The hook

The late DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz was a master of using the cover of a comic book as a hook.

Back when readers were assumed to be kids randomly picking from dozens of comics on a newsstand, a cover could make all the difference whether they picked Strange Adventures or Our Army at War. A lot of times, Schwartz would come up with a cover first, then work out a related story with the writer that somehow included the image.
The trouble is, sometimes the two didn’t synch up.
Take Justice League of America #28, for instance. The image of the JLA protesting is certainly striking … but it’s inclusion in the story makes no sense. The story concerns Headmastermind’s discovery of a way to tap super-heroic energy and turn it against the users so that their powers go haywire. After the League almost causes a major disaster (averted by Batman and Green Arrow, the non-super members), the UN forbids them from using their powers, leaving (the villain assumes) a free hand for his super-henchmen to loot and steal.
Even given the circumstances, the JLA was hardly going to protest a legal ruling—so Headmastermind reveals his machine can also control minds and uses it to make them protest. Why? It’s on the cover.
While the story is otherwise fun, a fake hook is a bad flaw. It’s a cheat. If you’re going to present something as the core of the story, it shouldn’t be shoehorned in (just as the arc of a book should tie in to the beginning).
The same is true in our own writing, I think. A dramatic opening that has nothing to do with the rest of the story may grip the reader, but when it sinks in how unrelated it is—well, I’ve had that happen, and I feel cheated. It’s like using the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, then the movie turns out be a serious character study of Indy as a teacher, a la Wonder Boys.
Case in point: The opening of the Martin Sheen film The Believers has a startling scene where his wife gets electrocuted. Then we follow him picking up his life with his young son, while coping with a murderous Santeria cult that wants to sacrifice the boy (the anti-voudou stereotypes are strong here). After about 30 minutes, I realize that the opening scenes have nothing to do with the main plot; they do figure into Sheen’s character arc, but a simple “my wife died” would have done as well. It adds nothing, accomplishes nothing. It wastes space, like a bad establishing shot.
A great hook, like a great opening, is a gift. But not if it doesn’t have a strong line tying it back to the rest of the story.

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One response to “The hook

  1. Pingback: Comic books! (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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