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Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Hook

In yesterday's Rouge Wave, my colleague PJ answered a question about hooks, catalysts and inciting incidents. I just wanted to add my two cents. First, we have to acknowledge that there are some terms that get bandied about in Hollywood and in screenwriting that are assigned different meanings. Some screenwriting books call the inciting incident the "catalyst" others call it the "call to adventure". Kids, it's the same thing: it's your page ten(ish) moment in which the world you've quickly, cinematically and compellingly set up, gets a stick in the eye. Uh oh, as PJ's mom astutely says. What's wrong? What will they do? The apple cart is upset.

In YUMA, Christian Bale's barn is burned down.
In JAWS it's on page one, actually, the night-swimmer gets chomped.
In JUNO, it's the positive pregnancy test.
In NORTH BY NORTHWEST it's Cary Grant's abduction when he's confused with the wrong guy
In RAIN MAN it's when Tom Cruise finds out his father died.
In THE SIXTH SENSE it's when Bruce Willis gets shot.
In JERRY MAGUIRE it's when Tom Cruise gets fired.
In PIRATE OF THE CARIBBEAN it's when the necklace hits the water.
In INDIANA JONES THE LAST CRUSADE it's when the archeologist says he's found the holy grail.

The hook, however, is related to the inciting incident but actually, is a stand alone term. I wrote something about the hook almost exactly one year ago on the RW and I am reprinting it here. I just don't think I can top the way I explained it before.


One of the first things an agent, manager or executive will ask of your material is “what’s the hook”? You may have wondered what the heck that is. The definition seems to vary by person but the upshot is that the hook is something about the script that is centrally very simple, very cool and very original. There are many different types of hooks but here are some likely suspects:

Character hook: James Bond, Shrek, Austin Powers, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Bonnie & Clyde, Psycho, Batman, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, Sexy Beast, Pulp Fiction, When Harry met Sally, Clueless. Think of this as the "you talkin' to me?" category. Movies that carry a character hook are movies in which the central character is so unique that movie-goers remember that particular character for a long time, quoting him or her, etc.

Plot hook: The 6th Sense, Identity, Gattica, Jaws, Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, Saw, Speed, Terminator, The Island, Jurrasic Park, The Ring, Purple Rose of Cairo, 28 Days. Think of this as the "I see dead people" category. Movies that have a plot hook are movies that have a central plot or plot twist that we have literally not seen before; a giant shark terrorizes a town, two gay cowboys have a love affair, a bus that will explode if it goes under 60mph, a video tape that if you watch, you'll die 7 days later.

Cinematic and craft hooks: Memento, the Matrix, Crouching tiger, Jesus' Son, Trainspotting, Sexy Beast, Pulp Fiction, The Ring, The 5th Dimension. Think of this as the "bullet time" category. These are movies that have a really unique look or narrative methodology that we have not seen before. A stylized look, CG effects, super-saturated footage, jumps in time; but more than simply a look or a narrative style, the execution is intrinsic to telling the story. It's not frosting; it is a delivery system without which the story wouldn't be the same.

…You'll notice some titles appear under more than one category. True enough. If you can get your script to carry all three hooks? You are golden. But that's hard to do. That said, writers should strive to come up with a hook, that I can tell you. Because having a hook is golden, my friends, it will move your script from the bottom to the top of the stack, it will get you meetings and it might even get you sold.

Don’t despair if you don’t feel as if your current script has a hook. Don’t shoehorn absurd hooks into your coming-of-age drama by making the main character a Siamese twin – just to be different. Let the hook come to you in an organic way. But remember this: coming-of-age, romcom, horror, thriller, fantasy – whatever the genre is, seriously every story has already been told. So how can you set your script apart? By lending to it your unique voice and by looking for creative opportunities to make a familiar story paradigm different enough in its details to provide unique entertainment. Audiences crave that which they are familiar with – there are genre expectations without which your movie will not succeed. It’s not always the what – it’s the how.

As you work through your idea, ask yourself: when an agent, manager or executive asks you what the hook is – what will you say? If right at the moment, the answer is a fish-eye stare, that’s okay. What opportunities lie within your story to create a unique hook? You may have to cast about for awhile to find something that really works but the rewards for you and for your script can be huge; fish or cut bait, Wavers. Aspire to create a hook that will net you one big, drooling executive - and a WGA membership card.

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PJ McIlvaine said...

I also call it the PROPELLOR MOMENT in which something "happens" that propels something else to happen (hopefully something shocking and unexpected), and then another, and so forth, like dominos. Not the pizza.

Laura Reyna said...

Nice post!

I've never seen "The Hook" separated into diff categories like that, but you're right. Diff concepts/movies have diff types of hooks.