Monday, March 15, 2021

Keep Your Promise

 by Jan Drexler 

We’ve all heard the advice to start your story with a good hook.

What’s a hook? A hook is your opening sentence or paragraph that catches the readers’ attention and makes them want to read to the end of the book.

We have many resources to help us craft a good hook, but today I want to discuss what happens when a hook goes wrong.

My husband and I enjoy watching movies in the evening. Lately we’ve been bingeing on old westerns from the 1950’s, and we’ve discovered some gems. Of course, there have been some duds, too.

For me, one of those duds was a Robert Mitchum film, The Man with the Gun.

Clicking on the picture will take you to the film. Before we go on, please watch the first 40 seconds. That’s right – ONLY the first 40 seconds. 

(If the link doesn't work, go to Youtube to watch it)

First of all, let’s get past the obvious: NEVER kill the dog in your story!

Okay, now on to the problem.

This is the hook. The bad guy, Ed Pinchot, rides into town and the first thing we see him do is to shoot a dog. Where can this character go from here?

I spent the rest of the movie wondering what Pinchot would do next. Would he rampage through town with his gang shooting up the place? Would he have a showdown with the good guy? Would he try to steal the good guy’s girl?

After all, the opening scene showed his cruelty. A bad guy’s story arc is a negative one, so his first scene should show his negative traits, and we can expect that things will only get worse from here.

But in this story, it doesn’t.

Yes, Pinchot shows up again, but he is consistently the weaker character in every scene he’s in. He doesn’t confront the good guy, we never see him rallying his troops, we never see him take any action at all.

I kept thinking – “But he’ll show up at the end. There will be a big shoot-out like the OK Corral. He’ll almost win, but in the end, Robert Mitchum's character will come out on top.”

I kept expecting it.

And it didn’t happen.

What did happen? Go back to the movie and fast forward to the 1:20 point and you’ll see.

Pinchot rides into town with his boss. The entire movie has been leading to this point. THIS is the big moment. Good vs. Evil. Bad guys vs. good guys.

In fact, we haven’t even seen Pinchot's boss, Dade Holman, until this point. He’s been a faceless threat through the whole story.

But when you watch the clip, you can see that this scene only lasts 90 seconds.

The film attempts to increase the tension throughout the movie, raising the stakes with the shadowy threat of Dade Holman always lurking in the shadows.

But when the final battle comes, it falls flat. No discussion between the characters, no flash of tension. Not even any real conflict.

Yes, I’m pretty sure I muttered bad things at the television through the whole movie. I really didn’t like it.


Because the storytellers (the writers and director) didn’t live up to the promise they had made to the viewers at the beginning of the movie.

That opening scene said, “This guy here? Watch him. He’s the bad guy, and he’s scary bad.”

The rest of the movie pretty much ignored him.

How does this relate to our writing? 

First of all, don’t promise something that you can't deliver.

That’s what happened in The Man with the Gun. The writers made a promise, but the rest of the story made it impossible to deliver on that promise. It would have been better if the bad guy didn’t shoot the dog, but only threatened to. Then his other appearances in the movie could build on that threat instead of falling short of the promise. 

Second, make your promise fit your character.

The bad guy, Ed Pinchot, was threatening, but he was like a dog barking at the end of a chain. Dade Holman controlled him, and he only went as far as his boss allowed him to.

In that opening scene, he acted on his own…but it was the only time in the movie that he did. 

Third, follow through on your promise.

In The Man with the Gun, the story fell flat because that beginning promise was never resolved.

What could have been done differently? Like I said earlier, the writers could have changed the promise to make it a threat rather than an action. Or they could have made his character’s actions escalate in violence until he finally killed someone. 

Anton Chekov once wrote, “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.”

That means that every element in a story must be necessary, and elements should not make “false promises” by never coming into play.

If you make a promise, follow through. 
-If Ebenezer Scrooge refuses to let Bob Cratchit put one more piece of coal on the fire in the first scene, he had better send Bob out to buy more coal at the end of the story. 
-If Will Turner shows himself to be a talented swordsman early on in the film, we had better see him using that blade in stunning ways by the end of the story. 
-If we see George Bailey risking his life to save his brother when they were children, you know we will witness his heroic actions to save his family, his business, and his town.

Another great example of  writers following through with their promise is the classic children’s book, The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Weise. In the first few pages we see Ping witnessing what happens to the last duck that marches across the wooden bridge to the boat in the evening. After a series of events, what happens at the end? Ping is the last duck. “SPANK came the spank on Ping’s back!”

When I read this story to preschoolers, it never fails to happen. Every child’s eyes widen when they realize that Ping is going to be the last duck to go over the little bridge. They understand the necessary ending because the author set up the situation – promised the ending – in such a clear way. 

Have you thought about the promise you’re making to your reader in your opening scene? Do you follow through with it?

And readers – think about some of the best books you’ve read. Go back and read the opening hook. Did the author follow through with their promises?

Jan Drexler has always been a "book girl" who still loves to spend time within the pages of her favorite books. She lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota with her dear husband of many years and their active, crazy dogs, Jack and Sam. You can learn more about Jan and her books on her website,






  1. Oh man... this is all so true, Jan. The strength of a story is in the details, in that gun on the wall being used, in the shadows of the evergreens and the final hope of spring.... the fruition of the teller is in the showing.

    I felt this way about the later Star Wars movies. Read RUTHY IS A GEEK because I love fantasy and science fiction but they blew it in several of them because there was no reason... none... for the turn to evil for certain characters. It's like a big double-blooming tulip on a skinny underfed stem. It topples over leaving nothing and no reason to watch.

    And I think I would have felt the same way even pre-writing years because I think a storyteller knows when all the notes are hit... all the chords align or don't if they're meant not to.

    And what a jerk for killing the dog.

    Great post, Jan.

    I messed up a book like this once and it took a wise editor to show me that it needed changing. The funny thing was, I didn't see it initially but once I did, it was like a shiny, fresh-washed spring window.

    Everything was clear!!!

    1. Exactly, Ruthy!

      We all know the main points of storytelling, even if we don't have names for them. And when a story falls short, we know it. We might not be able to pin point what is wrong, but we know it's something.

      And don't we appreciate good editors? I know I'm always too close to my story to see the errors, so I'm always thankful for my editor.

    2. BTW - I'm right there with you regarding Star Wars. I didn't even watch the most recent one because the previous two were so disappointing. Give me the original trilogy any day (and by original, I mean original, because Han shot first!

  2. Fun post, Jan. But so awful he killed the dog! It did not look like a well-written movie. Thanks for using it to point out how the hook is important. I recently read a book where a gun or something was mentioned but never used. It really bugged me.

    1. Good morning, Sandy!

      Actually, it wasn't a bad movie except for this one thing. My husband enjoyed it, but I couldn't get past it. Something about it bugged me until I figured out what it was.

      Which a great piece of writerly advice someone once gave me: if you don't like a story, figure out why. Then learn not to do that in your own writing. :-)

  3. Jan what a great post! You're so right...if we writers introduce. hook in the beginning of the story, we'd better follow through. I've read a couple of books recently that left me frustrated. And I believe it was because of the hook. Thanks for reminding me why it's so important to follow through!

    1. You're welcome, Jeanne!

      One of the problems I have is that my story often changes between the time I write the opening hook and "the end." If I don't go back to edit my hook, well, you know what can happen!

    2. Yes! My stories tend to change too. :) I guess that's why rewriting is such a crucial step in the process. :)

  4. This was so helpful, Jan. I know this, but I've been stumped how the horrid, money-grubbing, broke cousin in my manuscript chases our hero from New York to Montana to snatch his oldest, wealthy second cousin--a young teenage girl. At 15, her parents died in a train wreck, and the would not let herself be adopted by her hero uncle and his bride, their former "nanny." I've decided to throw in the Pinkertons to hunt down the family of four children and their uncle/father. His sister and husband had made him guardian of their children, and to make sure they could never be taken from him, he legally adopted them.

    Now I have to figure out how and when and where the showdown happens between the uncle and the dead father's rotten cousin. I have a couple of months to figure it out. I'm dropping hints in the first half of the manuscript, so I can pull it off without too much rewriting.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Thanks, Barbara!

      And have fun finding the perfect spot for your showdown. I'm having the same kind of conundrum in my WIP - I know the antagonist is going to physically threaten the heroine, but how and when? Will that be the Final Battle, or will it be the Black Moment?

      Oh, the fun of plotting!

  5. Nothing like being hooked from the first page and it carrying through. Thank you for sharing. Blessings

  6. An excellent lesson! And a good reminder. I love circling back to something I laid into the story early on, because it's so satisfying...for the writer and the reader...for that scene one 'gun' to go off! :)

    1. Yes! Waiting for that gun to go off and building the anticipation!

  7. Hi Jan:

    Great post!

    Indeed, I really get upset if the author makes premises that keep me reading and then those promises are not kept. I never want to read that author again.

    I have the feeling that the writers did not write the opening to that movie. I think a director or producer demanded the change, after the movie was shot. They did this because the opening was so boring. It's said, "Shoot the sheriff on the first page", but the story would not allow that to happen without extensive changes; thus,they shot some kid's dog. It was designed to wake up the audience and hold their attention as they sought revenge. (It may have been the "B" film on a double feature with "Old Yeller" as the "A" film.)

    Lots of movies are destroyed by the people with the money who don't know what they are doing. Many top writers don't want a thing to do with the screenplay.

    I like to think that it is really not the first sentence or clever wording that is the hook but rather the opening situation which may well be the inciting incident. Make the readers crazy to learn what happens next. You don't need clever poetry to do this but you do need the right situation.

    I do like the start of P&P about a single man with a fortune being in need of a wife. Was that ever fulfilled!

    I also like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

    Has any writer kept such an ambitious promise as well?

    Mary has great opening situations but I'd be hard pressed to quote an opening sentence. I think Mary's books are like high powered vacuum cleaners that pull you in and propel you to the ending as you feel your ears popping. That's what I like and her westerns are ideal for using this format.

    Thanks for your post today. It was fun just to think about.

    1. Thanks, Vince! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

      I agree with you about Mary's books, too. She never disappoints!

  8. Great blog, as always, Jan! Every element added to the story needs to be there for a reason...or the reader will feel cheated. Nothing should dangle at the end, right?

    It deals with understanding story and seeing the whole, which takes a bit of experience. At an RWA conference some years ago, an attendee bemoaned the plot in her story that didn't feel right. She had the wrong sister as the heroine, and the ending was limp. I knew what needed to be changed because I understood how all the pieces of a story need to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle...from the insightful beginning to the climax and resolution so the readers--and editors/agents--are satisfied at The End!

    I want to read about Ping. A new-to-me story.

    1. Yes, Debby, you're so right! "all the pieces of a story need to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle!" That's a perfect way to describe it.

      And I was introduced to Ping by Captain Kangaroo. Does anyone else remember him? As part of his show, he would read a story to his viewers, and Ping was the story I remember best. :-)


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