David Healey, Kaplan University Composition Faculty
Hooking your readers turns out to have a lot in common with pretending to be a shark. One of my favorite childhood memories is of being at the beach on Cape Cod and scaring my mom. My middle brother and I would swim underwater and grab mom’s legs, causing her to shriek and run for shore. What fun!
It was the summer that the paperback version of Jaws came out, and mom read it in her beach chair and evenings at the cottage. The result was that every ripple in the water and every kid grabbing her legs became a Great White in her imagination.
Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum!
I was thinking about Jaws and that long-ago summer because in class we recently focused on tips for hooking readers. Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel makes a great example of how to hook a reader, and I often read a few sentences to students. It’s an opening that’s as menacing as it is spellbinding:
“The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. … The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraodinary to the small, primitive brain” (Benchley, 1974, p. 3).
That’s not bad for a novel he banged out in a rented room above a garage (Wyatt, 2006). With the students, we also talk about the opening scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie where the shark gets the woman who goes for a midnight swim. This is not recommended viewing if you are thinking about a beach vacation!
A discussion of Jaws also touches on the issue of pre-writing strategies and revision. Originally, Benchley wrote the first four chapters as a comedy. His editor sent back those chapters and asked him to revise his work by writing a realistic thriller (Gilliam, 2002).
But with the opening lines and images from Jaws, what we’re focusing on in class is the narrative approach for hooking readers, which works just as well in nonfiction essays as it does in fiction.
Students sometimes have great success with this approach. For example, here’s an introduction written by CM220 student Elizabeth Buckhannon as part of her first draft or “blueprint for success” in Unit 6:
“Students with bipolar disorder have a hard time in class; they often need help from teachers and aides. All it takes is for the teacher to change their teaching method, so these students are getting the education they need. Teachers and other school staff need to be educated about the disorder and be trained on how to best help these students. They can help the bipolar student by being flexible, allowing extra time and frequent breaks, encouraging them, and staying in contact with their parents” (Buckhannon, 2013).
She did a great job with that introduction. But after our discussion of the narrative approach, here’s what the student wrote in her revised introduction, imagining an individual with bipolar disorder named Maddie:
“Maddie has a hard time in class because of her bipolar disorder. She has frequent mood changes throughout the day, which sometimes cause her to act out. She wishes her teachers would understand what she is going through and be more sympathetic. She wants to do well in school, but finds it difficult because of her teacher’s teaching method. Teachers and other school staff need to be educated about bipolar disorder and be trained on how to best help students like Maddie. They can help these students by being flexible, allowing extra time and frequent breaks, encouraging them, and staying in contact with their parents” (Buckhannon, 2013).
Clearly, this student embraced the narrative approach to create a stronger introduction (along with a great thesis statement!) in this revised effort.
Jaws isn’t the only example we can find of a narrative approach to a good hook. When asked, students often come up with other examples from books and movies. Hopefully, our classroom discussion inspires some good writing—even if we might think twice about taking that late night swim.
Oh, and thanks to mom for being a good sport and taking us kids to the beach. Who knew it would lend itself to the study of writing techniques for hooking your readers all these years later?
Benchley, P. (1975). Jaws. New York: Fawcett Crest Books.
Buckhannon, E. (2013). Teaching the bipolar student. Unpublished manuscript, Kaplan University.
Gilliam, B. (2002). Peter Benchley: The father of Jaws and other tales of the deep. Retrieved from http://www.peterbenchley.com/articles/peter-benchley-the-father-jaws-and-other-tales-the-deep
Wyatt, E. (2006, February 13). Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, dies at 65. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/13/books/13benchley.html