Sub Routine, and How to Hook

Jan 14 2018
posts // 759 words // 4 min read // comments

I mean “hook” in the writing sense, not the sex-worker sense, just so you’re not disappointed by where this post goes.

I recently mentioned Tabico’s story from—holy fuck I can’t believe this was fourteen years ago time is slipping through my fingers like grains of sand oh god oh god oh god existential crisis help help help—2004, Sub Routine

So, having mentioned it, I just started re-reading it for the first time in years, and was so, so impressed by how fast and hard it hooks the reader. I’ve been studying the craft of writing a lot lately, as part of my lifelong pathology of feeling like “a writer” without ever fucking creating anything, and...

...Let me stop making this about myself and start over. 

One way you hook the reader and keep them hooked is “open loops”: you write something that causes a question in the reader’s mind, they keep reading to find the answer, and, before / as you answer that first question, you create another one... and so on, and so forth, for 5000 words or for so many years and books that Brandon Sanderson eventually has to step in and finish them for you.

Sub Routine starts with these words:

I woke up drenched in sweat, thrusting and clenching. It was a rape dream; I was being chased by an army of implacable robots, who were programmed solely to rape me and thereby make me one of them. I’d run, and I’d hid, but they’d always known just where I was, and when they caught me they started fucking me, mercilessly, and I knew I was turning into a robot myself when I started enjoying it, started thrusting back and squeezing them, trying to ram them deeper, deeper into my body—and then I woke up.

Which tells you straight off what sort of story it is you’re reading, to what interests it’s going to appeal, and leaves you asking: “does she always have dreams like that? Why? Is she going to experience something like that in real life? Let’s find out...”

After describing her perfectly-ordinary living situation, the narrator says this:

As I came back from the kitchen with my glass of water, I noticed that there was a light on in my office. ‘Must have left it on’, I thought, and went to turn it off. But when I reached the door, I realized it was flickering, not steady. And that it wasn’t coming from my desk, or indeed my office proper, but from the clean room.

...The “clean room”? And now we’re asking, what does she mean by “clean room”? Why does she have such a thing in her apartment... and why is there an unexpected light coming from it? WE HAVE TO KNOW!

So the next paragraph is this:

It’s not really a clean room, I just call it that. I use it to keep potentially dangerous software memes isolated, unable to interface in any way with the external world. After the Candlestick Maker virus back in 2009, people analyzing self-propagating software don’t take any chances. Any chink in the armor—data networks, obviously, but also IR sensing devices, even shared power lines, and the virus might get out.

Okay, that’s unusual and interesting, and since we read the first paragraph of the story and perhaps also already know what sort of story we’re reading and who wrote it, we eagerly keep reading because we suspect what’s coming:

So, in order to work on this sort of stuff at home, I had the clean room. A room with no connections to the outside world. And only I had the key. Or so I’d thought. I almost dropped my glass when I saw Lily in there, seated at the single computer. Staring at it. Hypnotized.

And we are off to the fucking races.

We are just over 500 words into this story, and Tabico has unfolded for us an entire world, similar to our own but different in important ways, and promised a bunch of suspense and erotic shenanigans. 

If you love stories like this, read it and see how much you can get through before your first orgasm. 😘 

If you’re also into writing, read it and, while you hold that climax at bay, consider how, with a few plain, simple descriptions, Tabico opens and closes loops, and enthralls her readers even more quickly than her doomed protagonists (spoilers? Come on, not really).

Read (and write) in health, party people.