What is a hook?
Generally speaking . . .
“A hook is a device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling anything–in this case, a reader,” says Dwight Swain.
“‘Hook’ is an apt term,” says Noah Lukeman, “because it works like a fishhook: if you barely hook a fish, say, by the edge of his lip, there is a chance he’ll get away. But if you hook him deeply, say, through his entire cheek, he is yours.”
People use hook to refer to a few different things, so I’m going to divide them up.
A. The Concept Hook
“The overriding element of your concept is called a hook,” says Jim Mercurio. “It is what immediately captures your audience’s attention and distinguishes your story from others in the same genre.”
“A hook is the concept of the [story] in a nutshell,” says Alex Epstein. But “Not just any concept. A hook is a fresh idea for a story that instantly makes show business people interested in reading your script, and then makes the audience want to see your movie.”
“[The] unique or original element to an otherwise familiar story idea is often referred to as its hook,” says Michael Hauge. “This is the startling, seductive idea that makes people hear about a movie and say, ‘Wow–I’ve got to see that!’”
James Scott Bell says, “The hook is the big idea, the reason a reader browsing in the bookstore would look at your cover copy and go, ‘Wow!’”
It “is the aspect of the subject [of your story that] we haven’t seen before,” says James Bonnet.
It’s “the storyline or angle that makes your narrative unique, and from which all other plot events flow,” says Jordan Rosenfeld.
“The hook is primarily about concept,” says Gary Provost. “It’s about pitching the marketability and originality of your idea.”
“The hook is how you convince [people] to give your book, your screenplay a chance out of the myriad of possibilities vying for their attention,” says H. R. D’Costa.
“Every submission needs a hook,” says Chris Roerden, “something sharp to catch the attention of a busy screener.“
Blythe Camenson & Marshall J. Cook agree: “Ideally, every novel should have a hook: a special plot device or unique approach, a twist that grabs the readers’ attention and makes them want to read more. It can be something that will make them say, ‘ooh’ when they hear it . . . A hook is a concept, an intriguing idea that readers would find compelling.”
Mr. Lukeman adds, “Despite popular misconception, though, the hook is more than a marketing tool. At its best, it can be not only a propellant but also a statement of what you might expect from the text to come.”
B. Opening Hooks
“It’s well known in screenwriting circles that you have only 10 pages to hook the reader . . . The same is true of novels,” says Larry Brooks. “In either case the best stories offer the reader–an agent or an editor–something she can sink her teeth into before she finds herself asking, ‘When is this thing going to kick in?’ In both cases, that something is called the hook.”
“Every beginning must draw your reader into your story and, as quickly as possible, get them to suspend disbelief in your created world and accept it as ‘reality,’” says Elizabeth Lyon.
“Hook is the term that means your opening is a grabber, a page-turner,” says Jessica Page Morrell.
“The hook is what grabs the reader’s attention from the start and gets him pulled into the narrative,” says Mr. Bell.
“It’s something that grabs the reader very early in the read and makes her want to stick around,” says Mr. Brooks.
Making the Most of Your Opening Hook
“[S]tory openings make significant promises that relate to the main character’s pursuit,” says Steven James, so “use them to your advantage. Solidify (1) the promises your hook makes regarding the protagonist’s struggles; (2) the clarity and resonance of sensory impressions; (3) the presence of strong, visceral emotions; and (4) the uniqueness of the voice.”
Ms. Roerden gives us a checklist. “See how many of the following characteristics are true for your hook:
- Arouses curiosity about who, what, where, when, how, and why;
- Introduces the main character as soon as possible and leaves no doubt about who is the lead;
- Begins with the problem, predicament, conflict, threat, or change;
- Plunges into the middle of the situation;
- Uses tone to create a mood without piling-on adjectives and adverbs;
- Stirs emotions that keep readers identifying with the central character’s feelings;
- Sets a tone consistent with the main character’s attitude;
- Avoids being cliched, boring, or hokey–not contrived solely for shock value;
- Sustains curiosity well past the first chapter;
- Keeps action going without submerging it and backstory or description;
- Suggests a contradiction of some kind.”
Mr. James adds the following question to the checklist: “Does it make accurate promises for this story’s direction and take into consideration what readers will already know about the novel from its title, cover, back-cover copy, blurbs, and reviews?”
Now, “Depending on who you talk to,” says Mr. James, “they’ll tell you the [opening] hook needs to happen in the first chapter, the first paragraph, or even the first sentence.” To that end . . .
1. Opening Hook: The Story Question
“What most good hooks have in common is that they have strong inciting incidents that plunge the protagonist immediately into trouble–the trouble that’s going to occupy the rest of the story,” says Les Edgerton. “The surest way to involve the reader is to begin with an opening scene that changes the protagonist’s world profoundly and creates a story-worthy problem” and “a story question–will the protagonist overcome the daunting problem confronting him?”
Ms. Roerden says, “In the basic formulas of fiction, Foster-Harris defines the hook as ‘the first, potent statement of what is the matter with the central character, what his problem is, what difficulty he is facing.’”
Mr. Brooks says, “The mission of a hook is to grab the reader . . . by establishing dramatic tension or posing a question (a can of worms) that compels further interest and promises a rewarding ride. Sometimes it’s huge, sometimes it’s more subtle.”
2. Opening Hook: The First Scene/Event
Deborah Chester says, “[Y]ou want to open your story with a strong hook–an event that’s attention-grabbing and will pull readers into your story.”
“By any other description or name tag, when something really compelling happens in the first scene of your story, or the first 10 pages, if it isn’t in the first scene, that’s a hook,” says Mr. Brooks.
Mr. Swain says, “A hook may be defined as a scene at the beginning of a story that is striking and self-explanatory and plunges some character (the hero or heroine, preferably) into danger in a manner that intrigues your readers.”
Lisa Cron gives us more: “[I]n order to distract us from the relentless demands of our immediate surroundings, a story has to grab our attention fast. And, as neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says, nothing focuses the mind like surprise. That means when we pick up a book, we’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass. This means that from the first sentence we need to catch sight of the breadcrumb trail that will lure us deeper into the thicket.”
3. Opening Hook: The First Line
“Some first lines are so powerful that you absolutely have to keep reading on,” says Mr. Lukeman. “This is known as a ‘hook.’”
“Knowledgeable writers make it virtually impossible for readers to put their book down,” says Don McNair, “by starting their story with a hook: a sentence that asks a story question the reader wants answered.”
Ms. Cron agrees: “Story Secret: From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next.”
“Like any lead you write, the first paragraph,” says Ms. Lyon, “should draw the reader into what you say and make them eager to read on. That’s a hook!”
A “first line should be a high-tensile line,” says Ms. Roerden. “Tensile: capable of being stretched or drawn out. An effective hook stretches out interest beyond the first sentence. It raises a question that teases us into seeking the answer in the next sentence. There, we learn just enough to want to learn more. The high-tensile line is sustainable. It keeps stretching, stringing us along, drawing us from one sentence to the next– preferably nonstop.”
All this said, Ms. Roerden counters that “many authors open more sedately . . . and sharpen their hooks gradually, letting a slightly later sentence be the one to turn the screw.”
Mr. McNair agrees. Sort of. “Sometimes, of course, the hook won’t handily fit into one sentence. That’s okay, if it starts in that first sentence . . .”
4. Opening Hook: A Reason to Care About Your Character
“Simply put, we are looking for a reason to care,” says Ms. Cron. “So for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but also there must be a consequence we can anticipate” or a hint “that intriguing information is on its way. This means that . . . on the first page, there has to be a ball already in play. Not the preamble to the ball. Not all the stuff you have to know to really understand the ball. The ball itself. This is not to say the first ball must be the main ball—it can be the initial ball or even a starter ball. But on that first page, it has to feel like the only ball and it has to have our complete attention.”
Donald Maass says, “Plot hooks don’t worry me. Most manuscripts have those. What many do not have are emotional hooks, meaning a simple reason to care about a character–which is to say apprehend something good about them–as soon as we meet.”
Ms. Roerden says, “Caring about the main character is the ultimate hook.”
5. Opening Hook: Seeing the Scene
Mr. James says, “It’s much more important to create an opening that readers can see, one that allows them to develop empathy or admiration for the character, then it is to come up with a clever first line.”
Mr. Provost says, “Hooking a reader is about catching that reader from the outset: no explanations, no set up or slow windup to your story, but bang–straight into it.”
How do I find my story’s big concept hook?
a. Look to your concept.
“Concept points us toward the hook, the Big Question, the compelling conceit of the fiction that is the source of dramatic tension, theme, character arc, and the prospect of engaging a reader’s emotions,” says Mr. Brooks.
b. Pay attention to life.
Mr. Epstein says you come up with story hooks by paying attention. “[P]aying attention means being aware of the real stories going on all around you, and then twisting them into a movie premise,” but “paying attention can also be a more general process. There might be an idea floating in the air, or a new technological development.”
Mr. Epstein says you can also steal. “Stealing seems to be more popular than paying attention, probably because so few people are any good at paying attention. . . . One very effective form of stealing is updating the classics.”
d. Twist your genre.
Billy Mernit suggests taking your story’s genre’s tried and true, but old formula (such as the romantic comedy’s meet-date-lose-get formula, “and push it in fresh, unexpected directions.”
e. Look to what excited you.
Mr. Hauge suggests looking back to what interested you about your story and made you excited to write it. This is what hooked you, and it’s probably what will best hook your readers.
Many aspects of a story that can serve as Big Concept hooks. Ms. D’Costa lists several:
- Origin of material
- Book cover
- Reputation of the content creator
- Word of mouth
Mr. James adds:
How do I fing my Beginning and In-Story Hooks?
“A hook is something that intrigues the reader, and it can be virtually anything that makes the reader want to read further,” says Mr. Edgerton. It “can be the lovely language of the author, or any of a dozen and one other things. In short, anything that can draw the reader in can serve as a hook.”
It doesn’t matter what your hook is, agrees Mr. Brooks, “as long as it’s visceral, sensual, emotionally resonant, and makes a promise of an intense and rewarding experience ahead.”
“Ordinarily,” says Mr. Swain, “you [create hooks] by raising the fear that something will or won’t happen.”
A hooking sentence, says Ms. Roerden, “raises the questions that we want answered–a want that keeps us hooked: what, who, when, [where,] how, and why.”
Ms. Chester lists the following Opening and In-story hook methods:
- Raising a question
- Introducing a vivid character
- Using unpredictability
- Changing the existing circumstances
- Creating an immediate danger
- Utilizing a sinister atmosphere
- Leaping into action
Ms. Brooks adds:
Mr. Maass adds:
- Make the character care – “find something warm and human that your main character cares about [as the novel opens]. If your story is exotic, choose something we would care about in the here and now. If your story has an ordinary setting, find something about which your protagonist is passionate. Open with this feeling.”
- Contradiction – “find in your opening situation something different, odd, curious, puzzling, weird, contradictory, a paradox, or hard to explain. Highlight it. Don’t pile on more or explain too much too soon. Let the mystery posed or question raised work on your reader for a bit. There’s tension in the unknown.”
Robert McKee gives us even more to work with. He says, “Marketing may entice an audience into the theatre, but it needs a compelling reason to stay involved. A story must hook and hold interest by attracting both sides of human nature, curiosity and concern. This fundamental principle creates three possible ways to connect the audience to your story.
- Mystery – In Mystery, the audience knows less than the characters. We create, but then conceal, expositional facts, arousing the audience’s curiosity. Mystery writers tease the audience with hints of the truth, then deliberately keeps it in the dark by hiding the real facts.
- Suspense – Suspense combines both curiosity and concern. Ninety percent of all stories, comedy and drama, compel interest in this mode. In Suspense, however, curiosity is not about fact but outcome. Characters and audiences move shoulder to shoulder through the telling. As the characters discover expositional fact, the audience does too. But what no one knows is “How will this turn out?”
- Dramatic Irony – When the audience is given godlike superiority of knowing events before they happen, its emotional experience changes, eliminating curiosity and creating concern. Such stories often open with the ending, deliberately giving away the outcome. What in Suspense would be anxiety about outcome, becomes compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.”
- Imagery-evoking words –words that resonate with your genre, whether love, horror, action, mystery, etc. Choose these words over less-evoking words to show that you know where you’re headed and that you know how to delight the reader.
Where Else Should I Put Hooks?
Don’t just put hooks in your opening scene and sentence. Put hooks everywhere.
Mr. McNair says, “A hook may get those elusive readers past the first paragraph, but what keeps them reading the whole scene? Why, more hooks of course.”
End of Chapters
Mr. McNair says to include hooks “at the end of every chapter. You must put a hook in, snag the reader’s attention, and build their anticipation so high that they literally have to read into the next scene or chapter to find out what happens.”
Ms. Chester agrees: “Look at how your chapters end. . . . Do you ever end a chapter with your protagonist falling asleep? Do you think that will keep readers turning pages? End chapters instead with strong hooks. Scene setbacks work very well. Decisions at the end of sequels that point to action ahead will also keep readers turning pages.”
Anywhere You Can
Mr. Lukeman says, “The employment of a hook at the close of a paragraph, page, or chapter, where it can be at least as effective [as when placed at a beginning], is often neglected (a major oversight).” So, ““In an attempt to get you to apply the intensity of your hook to your manuscript as a whole, think of hooks in a completely new way: not just to be used as openings and closings of chapters but also as openings and closings of line breaks, of paragraphs and ultimately even of sentences. . . .When you work on hooks, the text between them will take on a more focused feel, propelled from an opening and leading to a closing. They should add an extra layer of intensity to your manuscript.”
“Look for the spots where that editor in New York is going to put this manuscript down and never pick it up again,” says Jack Bickham. “What can you do to put hooks into those soft spots?”
Ms. Chester says, “The middle section is a good place to revive some of those earlier plates [defined below, but essentially she means hooks]. Certainly you need to introduce new ones.”
Mr. McNair and Ms. Chester give us two analogies for how to strategize placing, milking, and paying off your hooks:
First, Mr. McNair gives us Shoes:
If you’re still confused about what a hook is, think about the little old lady who goes to bed promptly at 10:30. A little old man in the apartment above her goes to bed at 10:35. She lays there listening as he drops his first shoe, then the second. With a smile, she rolls over and falls asleep.
But what would happen if that little old man dropped the first shoe, then quietly placed the second one on his nightstand? Our little old lady would still be lying there wide awake, wouldn’t she? She’d be staring into the darkness at the ceiling, perhaps as her heart races a bit, waiting for that second shoe to drop.
It’s your job, as an author of fiction, to drop that first shoe, and wait before you drop the second. . . .
You want to drop that first shoe, then wait a while before dropping the second. But before you drop that second shoe, you want to drop the first shoe of another pair. . . . Always keep them anxious to find out what happens next.Don McNair
Mr. McNair says you can do other things with your shoes besides dropping one and then another. You can also pick the first shoe up again before you drop the second. “Simply pick up the first one and wave it once more in the reader’s faces.” This is to remind them that it’s still in play and that they should still be curious.
Second, Ms. Chester gives us Plates:
‘Plates’ is a term some writers use for tiny questions thrown into the story, solely to keep readers curious or concerned. . . . Its effectiveness lies in where and how the tiny questions are raised or answered. . . .
If you raise a question in your story, you must answer it. Failing to do so simply isn’t fair to readers. So don’t throw plates up and forget to catch them. It’s a juggling act, which means you are–for dramatic purposes–sending some to spin, letting one wobble until it’s almost gone, and then spinning it a new and bringing down a plate while putting up three more.
This constant flow of new hooks and questions, of answering a question only to immediately spin more, creates the illusion of many things happening. Avoid predictability by not following a set pattern. . . . Just remember that if you plan to delay answering it for more than three to ten pages, mention it periodically (re-spin the plate) so readers don’t forget to worry about it. . . .
There’s no limit on how many plates you might use. I’ve counted as many as thirty plates in a single chapter and as few as ten. But again, remember that you must answer each one, bringing it down adeptly.Deborah Chester
Now, when I say put hooks everywhere, I mean everywhere. Mr. Maass agrees. He gives us a technique he calls microtension:
Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment [sentence-level] tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds. . . .
So, let’s start with this concept: micro-tension has its basis not in story circumstances or in words: it comes from emotion and not just any old emotions but conflicting emotions. . . .
[In dialogue,] find the emotional friction between the speakers. Or externalize your focal characters’ inner conflicts. Or pit allies against each other. True tension in dialogue comes not from what is being said, but from inside those who are saying it. . . .
[T]ension in action comes not from the action itself but from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it. [From his conflicting–or better yet, opposite–emotions.] . . .
[And] true tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil; it springs from emotions in conflict and ideas at war.Donald Maass
Hooks: The Numbers
1. How many hooks can I have?
Ms. D’Costa says, “We’ve mostly danced around this before, but let’s mention it explicitly now: stories can have, and usually do have, more than one hook.”
This is true of Concept hooks and a truly huge understatement about In-Story hooks.
2. How much leeway do I have to setup my hook?
Mr. James says, “The length of the hook [or, rather, how long you can take to get to your hook] is determined somewhat by your book’s length. The longer the story, the more latitude readers will give you in setting things up at the start.”
Don’t Dull Your Hooks: Cautions
“The hook is not the miracle tool it’s often made out to be,” says Loren D. Estleman. “What follows is almost always a letdown, and when you try too hard to live up to a jackrabbit start, you’ve written a cartoon.”
“Yes, your book’s opening should be engaging enough to spark readers’ interest, but the problem with these ‘gripping’ hooks so many people advocate is the drop in escalation and tension that often follows them,” says Mr. James. “The hook that doesn’t provide the impetus for escalation will sabotage the progression of your story.” When this happens, the hook “becomes a gimmick and undermines your readers’ engagement with the story.”
Mr. Lukeman also agrees, telling us to beware of “the hook at one with the text but disproportionate in terms of intensity or hyperbole–the ‘overexcited’ hook. This is a danger because it sets us up for more than we get. . . . If this is your problem, then the solution . . . is to work on bridging the gap; . . . the gap need not be bridged in terms of content necessarily, but more by the hook being smoothed out or toned down.”
“Many a manuscript comes close to hooking readers with an interesting line or two, but it doesn’t sustain our curiosity,” says Ms. Roerden. “Faltering interest is reason enough for a busy screener to move on to the next manuscript, and from that one to the next–preferably Non-Stop.”
Mr. James says escalation has failed when “You devour that first chapter and flip to the second one–which turns out to be a snore-worthy yawn fest . . .” and the hook itself has failed when “the novel starts with the yawn fest, and you never make it to chapter two at all.”
“The most common problem is a hook that stands on its own, in the worst sense,” says Mr. Lukeman. “In this case, the text that follows seems to be of a whole different work, and in retrospect the hook seems more of a one-liner, a gimmick to catch attention. The reason this is so is because the hook really is not part of the text. The solution therefore is to bridge the gap, to make the hook and text integral to each other. That can be done by either starting again with the same hook and creating a new text that grows out of it, or working backward, keeping the text you’ve written and writing a new hook. Incidentally, I’m not advocating bland hooks; the challenge is to have the provocative hook but at the same time not have the discrepancy.”
Mr. James agrees. “An intriguing hook is important, but it must do more than simply grab attention. It also needs to be honest to the story, to the voice, and to the direction you’re taking things.” “So hook readers, but do so while keeping the broader context of your story in mind.”
Make sure your hooks vary. “Avoid predictability by not following a set pattern,” says Ms. Chester.
Mr. Estleman agrees: “The chief drawback of a sharp instrument is it gets dull fast. If you develop a reputation for opening with hooks, the novelty will wear off soon. When it comes to capturing the reader, quicksand is just as effective.”
“Wordiness counteracts the impact of a hook,” says Ms. Roerden. “Cramming multiple actions into a single sentence can make even a well-written hook sink of its own weight. One exception: where the weight of repetition creates a deliberate effect.”
Mr. James recommends asking yourself: “Is my opening sentence concise and evocative, or have I tried to do too much, turning it into its own paragraph? How can I pare it down to a more effective length?”
Ms. D’Costa says to make sure your concept “hooks ‘play nice’ with each other.” If accommodating a hooks requires adding too much complexity to the story, or if a hook fits in easily but isn’t really adding anything to how the story plays out, then consider saving that hook for a different story.
Ms. Camenson & Mr. Cook bluntly say, “If you can’t identify the [concept] hook, it probably means you didn’t build it in when you sat down to write your novel. It could be time to go back to the ‘plotting board’ to rectify matters.”
Last Bits of Advice
“Often, the more clever you try to make your hook, the less effective it will be,” says Mr. James. “A strong hooks is authentic, not just memorable.”
“Don’t fall in love with the hook you currently have. A novel is fluid until it’s published, so try some hooks on for size, but don’t pressure yourself to come up with one before moving forward,” says Mr. James. “Only when you’ve finished your book will you know where it should ideally start, so quite possibly the opening line is the last thing you’ll write as you complete your first draft.”
Last, to sum up: “When you edit your opening [or whole manuscript],” says Ms. Roerden, “determine whether it fulfills its primary function of making readers want to read the next line, and the next, and each line after that.”
Books with a Chapter on Hooks
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Up Next, in Two Wednesdays
We’ll look at how some master storytellers hook us delighted readers. See you then!