How To Hook 'Em In The First Graf
[Another entry in the on-going blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]
By Ethan Gilsdorf
Here in the mysterious Non-Fiction Career Lab, located on a secret floating island in Boston Harbor, where we are hatching story ideas and essays, articles and op-eds, book proposals and pitch letters, we have become adept at one thing: hooking the reader.
We talk about this all the time. Editors or agents will give you two minutes of their time. They are in the mood to say "No." Your job? Get them to say "Yes." Or, at least, "Hmmmm ... Interesting." [Head scratch.] "Maybe."
You want them to read that first "graf" (what we in the journalism biz use as shorthand for "paragraph") and then read further. You want to entice them. Seduce them. Get them to wonder, what is going to happen next? Will the question get answered? Will the protagonist, or the character, get from A to B?
Otherwise, Agent X and Editor Y think to themselves, "What's the big whoop? I'm bored. Nothing is at stake. The writer is not writing about anything of interest."
What I'm talking about is the "hook." (Sometimes we call this the "lede," or "lead paragraph," another weird example of our journalism-ese.) This could be connected to something in the news, or just an incredibly compelling question. Strategies include dropping the reader into a scene, or making a bold statement, or beginning with a line of dialogue, or teasing the reader with a flash forward, or dropping some bomb.
We say these are non-fiction techniques, but the truth is, we've mostly stolen them wholesale from fiction writers. Then we use them in our queries letters and manuscripts. And then we get your attention, dear sweet reader. (We hope.)
So next time you are crafting a pitch letter, or the first graf of a short story or essay, think about the hook. Use some of these techniques. And good luck. I hope you catch something.
Use a newsy hook
Earlier this week, the F.B.I. announced that it had identified the two men who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990, in the biggest art theft in American history.
Drop us in a scene or drama
In April 2012, on a US Airways flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix, a passenger suddenly charged down the aisle and tried to ram the drink cart into a flight attendant, all the while screaming threats against the lives of everyone on board. He was subdued with the help of passengers, several of whom had to sit on him for the duration of the flight. He was arrested upon landing.
Tell an anecdote
This is what I know. When I was 16, after most everybody had left a big, alcohol-fueled party in a hotel suite, I passed out drunk. Then, a star football player at my Memphis high school picked me up off the floor, carried me to the bed and raped me. His girlfriend and one other male classmate were also in the room at the time. They did not stop him.
College admissions officers around the country will be reading my applications this month, essays in which I describe personal aspirations, academic goals -- even, in one case, a budding passion for the sitar. What they won't know is that I actually graduated from college more than a year ago, and that the names attached to these essays are those of my duplicitous clients.
Offer a twist
For over a week Guatemala has been consumed with the court proceedings against Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the country in the early 1980s, on charges of genocide. But he isn't the only one on trial.
Reference popular culture or trend
We all agree 2012 was a disaster for the Red Sox. Finishing with a 69--93 record, our beloved stocking-footed anti-heroes suffered their first losing season since 1997 and ended up in last place in the American League East. The team came apart at the seams.
Turn conventional wisdom its head
Odd as it may sound, American trophy hunters play a critical role in protecting wildlife in Tanzania.
Pose a question
Can you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn't notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?
Use an anniversary
Fifty years after the Supreme Court banned school segregation, the battle over the racial composition of America' s schools continues in courtrooms across the country.
Cite a major new study
According to a new nation-wide poll, 60% of women have cheated on their husbands at least once.
[Note: some categories and examples used or adapted from The Op-Ed Project]
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf