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Fishing for the Hook

By William Missouri Downs

Often you'll hear producers, agents and others whom writers must deal with asking them for more of 'a hook' to their pitches or screenplays. What exactly a hook is, is rarely spelled out; they just know they want one. It's sort of like the problem faced by the hapless writer in Albert Brooks' 'The Muse' - everyone tells him he's 'lost his edge,' but he can't for the life of him figure out what that means. But spelled out or not, the term 'The Hook' is becoming inescapable, like 'Character Arc' or 'Plot Point' or 'High Concept,' so we've decided to take a look and see if we can't come up with a handle for it. Or, at least a good pole.

Like 'High Concept,' 'The Hook' is sometimes reduced to something like this: a quickly understood premise that snags the reader/viewer's interest. But that's not really very helpful. We hope all our screenplays have that. Most don't. Sometimes it trades places with another piece of jargon, the 'Inciting Incident.' But what if your inciting incident doesn't provide the kind of irresistible zinger your agent is begging for? How do you get there?

One way to look at 'The Hook' is as a paradox, surprise or reversal of expectations in the set - up that puts the story in motion and generates the basic conflict, fun and interest in your premise. This discrepancy, contrast, or dissimilarity can be either internal to the character, external, or both. If internal, it happens because the character has a conflicted relationship with himself, which affects his or her good judgment, and becomes a character flaw to be overcome. Most good characters have flaws because they've got a past that colors their assumptions and are mired in a limited view of life and themselves. This results in a vice, frailty or in misperceptions that trip the characters and prevent them from achieving their goals. Most movies are about characters with limited self - awareness. Why? Because the same is true in life; we become involved in their struggles and successes because they mirror our own or reflect our own hopes or fears or fantasies.

Characters without internal conflicts - with the exception of secondary characters and 'traveling angels' such as the good - guy protagonists in westerns and war movies - are often either miserably boring or impossibly complete, emotionally healthy beings. Most movies are about imperfect people who often stand in their own way, their own flaws at least partially preventing them from getting what they want or need.

How does this factor into 'The Hook?' Take the recent hit, 'What Women Want.' It's about a talented, but egotistical and emotionally tone - deaf, womanizer who finds he can actually hear what women think, and in the process of being forced to listen to them, he becomes a better man. This is essentially a new take on the hook of another enormously successful movie, 'Tootsie,' in which a talented but egotistical man does the same thing by actually disguising himself as a woman. In 'Shakespeare In Love,' the hook/surprise is that we meet the world's greatest playwright suffering from writer's block: instead of the balding sage we've come to expect, he's shown to us as a callow young man, who is only able to write as he himself grows and discovers what love means.

A hook can be created by putting two characters who are diametrically opposed into a forced relationship: in 'The Odd Couple,' the world's prissiest man is forced to live with the world's sloppiest bachelor. Each is forced to deal with his own demons, as well as those of his partner. In 'Lethal Weapon,' the archetypal 'mismatched buddy' movie, Danny Glover's character is a family man who loves life, while his partner (Mel Gibson) is a widowed cop with a death wish. The result of this clash of opposites is usually reconciliation and self - discovery: we're not who we thought we were; we don't need what we thought we'd need; we don't love who we thought we loved; we love who we thought we hated; we think we need outside help when we need inner confidence, etc.

Externally, the conflict should also relate to the situation the character finds him or herself in. Fittingly enough, 'The Hook' is most apparent in one of the most common story constructs: the 'fish out of water.' A character is put into a situation that is diametrically opposed to what he or she is familiar with, and if the contrast and potential for conflict is either funny, frightening or intriguing enough, you have your hook. You could take your character to a different place: 'Coming To America,' for instance, where an African prince must adjust to New York City. But you don't have to. The flawed protagonist of 'Liar, Liar' is a lawyer/liar who is forced to tell the truth for a whole day. In this case he's a fish out of water not because he's in a different place physically, but because he must act differently within that place - the familiar becomes unfamiliar either way.

Let's take a look at some other examples. The recent kid's movie 'See Spot Run' has a strong hook: an orphaned mailman who obviously hates dogs gets stuck babysitting the child of the woman he adores, as well as an FBI dog that's been targeted for a hit by the mob. He's faced with the two things he's least equipped to handle - parenthood and dog ownership - with the added complication that the Mafia is now after him. 'Big Daddy' has a similar premise: a clueless, boorish bachelor adopts a kid in order to prove his decency and win the woman of his dreams. In 'Billy Elliot,' a boy discovers the joy of ballet dancing - but he is stuck in a factory town where everyone thinks it's foolish and only for girls. The upcoming movie 'The Courier' is about a courier, who specializes in delivering packages to people who don't want to be found.

So maybe we can say that a big part of 'The Hook' involves the clash of opposites, where something familiar is faced with the unfamiliar, turned against its normal identity and therefore made fresh and interesting. The trick is to find exactly the right character and exactly the right contradiction, surprise situation or reversal for that character.

One problem is that if you reveal such a contradiction too late in the story, and by late we mean page 10, you'll risk losing the reader. You want to place the contradiction - the hook - quickly to win empathy for the main character, and get the story rolling because it makes the audience or reader ask the dramatic question, 'how the hell is this protagonist going to get from 'A' to 'C' when he doesn't have 'B?' For example, how will Rocky ever beat Apollo Creed if he's such a loser that his own coach kicks him out of his locker at the gym? By setting it up in the first few pages the screenwriter gives the story an early point of attack. The point of attack is the moment in which the central conflict appears and the primary action of the story clearly declares itself. Some formulas stress that the point of attack should fall about 10% of the way into a screenplay - this is called the 10% rule. But even 10% in is getting in late. Clearly posing a unique contradiction or dislocation that is rich with possibilities within the first few pages will make readers sit up, take notice and ask questions that will compel them to read on in order to find answers.

We want to be clear about one thing: some of the best movies ever made have no hook: 'American Beauty,' 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' 'Children of Paradise,' 'Braveheart' and 'Fanny And Alexander' are all hookless classics. And the hook has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or even of the movie. Scripts or movies can be terrible and still succeed at the box office if their hook is strong enough; they seem almost impervious to execution or the vagaries of casting, direction, script notes, etc. That's why agents and producers are desperate for them. They 'sell themselves.' Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to come up with the hook, and then write the story around it with all the genuine humanity and freedom from cliché that you can muster. Then, you might just have a good sale and a good movie to boot.

Meet the Author: William Missouri Downs