Fishing-for-the-Hook by asafwewe



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									Fishing for the Hook

by William Missouri Downs and Robin U. Russin

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.

WILLIAM MISSOURI DOWNS earned an MFA in acting from the
University of Illinois and an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. He
has written for television sitcoms such as ‘My Two Dads,’ ‘Amen’
and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ and has sold screenplays to
Imagine Films and Filmways. Also a playwright, he has won the
Bay Area Critics Award for best production in San Francisco and
the Jefferson Award for best production in Chicago for his plays.

ROBIN U. RUSSIN was educated at Harvard, Oxford, the Rhode
Island School of Design and UCLA, where he received his MFA in
screenwriting. A Rhodes scholar and Phi Beta Kappa member,
he has written for film, theatre, television and various national
publications. His credits include the feature films ‘On Deadly
Ground’ and ‘Shark in a Bottle’ and television’s ‘America’s Most
Wanted,’ ‘The Prosecutors,’ ‘Vital Signs’ and the special
presentation, ‘Alcatraz—The True Story.’ He currently teaches
screenwriting at UCLA.

Downs’ and Russin’s textbook on screenwriting - Screenplay:
Writing the Picture - was reviewed by Lew Hunter, co-chair of
UCLA’s screenwriting department, as the ‘best book about
screenwriting and being a screenwriter ever written.’

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