First, a note: Oh good lord. If you’re a writer and you want to read something great, do yourself a major favor and read Dean’s post on Day-Job Thinking vs. Long-Term Thinking. Absolutely excellent.
Second, sorry this is late. I think I forgot to categorize it as part of the Pro Writers category.
Okay, now to Chapter 5.
I almost included this as part of Chapter 4 — Writing the Opening, but the hook is such an important concept it deserves its own chapter.
Not only does a good hook capture the reader’s interest with the first word, phrase or sentence, but it also is one of your better marketing tools.
The best two things you can do to sell your current story or novel are
- give it an attractive, attention-grabbing cover, and
- provide a strong story hook at the beginning of the story.
And while I’m on the topic, the best thing you can do to sell your NEXT story or novel is write a great ending for the CURRENT story or novel.
Whereas the opening is the first scene of the story, the hook is the first striking sentence or paragraph. It is what compels the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next.
What Is a Hook?
A hook is a story starter for the reader, just as it might have been a story starter for the writer.
It is a few words, a first sentence or a first paragraph that grab the reader’s interest. Ideally, it’s so well written that the reader cannot escape and doesn’t want to escape.
The opening phrase and sentence should convey a sense of immediacy, curiosity and/or urgency that gives the reader no choice but to read the next sentence.
In addition to the hook at the beginning of the story, each scene should also have its own hook. In a longer work, each chapter should have its own hook.
Again, the task of the hook is to attract the attention of the reader so strongly that he doesn’t want to put down your story.
Please note that hooks often are universal. That is, a great hook in one genre can be plugged into another genre, often with no changes at all, and it will work fine.
The Components of a Hook
A good hook, from the first few words, will have one or more of the following effects on the reader:
- Convey a sense that the reader is crossing or has crossed a threshold.
- Convey a sense of intimacy, that you’re letting the reader in on a secret.
- Convey a sense of immediacy through emotion: intrigue, curiosity, fear, and so on.
- Pull the reader immediately into the mood of the story (ominous, dark, light, humorous, frightening, and so on).
- Hint at the main conflict in the story.
Think back for a moment over the last few stories you read. What about the first sentence made you want to keep reading? Compare it with the list above. Which of those components did it contain?
A Few Ways to Write Hooks
If you have a natural feeling for the language — if you’re an accomplished poet, perhaps, or if your friends often comment on your wit — writing a good hook might be a relatively simple exercise in thought.
If it isn’t, or even if it is, it’s almost always a good idea to begin with Action—In Ars Poetica, the poet Horace wrote that stories should be started in media res, meaning the storyteller should “snatch the reader into the middle of the action.”
Beginning in the middle of the action is the best way to hook a reader up front and keep him turning pages. You can do that in any of three ways:
- Open with a strong narrative, preferably one that appeals to the physical and emotional senses of the reader. The physical senses are sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The negative emotional senses are fear, trepidation, anger, caution, and so on. (Notice that the negative emotional senses are those the reader experiences when he feels tension.) The positive emotional senses are joy, elation, and so on.
- Open with dialogue. Staple this to the inside of your eyelids. In the written work, dialogue equals action. Because it links the reader directly to the characters in the story, dialogue immediately engages the reader and involves him in the story. Dialogue forces the reader to become a character in the story: the Eavesdropper.
- Write something that appeals strictly to the emotional senses, something so intriguing, so profound, or so well written that the reader must continue to read.
Here are a few of my own hooks for short stories or novels that were designed specifically to appeal to the reader’s physical and/or emotional senses. They enable the reader to experience what’s going on in the scene and/or they capture the reader’s imagination.
As you will see, sometimes a hook is only a sentence or two. Other times it takes a paragraph.
You’ll find many more examples of hooks in Appendix A.
From the short story, “On Bullies and Gods”
On the eighth day of my trek across Death Valley, I saw God.
From the short story, “Requiem for a Bard”
On a cloudy, dreary day in a very small town in Italy, in a room much larger than it had ever been before, Serafín hunched over his timeworn mahogany desk, laboring over a promised eulogy. His desk chair complained against the stained oak floor as he leaned back, rubbing the stubble on his cheeks.
From the novel, Body Language
The dark Louisiana night draped heavily over the swamp, absorbing sounds and collecting scents. It smelled of ancient things and evil things and people and purposes long forgotten.
From the novel, Confessions of a Professional Psychopath
Of the three wingback chairs in my library, only one is upholstered in human skin. There’s a reason for that.
From the novel, The Clearing
The night was dark, the air heavy. A foghorn sounded in the bay down below the coastal hills and was driven flat in the pattering rain. Still sitting in his car, Detective Sean McManus turned on the windshield wiper for one swipe. He leaned forward and peered at the warehouse before the rain could accumulate again.
From the novel, Leaving Amarillo
Wes Crowley leaned forward and poked at an ember that had popped out of the campfire a moment earlier. “Been a long trail this time, boys.” His attention fixed on the ember, he worked the tip of the stick under the edge nearest him, then flipped it backward into the fire. A few sparks released. “Sure lookin’ forward to gettin’ back.” He looked up, a tired, easy grin on his face. “What about you, Mac?”
Next up: Chapter 6 — Writing Setting
‘Til next time, happy writing!
The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.
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