The following are the notes from the presentation on writing hooks by Writers in the Grove member, Bunny Hansen. The two hour workshop presented in August 2015 was based upon extensive research by Bunny on the variety of hooks used in writing, with tips on how to write such hooks. Writers in the Grove thanks Bunny for sharing her notes with us.
In part two, Bunny covers the hooks found throughout a story or novel, focusing also on the hooks at the ends of chapters.
There is art in the writing of hooks and story openings. They are found in poems, short stories, fiction, and non-fiction. Even editorial articles begin with strong hooks that compel the reader to keep reading. Some are written by the author in the beginning, a thought that leads to the opening of a story, and others are crafted, each word considered carefully, tested among readers, torn apart and glued together to make the reader dive into the words.
A good hook sets the tone, the way the author expresses his attitude toward the subject, characters, action, and setting. Tone can be ironic, sarcastic, personal, impersonal, melancholy, joyous, angry, contemptuous, frightening, etc. Here are some of the characteristics of a well-written hook:
- Ideally the opening sentence.
- An attention-getter.
- Creates a bond of interest, giving the reader a reason to care and invest in reading the story.
- Says, “Drop everything you’re doing and read me right now.”
- Draws a reader into the action and the message, making him a part of the story or piece.
A good hook always asks a question whether implicitly or explicitly. The question is what makes an opening a hook. The body of your work (fiction, nonfiction, novel, essay, article, poem, book or music) answers the questions raised by the hooks. A good hook, thus a good question, engages the reader, and they spend the rest of the book seeking answers to those initial questions.
Consider the questions raised in the opening lines of the acclaimed and award-winning book, “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card.
I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.
Who is this person speaking? How are they watching and listening through this character? What could have that much power? Who is the one? Why is he the one? One for what? And why are we settling for this one? Have we run out of time? The questions just keep coming in the reader’s mind.
Jason Winston could take it no longer and hurled his cell phone into his grandmother’s Louis XVI mirror, shattering three generations of family bondage.
What tone to you hear from the view point character? The reader may ask what couldn’t Jason take any longer? Why is his cell phone ordinary and the mirror rare? What is the history of the family? It appears that the character has a strong antagonist perspective on his family’s history, setting up the story that is to come with tainted paint strokes.
In Writing Story Hooks – You Can’t Hook a Reader with a Yawn on The Editor’s Blog, the author explains the appeal of books, the expectation readers have when they open a book and read the first few words.
A murder mystery should open with a murder.
Suspense, thrillers and horror should set the reader on edge, get his emotions churning. These books, even from the start, should make the reader uneasy or fearful or expectant.
Romance should introduce hero and/or heroine in an appealing or amusing or lustful way.
Literary novels should introduce an intriguing character, someone readers will be eager to know.
Readers expect these premises to hold true. Choosing the right hook makes all the difference in defying the mundane expectations to give the reader more than they think they deserve. Thus the author follows up with, “You want the reader to bite? Give him something tasty to nibble on.”
Paula Berinstein of Kobow Writing Life suggests that good hooks:
Add a hint of spice. Whet our appetites by adding something intriguing, like incongruity, oddity, danger, tension.
Provide context. Hint at the setting and/or the situation so we know what we’re dealing with.
Get the reader to identify with the character and her predicament ASAP. Give us an interesting character in a pickle, and make sure the stakes are high so we’ll feel her pain.
In How to Write Good Hook Sentences on Kibin Blog, the key points in choosing a hook or opening sentence were explored. They are:
- Who is my audience?
- Do I have a captive audience?
- What matters to my audience?
- How do I want my audience to feel?
- What do I want my audience to take away?
Throughout our year-long weekly meetings and workshops, we explore the craft of writing, especially creative writing. Some of us dream of publishing, others just wish for a creative outlet. Either way, writing is a craft, a practice, and we must learn how to write stronger and better as part of developing our art.
Consider how much work went into writing the famous opening line of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austin. With a few words, she sets the tone of the storyteller as ironic and sarcastic, pushing against culture and the pressure and constricts of society. This opening phrase is so well-structured, it is featured in most articles and textbooks on writing hooks and story openers.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
A good hook involves action. Characters must move (physically or internal), engage in conflict, or set up action. In the above opening hook, we know the conflict and action will be found in the “want of a wife.”
Consider the conflict and questions in the following example.
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over roof tops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message for the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
Anthony Doer, “All the Light We Cannot See,” Pulitzer Prize Winner
This is an example of an action hook and good use of description. All description must have a purpose and must moves the action forward. How do these opening lines do that?
The leaflets aren’t dangerous, but they are harbingers of danger. Who is sending them? Why do they carry that message? Where is this? When is this happening?
There is also poetic counterpoint in the scene of the leaf-like leaflets swirling around the town, light and airy, yet they bring terrifying news and warning. There is a sense of danger and peace, conflict and security in a warning, and threat. Changing is coming, not of their own willingness. Conflict is here, and decisions must be made. Fast.
The following are more specific examples of writing hooks. My research has uncovered dozens and dozens of hook types, so this is just a brush of a few of them. As you go through each one, keep asking yourself what questions are being asked, and how does each hook differentiate itself from others so you will recognize them in the future and learn how to use them in your writing.
The Character Hook
A reader must identify with and care about the character or the action in some way, making a connection and building a relationship with the character – so much so they don’t want to put the book down as they fear the relationship might be over.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Book: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
We’ve all had first time experiences, especially with parents and grandparents. Some of us remember the first time we experienced snow, ice, a first dance, first kiss, first car…firsts are common ingredients for a good opening line.
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville set the opening lines as the summary of the story as well as sets the tone of the character.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
And off we go on his great adventure.
Opening lines that describe a character pull the reader into the story, especially if they can identify with the character. A well-defined character can also pull a reader in by pushing them away, by the presentation of the character as eccentric, obnoxious, or villainous. An example comes from Sinclair Lewis in his famous “Elmer Gantry” novel:
Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.
The man with the rubber boots on stepped into the elevator, but I didn’t see him at first.”
The Street lawyer by John Gresham
We all walk into elevators, some of us every day, and don’t pay attention to what and who is around us. Yet, look at the questions this opening hook raises. Why boots? Why rubber boots? Clearly, this isn’t normal, thus not raining and muddy in and around the location of the elevator, and what was it about the boots that foreshadows the next part of the story?
Norman Maclean’ “A River Runs Through It” caught the attention of many with his opening hook:
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
Instantly, families around the country had a relationship with the narrator. Religion and fishing are the backbone of many a North American family.
Another example of instant bonding comes from Roald Dahl’s classic book, “Matilda:”
It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Every parent identifies with this.
Tom Sanders never intended to be late for work on Monday. June 15.
Disclosure by Michel Crichton
What was it about that date? Mondays. We hate Mondays. Back to work. Back to the old grind. We’ve all experienced Mondays, but what was it about this Monday that made being late important to the character, and what about it keeps us reading?
Sir Tobias Glendower stared blankly out of the large windows of his All Souls study at the dismal greyness out of which a spiteful wind lashed unending raindrop tears against the glass. They were two weeks into Glorious June and it had been raining and it had been raining like this from the beginning of the month which had done nothing to raise his already- depressed spirits. He sighed heavily. He had so enjoyed writing The Age of Pericles the only book he had ever really wanted to write – and now it was over, done with: newly published and received with rapturous scholarly acclaim and more unlooked for and by him unwanted— honors by his peers.
“Dirge for a Dorset Druid” – Margot Arnold
The Contradiction Hook
A variation on the Character Hook is the Contradiction Hook, where the use of opposition is at play, concepts, statements, ideas, or descriptions opposed to one another. The contradictions intrigue, fostering curiosity and the need to know more, and describe the swirling conflicts inside the character or situation the reader find themselves in alongside the character.
In the following example, find the questions of the character hook and the contradiction hook.
The entire movie colony raced the morning sunrise to the starting line of the Malibu to Maui Catamaran Race but now the evening sunset has eclipsed Josh Goodman’s championship cat, still moored, and abandoned in its slip.
Can you find the question in that hook? The contradiction? A race is on and everyone is watching the event, but the championship boat is still tied to the dock. What’s going on? There is a subtle contradiction here, and questions that must be answered.
In an example of foreshadowing and contradictory storytelling, J.D. Salinger starts off his famous “The Catcher in the Rye” with:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
The voice and tone of the character is set and the conflict begins as an argument with the reader.
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
Asking for someone he was not…” great contradiction in the example of a wrong number. What is the question? Who is calling? That would be simple. The contradiction begs us to ask, “If this isn’t the person they were calling, who answered the phone?” Readers want to know.
In the classic Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, one of the most famous opening lines and hooks, we find a perfect example of contradiction.
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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to heaven or we were all going the other way, in short the period was so like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The Dramatic Action Hook
The Dramatic Action Hook is more than just action. It is a writing hook that represents:
- The sudden and extreme
- Affects people’s emotions
- Attracts attention
- Causes people to carefully listen, look, etc.
- Represents dramatic action such as escape or rescue
The movies and television shows of today feature excellent examples of dramatic action hooks, each scene filled with visuals and dialog that attracts and holds our attention, keeping us on the edge of our seats. In the storytelling world, dramatic action typically sets the reader into the middle of the moment, known as in media res, though that is a variation on the dramatic action hook.
Let’s begin with look at dramatic action hook examples.
He was hurt and riding cautiously.
St. Agnes’ Stand by Tom Edison
Can you find the question? Where is the drama? The action?
This is a great example of how an opening hook doesn’t have to be full of pomp and flair. With a few words, we start asking questions, demanding answers. Clearly, the character is injured, thus we question why, and he’s riding cautiously, creating an empathetic or sympathetic moment.
In a dramatic opening for Vikram Chandra’s bestseller “Sacred Games,” we are dropped into the middle of the action.
A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of the a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a grand-new building with the painter’s scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed.
Many consider “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White a classic children’s tale, but it’s opening line starts out with a prime example of in media res, placing the reader in the moment with a hint of the drama that follows.
Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
In the next example, tension is heightened with dialog.
In the darkness, he touched her arm and said, “Stay here.”
Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”
The reader wants to know what is happening, and the darkness and command imply a threat. There are things to be worried and afraid of.
In Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass,” the opening sentence leaks fear and foreshadowing all over the page.
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
The reader asks themselves what these two are up to, and what is there to be feared in the kitchen? Or are they avoiding the kitchen because they are up to trouble-making? There is danger here, and we care about what happens to this character.
Last night, I dreamt that I chopped Andrew up into a hundred little pieces, like a Benihana chef, and ate them, one by one.
Julie Buxbaum, The Opposite of Love
On the day of the tragedy, the boys of Windfield School had been confined to their rooms.
A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett
The reader is compelled to ask about the tragedy, but other questions linger, too. The drama is heightened as we know this is a tragedy, but we wonder if it happened at the school or nearby, and if any of the boys are involved.
The hook technique known as in media res is commonly found in poetry and short stories, but is also part of novel writing. It places the reader in the middle of the action, no backstory, no slow acclamation to the environment, smack in the middle of the drama and conflict. This Start-The-Reader-in-the-Middle-of-the-Action Hook takes not only the main character(s) but the reader into a crisis.
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
Louis Erdich in “Tracks (1988)
The imagination is caught immediately and the reader is placed into crisis. Where are they falling? From a mountain? Down a mountain? Somewhere it is snowing? Is this the cause of their death, or is it the cold?
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Foreshadowing, yes, but also the reader is set immediately in the middle of the action, a story told on a frigid winter day in 1975.
Ashkelon, Israel, 2:47 A.M.
The night rain came down like sheets of silver knives, the dark sky filled with darker masses of swirling black clouds, the swells of the sea and he whipping winds murderous for the two rubber rafts lashed to each other as they approached the shoreline.
The Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum
The reader is not only set in the middle of the action, they are in the middle of a place and the weather, action all around them. There is much of the story that led to this point but the reader isn’t given time to catch up until later.
Have you reached a verdict?” Judge Alfred Neff asked the eight men and four women seated in the jury box.
Gone But Not Forgotten by Stuart Margolis
The key moment in a trial is the verdict, and the author brings you right to that moment, waiting with the rest in the courtroom to hear the outcome.
The Shock/Surprise Hook
The Shock/surprise Hook is similar to the Dramatic Action Hook but it is differentiated not just by drama and terror, but by the fact that it tells the reader something they didn’t know and makes them want the ‘rest of the story.’ Or it says something in a way that surprises and intrigues the reader. The goal is to capture and shock the reader immediately, and raise questions about the character as well as the situation.
Consider the following, asking yourself what the questions are and how the shock or surprise is represented.
In Hope Clark’s “Lowcountry Bribe” we are given quite the surprise at the end of her opening sentence:
O-positive primer wasn’t quite the color I had in mind for the small office, but Lucas Sherwood hadn’t given the décor a second thought when he blew out the left side of his head with a .45.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
Book: Metamorphosis Author: Franz Kafka
Shocking and surprising, something not anticipated by the reader, yet dramatic and a bit terrifying at the same time, an interesting mix.
Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.
Book: The Stranger by Albert Camus
For those of us to whom death is a friend, this is not a surprising state of affairs. We know the brain drain that come with death, but for this character, and for the reader, this is not just a surprise but an example of a person being in shock.
I was fifteen that summer I fell in love with a dead woman.
Mohan Kumar in the short story “The Stone Mermaid”
Again we are surprised, the unexpected ending, and the questions that spring up as we consider how someone can love a dead woman, how did she die, and what is a fifteen year old doing loving a dead person.
The following examples also have a surprising twist at the end, setting the tone for what is to follow.
A screaming comes across the sky.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.
The Fist of God by Fredrick Forsyth
Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise until harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.
Dragon Tears by Dean Koontz
Opening with humor and satire comes under shock and surprise hooks, the little twists these opening sentences take on concepts we often take for granted.
Satire and humor set the tone of many an opening line. In “Breaking Up” by Bill Manville, his opening line sets the tone for the rest of the book.
I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.
Compare this with the foreshadowing of Douglas Adams’ “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” part of his Hitchhiker’s series:
In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
A great play on the opening lines of the Bible, twisted into a cynical commentary on the state of affairs in the universe.
Bill Bryson has been writing essays and books on his unique view of the world for decades, an American who grew up in England and returned to find himself out of touch with his native land, thus skewing his perspective on the world around him. In “The Lost Continent,” he opens with the brilliant voice and tone that defines this book and many of his others.
I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.
Among the many surprise opening lines found in my research, this was was a humdinger.
How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries.
Colin Meloy in “Wildwood”
George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eight Four” begins with a startling surprise that begs many questions:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
The Desire For Revenge or Justice Hook
Desire for revenge or justice is a subset of appealing to the emotions. With revenge and justice, the reader, like the main character(s), want to see wrongs set right. Many of the super hero novels and comics are filled with these hooks, as are many mystery and courtroom novels. From the opening hook through the story, the plot twists and turns as the protagonist effects that change.
Consider the following, an ironic opening that surprises us with twist, and the foreshadowing that the character has a righteous case for justice.
If learned two things from my job at IBM: don’t have multiple sclerosis and don’t get mercury poisoning.
Sandra Kischuk’s book in process: Bad Bosses in Corporate America
Along with revenge and justice comes the path to forgiveness or not, the acceptance of the situation while battling against it. What is right may become blurred as the path to justice is followed.
it took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
Gregory David Roberts – “Shantaram”
In “Thank You For Not Smoking,” Christopher Buckley takes on the cigarette industry with a powerful opening hook:
Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.
The Question and Delayed Answer Hook (AKA Leave Them Wanting More)
The Question and Delayed Answer Hook leaves us waiting for more. It opens with a question but takes most of the story to answer. Yet the question is intriguing enough, the reader pursues the answer page after page. Crafting a Leave-Them-Wanting-More hook takes care. If there isn’t enough motivation and hooks throughout the story, the reader may quit before they get to the answer. We’ll talk more about hooks within a story and between chapters later in this article. The hook must make the reader patient and impatient for the answer.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
Franz Kafka, The Trial
There are so many questions packed into this well-written opening hook, including the need to know the story of the slander as well as the arrest. It sets up the entire story.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
And the reader hopes the pages will reveal all.
The Foreshadowing Hook
Having an opening line that hints to the meat of the story is a great way to get the reader interested. Foreshadowing is different from the Question-and-Delayed-Answer as it is answering the questions as the reader moves through the story, but hints of what to come to intrigue the reader, making them want for more. Foreshadowing hints rather than asks and answers questions. Foreshadowing is often defined as making the reader guess and assume what it coming.
I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Clearly the question in the hook swirls around the situation the character finds themselves in that they would make such a statement. The hook warns us that something unimaginable is coming, and that the main character and narrator may die before the book is finished. There is much for the reader to grasp in that well-crafted hook.
I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea.
Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
Clearly, the idea of kissing Giovanni is a hint. This is also a good example of in media res, putting the reader in the middle of the action. It denotes risk, a challenge, self-doubt, and temptation, and we just know she is going to make a beeline for that trouble.
There is much foreshadowing in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series. In “The Philosopher’s Stone,” the book opens with a twist and a bit of irony as it explains:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
You can hear the narrator’s tone, the condemnation of normalcy, and the threat, most likely immediately, to that normalcy. The reader is just waiting for what comes next, eagerly waiting, thank you very much.
In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald offers a simple foreshadowing opening line, again asking more questions than answering.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
Hemingway does the same thing with even more subtly.
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green flap of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
The Short, Happy life of Francis Macomber by Earnest Hemingway
Can you find the question? It maybe a bit challenging, but if you consider it carefully, you will see that the question lies in what they are pretending, and what possibly could have happened, foreshadowing the story to come.
Many years from now, whenever he thinks back to Dita Kronin’s murder, Paul Ginis’s memories will always return to the start of the day.
Identical by Scott Turrow
Can you find the question? Who murdered Dita, and what happened at the start of that day…gripping your attention.
For more information on foreshadowing, a writing technique found throughout most fiction and non-fiction writing, see:
- Foreshadowing – Examples and Definition of Foreshadowing
- Foreshadowing Examples and Definition – Literary Devices
- Author’s Craft – Narrative Elements – Foreshadowing
Description as a Hook
A descriptive hook is one that let’s the description pull the reader into the story. This is a carefully crafted form of hook as too much description maybe boring. Remember, a well-written hook asks the reader questions, so the description must set up these questions, but encourage the reader to seek their answers.
Description sets the scene as well as defines the character. Sometimes the character is defined by their environment as in this example.
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
Gynter Grass in The Tin Drum
This is an excellent descriptive hook, using description of the place where the inmate is being held as a way to describe the main character. You know what the person is, where they is, and get a sense of their world.
Backstory and too much description at the opening of a story can bore the reader, getting them stuck in the details before they become invested in the story. Consider letting the character’s reaction to their surroundings provide the description. This also helps to define and develop the character, such as in this example:
She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.
Michael Ontaatje, The English Patient
This lovely and simple sentence – or so it appears – is filled with questions, describing a scene with little description but you can see her standing in the garden, looking off toward the horizon, seeing something we know is coming. Without knowing what she looks like her age, shape, size, color, we know that she is working in the garden and we have a sense of her presence in her reaction to what is coming.
Description sets the tone, not only of the place and character, but the voice of the storyteller, their perspective on the world and the story. Consider the tone of voice in this descriptive opening.
Francic Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
Flannery O’Conner – The Violent Bear It Away
Can you find the question in this descriptive hook? There are several, beginning with why the man was dead and why it was still sitting there a half day later, and why the boy was burying his uncle.
Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” takes us immediate to a time and place with its description. It is foreshadowing of the suffering to come as well.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
In “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov uses plays on words and language games to beat out the rhythm of his opening lines, creating sensations within the mind and body for the reader.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
In “Necromancer” by William Gibson, he opens with this powerful description, bring us to a time and place with only a few words.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Another good example of a descriptive hook that sets the tone for the rest of the story comes from “Sideways Stories from Wayside Shool” by Louis Sachar.
We’re going to tell you about three of the children in Mrs. Jewls’s class, on the thirtieth story of Wayside School. But before we get to them, there is something you ought to know. Wayside School was accidentally built sideways. It was supposed to be only one story high, with thirty classrooms all in a row. Instead, it is thirty stories high, with one classroom on each story. The builder said he was very sorry.
Again, be wary of offering long description that set the scene but bore the reader before they become vested in the story. Keep the action going, include conflict, foreshadowing, and place the reader squarely in the middle of the action.
Good advice on how to control your descriptive openings comes from literary agent, Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, offering advice on how not to get a science fiction book published:
A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.
The Puzzle Hook
Everyone loves a good puzzle, and hooks offer their own puzzles to hook a reader’s imagination.
In this example by Jeffery Eugenides in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Middlesex,” he hooks us with a fascinating puzzle.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960,and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Peroskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
The questions are piece of the puzzle. How can someone be born twice? A boy and a girl in the same person? Is this a novel about a transsexual experience or something deeper, scarier? What happened during both of those births to be a life changing event for both the main character and the reader?
A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
A secret is a puzzle, one worth solving and knowing, but more puzzling is who the people are from whom it must be kept, and how to keep it a secret.
Puzzle hooks tease, but they also get the reader’s brain engaged in figuring things out, explaining much of the thrill associated with reading the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Current Event Hooks
Current event hooks are for every type of writing genre, hooks that catch our attention because they represent a familiar event or current event or newsworthy item.
Nancy Ellen Dodd, author of “The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages,” explained in a Freelance Writing Ask the Experts series:
Finding ways to interest your readers can come from current events. What do people care about? What are they thinking about as you write your book? How can you incorporate something from today into your story hook? What are the concerns or fears of this particular audience? Is there a new science discovery or a major catastrophic event or a political scandal or war that will be on people’s minds?
While not a raging political event or world-changing storm, Lisa Yee’s character “Millicent Min” in her award winning book, “Girl Genius,” sets the tone for the modern female high school student in today’s technologically savvy world that is starting to praise genius over sportsmanship. It is very timely.
I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.
Contrast that present day opening with Janet Evanonich’s novel in the Stepanie Plum series, “Seven Up:”
For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple–I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.
As we end this section on opening line hooks, a good closing hook to offer you is from the book, “Choke,” by the author of the bestseller “Fight Club,” Chuck Palahniuk:
If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.
In the next article in this series, Bunny Hansen covers the hooks found within and at the end of chapters.
Read More About Writing Hooks
The following are links to articles with more information, research, and examples on how to write solid hooks that catch your reader and keep them reading.
- Hiding the Ball: How to Hook Your Reader from Page One | The Daily Fig
- Writing Tips – Seven Hooks to Tease your Reader – HubPages
- How Can Story Writers And Book Authors Hook Their Readers? – Freelance writing – Ask the Experts
- 53 Of The Best Opening Sentences In Literature
- Great Opening Lines to Hook Young Readers : NPR
- How do you choose a hook to begin a story effectively? – Quora
- Hooks » Patricia C. Wrede
- Writing Story Hooks – You Can’t Hook a Reader with a Yawn | The Editor’s Blog
- How to Start Your Novel: Advice From Literary Agents
- 6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line – Write It Sideways
- How to Write Good Hook Sentences – Kibin Blog
- Six tips for engaging readers within two seconds: The Hook in fiction and memoir | Kobow Writing Life
- Writing Hooks (Not Crooks) – Vision: A Resource for Writers
- Write As If Your Life Depended On It: Post #19 – Building Better Opening Paragraphs
- Setting the hook | Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
- Novel Openings: How to Hook the Reader with your First Chapter – The Gift of Writing