Tag Archives: Robert Heinlein

Narrative hooks: some favorites

First a definition, courtesy of wikipedia:

A narrative hook (or hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep reading on. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally is the opening sentence.

I’ve been thinking for quite some time of sharing some of my favorite narrative hooks from science fiction novels; but through a combination of laziness, forgetfulness, and being busy with other things (mostly lots of reading), the idea has been sitting on a back burner, undeveloped. However, I recently got an inspirational kick in the posterior when I read an io9 article about Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction.” Some of the examples in that article are good ones, some not so good, but then that’s just my opinion. A great hook for one person may be totally boring to another. But for what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite hooks from science fiction (and fantasy). And by “favorite” I don’t mean judged by some abstract literary measurement; I simply mean that they worked for me. They drew me in and made me feel compelled to keep reading, and that always helps make the reading experience more pleasurable. I won’t restrict myself to single sentences, as the io9 article did, because a good hook usually takes at least several sentences to develop. So……

I mentioned this one a while back in my review of Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

That works beautifully to capture the reader’s curiosity. What is a Beanstalk and why is it in Kenya? Why is this one person following the other person, and what could be so important about this that it should involve death? Was the death justified (morally, legally) or not? It sure kept me reading.

Here’s the beginning of one of my all-time favorite novels, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg:

I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself.

That statement is so strange to me that it screams in my eyes. I look at it on the page, and I recognize the hand as my own — narrow upright red letters on the coarse gray sheet — and I see my name, and I hear in my mind the echoes of the brain-impulse that hatched those words. I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Incredible.

When I first read those words I had no idea it was a science fiction novel, nor any idea who Silverberg was. It was just some book I found in a box from a yard sale. But once I opened it and read those first words, I was hooked. I just had to know why this Darival character was shocked at himself for what he wrote; I had to know why it was “incredible” to him.

Another very effective hook comes from Roger Zelazny’s Nice Princes in Amber:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three times.

The room grew steady.

Where the hell was I?

That first sentence is a pretty good hook in its own right. But the more you read on, the better it gets. The first several pages constitute a fantastic hook for the novel, but I’m not going to quote that much.

All of the above examples depend on creating an air of mystery. Another way to go is to set up a grand flamboyant atmosphere, as Alfred Bester does in The Stars My Destination:

This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…. but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice…. but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks…. but nobody loved it.

It can’t be an accident that he uses the word “fascinating” in there, because the whole effect of those lines is to fascinate me and make me want to learn more about this future time.

Then there’s the deep and/or philosophical and/or metaphysical sort of opening, as for example in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep:

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

Wow! If even the omniscient viewpoint can’t handle what’s about to be described, then I’m pretty damn sure it’s gonna blow my mind.

So there you have some examples of the kinds of opening lines that hook me. What hooks you?

Heinlein’s futuristic adventure girl, Friday

At the risk of being strung up by my thumbs by some fans, I freely admit that I did not much care for the first Heinlein novel I read — The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The biggest reason is that the characters were just so damn annoying it was almost unbearable. So there I was wondering to myself: was there something wrong with me for not liking what many consider to be the best novel by SF’s best author?

So I felt it was time to give RAH another chance, as I didn’t want to judge him by only one novel. For whatever reason, his 1982 novel Friday came to my attention and I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did, because this time around was a totally different experience. I don’t know if Heinlein became a better writer in the intervening 16 years, or if it’s just some personal idiosyncrasy of my own. At any rate, I somehow knew from the very first paragraph that I would love this book:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

That’s one hell of a narrative hook, and RAH had me right there. And that opening sets the tone for the entire book, which has very much the feel of a James Bond movie with plenty of world (and off-world) travel and international intrigue. But it’s not all action and adventure. There are serious themes about politics and society here as well, but they are woven into the story in a balanced way, rather than becoming preachy.

This is the story of a vibrant, sassy, and very likable character named Friday, a “combat courier” who works for a mysterious private organization which is part paramilitary group, part intelligence agency, and part think tank. She’s the best courier around; if she’s assigned to deliver or pick up something, it gets through, no matter what. Partly this is due to extensive training, but it’s also largely due to her genetic makeup. She’s an “artificial person” — put together by genetic engineers in a lab using DNA samples from multiple donors, in order to create an enhanced being. Because of this, Friday has enhanced speed, strength, agility, hearing, resistance to disease, and other such perks.

Artificial persons are a target for discrimination and not considered human by most people. Many of them spend their lives in a kind of indentured servitude, some being designed for specific types of jobs. A few manage to get free and live their lives in secrecy, passing as “normal” human beings. Friday is one such, and she struggles to find acceptance and a place where she belongs. And this is one of the book’s major themes: a dissection of discrimination and the ignorance that drives it. The theme is all the more powerful since Friday comes across as more human than many of those who despise her.

Then there’s the political angle. The novel is set against a background of governmental entropy. The United States couldn’t hold together and has fractured into several smaller countries, each of which has its own problems and shortcomings. This is a semi-frequent topic of discussion between characters, who debate the inherent flaws of government and sometimes wonder if any type of good government is even possible. Later on, Friday’s employer shares with her the sum of his life’s work and research: he believes all of Earth’s governments are in decay and the world is headed for a new Dark Age — and the signs are certainly there. He therefore advises her to migrate to one of the colony worlds and make a fresh start, which she ends up doing and, in the process, finding that special place where she belongs.

Along the way, Heinlein drops admiring comments about “rugged individualism,” the rights of individuals to benefit from the fruits of their own labor, and other bits and pieces of his political/ethical viewpoint. He mercilessly pokes fun at targets like political speech-making, California’s affinity for gubernatorial recalls, and the Eternal Revenue Service. And he endears himself to my civil libertarian side with passages like this:

Besides, as my boss says, with all governments everywhere tightening down on everything wherever they can, with their computers and their Public Eyes and ninety-nine other sorts of electronic surveillance, there is a moral obligation on each free person to fight back wherever possible — keep underground railways open, keep shades down, give misinformation to computers.

But as I said, these political comments are not the main thrust of the book, but are part of a well-developed background world in which the story unfolds — the story of one individual, Friday, and her quest to find out who she is, who she can be, where she can be that person, and with whom. It’s the story of one of the most lovable and interesting characters I’ve come across yet — an “artificial person” who is anything but artificial in all the ways that matter most.