Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tolkien: Where's The Hook In Lord Of The Rings?

I write this partly in argument with regards to the standard formula that many people tell you must be done to write a good book.  In particular, there is always in one writing group I try to get to as often as possible, when the question is always asked, "Where's the hook?"

Depending on what writing school of thought you come from, the narrative hook is among the top things that perceived important to get to in the writing of a book. First or second to that is the initial exposition. Some also seem to confuse or infuse the two.  But the main aspect of the narrative hook is something that sets up the main conflict of a story. It's supposed to be the crucial purpose that gives the reader a legitimate emotional reason to continue reading. This hook can be a paragraph long, or simply a sentence in length.  It is expected to, come some time withing the first chapter, and some debate that it should be the first sentence.

So let's look at Tolkien's first line of chapter 1 of The Fellowship Of The Ring:

"When Mr. Bildo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement  in Hobbiton."

Is this a hook?  No, though it is a bit of exposition in a rather run on sort of sentence.  Some would even call it passive, and it is highly descriptive.  It sets up the scene for what much of the chapter is to be about, which is the party that Bilbo Baggins is about to throw.  But it certainly does not hook a reader into any conflict  per se.  Nor do I know what legitimat emotion reason is had there for continuing to read on other than the curiosity of what this party will be like, and what may happen at it.  

The next paragraph continues in exposition of who Bilbo Baggins is, and what is the nature of his place in the society of the hobbits.  By the fourth paragraph, we are introduced to Frodo and his relation to Bilbo. The fifth paragraph furthers exposition by giving some relevance to Bilbo's age of 111 and Frodo's at 33.  It isn't until the last page and a half that you get to something of a hook. That is, the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo about the ring and Frodo's desire to go off on his own adventure.  This hook isn't neatly packaged in a single sentence or paragraph, but flows out as the events to lead on to what's to come. But a concise hook, it is not.

However, do readers of The Lord Of The Rings even care about this?  No. Why? Because the book isn't driven by the same sort of cookie cutter character progression that more modern writing has made essentially standard.  The idea is not to limit the story to the formula, but to drive it with descriptive scenic writing that give a reader the sense of 'being there' - that is, to be immersive into the world, and not getting so engrossed into the characters and the icon of persona.  Naturally, people will gravitate towards Frodo's main story as the main protagonist, but, there is also intrigue in the other characters, races, and their homes and how they live that go beyond the cult of personality that is so ingrained in our modern authorship.  

Formula should help set up the road, not drive in the roadblocks to a story.  Tolkien is a great example of how you can use formula, but also follow in the instinct of storytelling as well. 

That's not to say that the whole putting of exposition and hook in same first sentence ought never be done and doesn't work.  It has for thousands of years, such as in the Illiad's  first two verses:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε

Which transliterates:

menin aeide thea Peleiadeo Achileos
oulomenen, he mnoi Achaiois alege etheke

Which translates:

Wrath, chant goddess, of Peleian-son Achilles, 
accursed of countless Achaeans' suffering sown.  

Just remember that you don't have to go straight to action and talking about tragedy, killing, and death to attract the reader's attention.  And sometimes subtleties work better than a direct approach.

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