WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: No Hooks

Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 4,000 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

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AnatomyofafishhookHooks aren’t for fishing.

Hooks are for catching.

Catching, then holding.

In our case, holding the attention of a reader.

A hook is that line and or description that compels the reader’s immersion into each scene with rapt attention and heightened anticipation.

No Hook?

No Catch.

No Interest. Period. Full Stop. End of story… for the writer.

What is a hook in the literary sense, more specifically in the visual sense?

A hook is a contract with a reader that promises a great story will evolve. For a writer’s purpose, a hook is that memorable line or “visual expression” that captivates the reader, then pays off in focus and concentration not only on the first page, but in each scene all the way to fade out.

Let’s review some misconceptions about HOOKS.

First: A successful hook is a marketing gimmick or a tag line or a publicist’s one-sheet. This is a common misconception among many novice writers in all media and genre. A hook does not sell anything. Its purpose is to involve then hold the audience. Memorable film lines are not hooks. Think “I’ll be back” from The Terminator or “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Casablanca. They are memorable film lines. For examples of opening then evolving hooks, review the opening scenes from Chinatown and Die Hard. Notice how you are drawn into the narrative by each character’s behavior. Then observe how that behavior, with support from a little dialogue, becomes more intense and focused as the story unfolds. Something or someone grabs your attention.

Second: A Hook is a “One-Off.” Many technique books for writers discuss the value or need for a hook. However, none of the many I have read, advise the scribe about the need to escalate the level of intensity with a succession of related mini-hooks. Instead of just one great, catchy opening line or scene. As much thought must be applied to the first and last image of each scene and sequence as was applied to the story’s opening sequence. If a single catchy opening line or scene is the only reason a writer creates a hook then it’s guaranteed the story that follows will disappoint.

Third: A hook does not need to be the first line or even the first image. I don’t recommend this placement. A hook is what sets the tone for your story. In today’s multiple distraction environment if it is not first it should be “above the fold” on the first page. The best hooks spawn subsequent mini-hooks that work in harmony to propel the reader through your material.

There is no advantage to the writer if she or he creates an opening scenario just for the sake of Shock-and-Awe on the first page. The Bond films or any multiple film franchise are the exception. We already know the main character. We follow because we want to see how the next challenge is solved.

The opening of the story should immediately create the question “What happens next?” As the story unfolds, the reason for the opening sequence is clear. It becomes the character motivation as the effect of the opening hook unfolds and its consequence is multiplied through the subsequent actions of all characters.

A mini-hook is used at subsequent scene beginnings and endings, sequence ends, and turning points in the story to reinforce the cumulative effect on the reader.

A well written script entices. A foreshadow is a style of hook; as is knowing what the characters don’t know. The joint search for clues along with the protagonist is also a style of hook.

Although they want to, a professional reader rarely gets to read an entire script in one sitting (2 am may be the quietest time) without interruption. She or he attempts to get to a “reasonable” stopping point (that’s an oxymoron). Mini-hooks help maintain the intensity when the reader continues. That said, I do not suggest the writer toss in action, dialogue or scenes as standalone hooks. This a common problem some writers use to “spice-up” a story.

The story hook and any subsequent mini-hooks must be provocative yet, at the same time, an integral part of the story. To achieve this balance may require days or more to create this level of intensity in a single scene, action, or section of dialogue. This is the price a writer pays for a rewarding relationship with words.

At the end of each scene, your story must contain a reason for the reader to want to read more. This can’t be done by the random insertion of description or dialogue. It must be something that is from the character’s perspective which builds from and to each related mini-hook. The next thing to happen must be a natural progression from the evidence at hand.

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

As an exercise, download the composite PDF version of the Casablanca “production” script. Identify what makes you want to scroll “below the fold” on each computer page. I must caution about using this as a SPEC script format. The language and writing conventions have evolved since the typewriter years of 1942. However, study the way the first page draws the reader in from a globe to close up. What does the policeman read? TURN THE PAGE. Meet “The Hook.”

Chris Soth speaks of and teaches the Mini-Movie method in his books and classes. He shows the historic 120 minute movie is actually eight mini-movie or sequences approximately 12 to 15 minutes each. Times have changed. Just about all movies today are no longer produced on reels that have to be changed every 1,000 ft. The move to digital has all but eliminated that format.

This means that with today’s shorter video based films that last on average from eighty–five to one hundred-ten minutes, and with today’s twitter style short attention span, in order to keep the story pace up the length of a scene in a ‘Mini-Movie’ or story sequence is shorter. Scenes will now vary from a half page to one and a half pages max, longer and the story grinds to a halt (I know the original MAD MAX had a humongous chase scene). This isn’t a “Rule.” Simply a Twitter, YouTube, Periscope or Instagram reality.

How fast do you change channels on TV or the internet when you get bored?

Not only does each shorter scene need to maintain the nexus of the story, now it must do so in less than a page and a half. This will vary across genres. Each scene needs its own opening and closing hook that relates back to the opening sequence or your “soufflé will drop.” Where a 120 minute film contained anywhere from thirty to forty-four 2.5 page or longer scenes, today it’s more like sixty to seventy-five 1.5 page scenes in the eighty-five to one hundred and ten page script. The format is now a combination of leaner and shorter scenes with more of them. Each with its own mini-hook. When a long scene is “deemed” necessary, it should be broken by related short scenes, or cutaways, each with mini-hooks. (Think commercial teaser in “TV Talk”).

Courtesy Harley-Ironhead.com

Courtesy
Harley-Ironhead.com

Here a sequence is not synonymous with scene. I am not positing formulaic writing, (beginning, middle 1 & 2 and end) or this happens on page X. The formulaic method is a great way for a writer to start out. Consider it training wheels on a bicycle before you graduate to your Harley Ironhead Short Chop. You eventually outgrow the training wheels.

If this is the first adventure of your writing journey, do not abandon the formulaic structure. Some of the techniques are still valid. However, a strict formulaic structure applied to all genres leads to a Pablum style film diet. First develop a storytelling skill. Then study Tarantino, Crowe, and Kaufman et al. Each of these writers compels the reader forward with mini-hooks all the while warping structure, sometimes beyond recognition.

It is true that audiences today expect a story to progress through a series of challenges the hero must defeat or overcome. If your story compels and is mini-hooked together, where what happens is not as important as the fact that it happens from the characters perspective, rather than what a writer feels needs to occur on page X. When you follow the character’s perspective now you have an inclusive yet non-formulaic hook.

A character’s behavior is what the audience understands and wants to follow. In a word, they are hooked on the outcome.

If your scenes evolve from the protagonist’s flaw the formula will take care of itself. Let she or he take you on an unexpected journey. As the journey unfolds, you graduate from a write by the numbers approach to a natural flow.

Trim the fat later.

Where is the inciting incident in the first Godfather script? It sure isn’t on page 10, 17, 25 or the end of act one, two A or B. There’s a lot of action and numerous mini-hooks and twists all through the story before the inciting incident from the protagonist perspective.

Read the script here and leave a comment below as to where you feel the inciting incident is and why. Look for examples of mini-hooks that invoke the “What happens next” question. Granted it’s part of a trilogy. However, each film completes its own story and character journey.

Today, in all genres, stories need action with minimal description and dialogue. It’s the journey to the resolution of the protagonist’s flaw that propels the reader / viewer through a story to the dénouement. It’s unfortunate that some still feel the need to force fit Joseph Campbell’s excellent treatise to every story genre as a means to accomplish this journey.

John Truby, Chris Soth, Corey Mandell and Blake Snyder each has a unique and disparate perspective on story structure. I would highly recommend that you review their thoughts before you get locked into the mantra “This must happen by page X “concept. One formula does not fit all story styles. I grant that genres have some similarities, integration and overlap.

Courtesy BAFTA

Courtesy BAFTA

Here is an excellent short lecture at BAFTA by Guillermo Arriaga where he addresses his no formula approach to writing. I did a funding analysis / report for Babel ahead of Cannes in 2004. Nothing happened by the numbers in that script. There were plenty of hooks and mini-hooks to entice a reader to finish the script.

To develop flexibility in your writing technique as a story teller requires that you study what a hook is, what it is not and how to successfully apply it without the need for formulas.

Hook yourself into the story. Make it personal. Make it real. Make it memorable. When you accomplish this your story becomes an easy and enjoyable read.

More in Part 2

screenwriters bible 2Get invaluable advice in Dave Trottier’s classic book
The Screenwriter’s Bible

One thought on “WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: No Hooks

  1. dmac2013

    Great article. The one thing I disagree with is this millennial-obsessive idea that scenes can’t be more than a page and a half long.

    I personally refuse to cater to a supposed movie fan who can’t sit still for the entire movie. Then they don’t like movies and are not my target audience. If I have to beg someone to care enough to empathize with a main character to hold their attention for more than five minutes, then that person doesn’t like movies.

    Furthermore, look at the most popular TV shows today, and this just doesn’t bear out.

    Breaking Bad almost exclusively used very long scenes, often over 5 minutes.
    Walking Dead – not 5 minutes, but they also have very long scenes, often over 3 minutes.
    House of Cards – same thing.

    Good hooks, as you so well explain, are the key to holding attention, even if the hooks are within one scene that may go on a little longer.

    Interestingly though, the films that have scenes that are actually too long, such as The Avengers, are the ones the young people are flocking to in droves.

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