment building that overlooks a dock on the bay at the west end of Long Pond. The dock has a bunch of little sailboats people can take out, and an onshore wind blows hard almost every afternoon. “That must be why they call this town the Fetch,” Badim says as they walk down to take out one of these boats. “We always catch the brink of the afternoon wind over the lake.”
Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)
I bounded over the gray, dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble. Its airlock, ringed with red lights, stood distressing fly far away.
Artemis, Andy Weir (2017)
I am not on this beach. I see the waves and hear them smashing against the shore. I can even taste the salt on my lips and feel the grains of sands between my toes. I breathe in deep and for a few moments even believe that the crisp, fresh air is filling my lings. I close my eyes and tilt my head back like a sunflower to the sky, letting the sun’s heat soak into my ski and turn the darkness into the deep pink of my eyelids.
Before Mars, Emma Newman (2018)
Granted, these are just a handful of novels, picked from various top ten lists for each decade. This is not to say that there are zero examples of telling hooks in contemporary science fiction: off the top of my head, Octavia Butler comes to mind — her novels often start with a telling hook. But my point isn’t about accuracy, it’s about being cautious when it comes to adopting workshop credos, and making sure that the advice you’re given applies to your genre. What might seem like a radical move for literary fiction might come across as staid or out of fashion in contemporary science fiction.