Jack Vance, Andre Norton, and Plot Hooking

Last week, back at the Bushi homeland, Gita wrote a piece about plotting, and Jordan of Anachronistic Robot posted an essay about short story structure.

This got me thinking a little. You see, I’ve never given all that much thought to plot or story structure. I’m sure it’s important for some people, but I just like to read. And if it’s enjoyable, then it’s enjoyable.  And I like to just write. If it works, it works. I’m not one to craft and construct and ponder for months before setting pen to paper.

Something about Jordan’s post caught my eye, however: in both the 5-point and 7-point story structures, things begin with a hook.

Sure, sure – if we have a story, we want to know that it’s going somewhere. We need a draw, or a conflict. The thing is, sometimes hooks are pretty damn weak, or develop too slowly, and this can drag a story down.

Right now I’ve been reading Andre Norton’s Witch World, and I’ve gotta confess I’m a little disappointed with it so far. Now I’m thinking part of this could be an issue with poor hooking.

Right in the beginning of the story, our main character is on the run and backed into a corner. So we do have a hook. Unfortunately, our hero is magically whisked into a strange land as an escape, resolving this particular (interesting, I thought) conflict, right away in Chapter 1. The next few chapters, it doesn’t really feel like much is going on. He helps an unknown woman escape from some unknown pursuers just because he feels like it; he joins up with her faction (nation?) and a few years pass; and oh yeah, there’s this vague threat that some evil country is going to attack. But there’s not really any interesting, compelling conflict driving the story onward. It’s just kind of stalling.

When I consider the Jack Vance novels I’ve read (and this may extend to his shorts to, but we’ll leave those out for now), I think this may be another example (aside from superlative creativity and mastery of the language) of why I find his storytelling so engaging. Let’s look real quick at some of his story hooks:

Star King

The Eyes of the Overworld: The main character is tempted to rob a wealthy wizard. He tries to do so, but is caught, and then as punishment is coerced into undertaking a quest to obtain magic artifacts. He grudgingly accepts but plans revenge. Straightforward, interesting, and immediate hooking.

Cugel the Clever: Our titular main character is accidentally flung to the other side of the world and once again must make his way home to extract revenge upon wizard.

The Blue World: At first we are presented with minor hooks – main character wants to advance to master of his craft/caste, but faces political resistance; he wants to marry, but faces competition over the object of his desire. This pretty quickly flows into the overarching conflict of his society with King Kragen the menace, whom our hero wants so kill rather than placate to avoid suffering. But his people have grown too used to worshiping and feeding the King, and must be convinced.

The Demon Princes: The series starts off with a little background that introduces our hook – the main character’s home was destroyed and family killed by five criminal warlords. His life since boyhood has been dedicated to developing the skills necessary to extract revenge, and now the time has come. In each novel of the series, he targets one of his nemeses.

Trullion: Alasator 2262: The beginning is a little slow, but once we get a couple chapters in, we find that the protagonist’s father and brother have mysteriously died, and his youngest brother has sold off a piece of land that should have been inherited by our hero. He makes it his quest to somehow get back that land.

Planet of Adventure: The series starts off with an Earth ship being shot down as it examines the planet Tschai. Our hero manages to escape to the surface, but he must now survive and somehow find a way to get back home.

Vance’s hooks can be quite simple, but they’re almost always set up very early on, and they present an active course of action for the protagonist. I think this provides a good example for writers looking to hone their craft. A really interesting, engaging story is one that provides the reader with something or someone to care about and sets up an objective, a challenge, or an imminent threat fairly early on, and then keeps the plot moving. I know going forward I’ll be thinking more about quick, strong plot hooks in my stories.

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