Think about your favourite book for a moment. How does the story begin?
I would venture to guess that the storyline sunk its claws in from the very start. Maybe it was a heart pounding action scene. Or perhaps, a moral dilemma. Or did the main character’s first lines suck you right in?
Whatever occurred to pique your interest in those opening pages, it’s known as a hook, and it’s an essential component used in all forms of storytelling. From fiction writing (novels, flash fiction, short stories), to non-fiction writing (narrative essays, academic research papers, memoirs), and other forms of writing (poetry, advertising) hooks are crucial.
In this article, I will describe what a hook is, and provide some top tips for writing them well, with examples. So, if you’re a writer who is interested in learning how to create a hook that will grab your reader’s attention and never let go, read on!
What Is A Hook?
So what is a hook exactly?
Just as the name implies, it’s a literary technique used to capture (‘hook’) the reader’s attention in the opening of a story. In fact, as mentioned above, hooks are necessary for all types of writing, and they are designed to gain the readers’ interest so that they want to read on.
There are a number of ways an author can create a good hook, and different techniques work for different kinds of writing.
Ready to learn more? Let’s dive in.
How To Write A Hook
Coming up with a truly compelling hook takes some thought and effort, but it isn’t rocket science. Think about what makes your story interesting. Is it the characters? A mystery? An unusual setting? Once you’ve settled upon the answer to this question, begin crafting your hook around that.
Story hooks work by reeling in the reader and making them want to learn more. Therefore, a good hook will create some sort of question (or better yet, multiple questions) in the reader’s mind. They will simply have to keep turning pages to find out what happens next.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips for writing a great story hook:
1. Startle The Reader With Your First Line
By using a startling or intriguing first line, you can take the reader by surprise and get them excited to delve into the story. For example, in my young adult novel, Not Our Summer (2021), I opened with this:
Where does someone even get a bright green casket like that?Not Our Summer by Casie Bazay
This sentence serves a dual purpose: it gives readers an immediate clue about the setting, and it also shows that the character is just as shocked as the reader probably is upon seeing this oddly coloured casket.
To write your own startling first line, consider a character confession, a surprising observation, or maybe pose a not-so-ordinary question. Have fun with it and see what kind of attention-grabbing first line you can come up with.
2. Start With Action
This is probably the most common way to get a reader engaged with a story right away. Of course, there are varying degrees of action and not all involve high-speed chases or explosions. However, by dropping readers into the middle of a tense scene, you are likely going to pique their interest.
Here is a great example from Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury:
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the atters and charcoal ruins of history.Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A fireman instigating a fire rather than putting it out? Now that, my friends, is interesting.
There are a number of ways to devise your own action-centred hook, and it certainly doesn’t have to be a fire. Your protagonist might be escaping from someone or something. Or getting into an argument. Or witnessing a crime. If needed, you can use a flashback or non-linear story structure to employ this type of hook, but the possibilities are endless.
3. Form An Emotional Connection
If you can’t drop your reader into an action scene, consider hooking them with an emotional one instead. Showing a character’s intense emotional response will help the reader connect with them on a sympathetic level, and this type of connection will lead readers to be interested in what happens to that character for the rest of the story.
Take this opening scene from Monster (1999) by Walter Dean Myers for instance:
The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way even if you sniffle a little they won’t hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying, they’ll start talking about it and soon it’ll be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out.Monster by Walter Dean Myers
This passage causes the reader to immediately sympathise with the protagonist. We are no doubt concerned for this person’s wellbeing and we want to know more about the situation we’ve presented with.
By utilising emotions such as embarrassment, sympathy, fear, anticipation, surprise, or excitement, you can help readers instantly connect with your characters and become more invested in their story.
4. Begin At A Life-Changing Moment
Another great technique is starting with a life-changing moment for your protagonist. This is usually a moment that thrusts the character into the story’s conflict, aka the inciting incident. But once readers experience this life-altering moment with the character(s), they will likely have no choice but to keep reading.
Here is a perfect example from Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
A gigantic insect? I don’t know about you, but I simply need to know what’s going on here!
Think about your novel’s inciting incident and consider using it right in the beginning of your story to get the reader interested in the literal or metaphorical journey your character is about to take.
5. Create Intrigue About The Characters
Every good book needs interesting characters, and you can intrigue your reader right away by alluding to a character’s lies, secrets, or scandals. On the other hand, maybe there is something unique or special about your main character—like the protagonist in the middle grade novel, Wonder (2012) by R.J. Palacio:
I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary, I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.Wonder by R.J. Palacio
This opening paragraph leads us to sympathise with the main character, August, but we also want to know why it is that other kids run away screaming when they see him. The author creates intrigue right away with this opening.
There are many ways to similarly create intrigue about your own characters. Capitalise on what sets them apart from others and the things which would make a reader want to get to know them more.
6. Start At A Moment Of Confusion
Confusion leads to questions, and in a novel, questions are often a good thing. If the protagonist is experiencing a moment of confusion in the opening scene, reader questions will abound.
In the young adult novel, That Weekend (2021) by Kara Thomas, the story starts with the main character awaking in the woods, alone, injured, and confused. As a reader, you are dying to know what happened and also why it is that she can’t remember anything.
Of course, not every character is going to wake up with amnesia, but you can start your story by placing them in a scene where they are unsure of what’s going on around them. This will no doubt serve to pique reader curiosity.
7. Draw In The Reader With A Strong Voice
Technically speaking, voice is the stylistic mix of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes words flow in a particular manner. Plainly speaking, it’s what gives third-person POV novels their character and first-person protagonists a distinct personality. The best thing about writing with a strong voice is that it, alone, has the ability to pull the reader into the story.
For example, Maverick’s opening scene in Concrete Rose (2021) by Angie Thomas:
When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.
They ain’t written down, and you won’t find them in a book. It’s natural stuff you know the moment your momma let you out the house. Kinda like how you know how to breathe without somebody telling you.Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
Right away, we get a feel for who Maverick is as a character; we also want to know more about what he’s alluding to in these first few lines.
If you’re a newer writer, play around with voice until you find one that works well for your character and/or the story you’re telling. Then, strive to amplify that voice in your novel’s opening to create an intriguing and effective hook.
8. Introduce Something Ominous
Alluding to something mysterious or foreboding right off the bat is another method of hooking the reader. Between Shades of Gray (2011) by Ruta Sepetys follows the Stalinist repressions of the mid-20th century as well as the life of Lina as she is deported from her native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. It opens with this line:
They took me in my nightgown.Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
This simple statement plays into our sense of fear. We also have questions: who took her? Why was she taken? And what did they do with her?
If your story has ominous undertones, consider starting it in a similar manner. Give readers a piece of information that spooks them, yet also lures them into the story.
9. Stay Away From Description
Also important in hook-writing is knowing what to leave out. It’s best not to start out by describing mundane actions such as waking up, eating breakfast, or getting dressed—unless those situations reveal something surprising or intriguing about the character. Also remember that you don’t have many pages in which to hook your reader. While descriptions can be lovely, they aren’t always interesting. Instead, it’s best to stick with in-the-moment action, dialogue, and narration, especially in those initial pages.
10. Once You Have Your Reader’s Attention, Hold Onto It
A great hook will get your reader’s attention, but your job as the author is to hold onto it. Too many unanswered questions can lead to frustration, while answering every question right away gives readers no reason to read on. It’s a careful balance, this attention-holding technique, but the best way to handle it is by answering some of the questions created by your hook while introducing new questions to keep the reader in suspense.
Going back to That Weekend by Kara Thomas: in the book the character has awakened, confused in the woods, but when a stranger and her dog find her, the protagonist learns where she is. She also remembers that it’s prom weekend and that she had gone to her friend’s cabin for the weekend—however this friend as well as the friend’s boyfriend are nowhere to be found. With this, the author establishes an even bigger mystery that both the character and reader want to solve.
When it comes right down to it, hooks are all about engaging the reader from the get-go. We want readers to be invested in our stories and eagerly turning pages, right? Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which to do this. Play around with your story hook and change it if needed; just make sure that, in the end, you go with one that works well with the story you want to tell.
By keeping the above tips in mind and using the examples as references, you should be well on your way to creating a strong and effective hook for your own story.
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