Hooks Big and Small–How the Masters Do It

We looked at hooks last week, both concept hooks that pique our initial interest in a story and in-story hooks that keep us engaged from start to finish. Today we’re looking at how a few New York Times bestsellers hook us. 

I pulled these loglines from the February 2, 2020 NYTBS list, and then looked for hooks in their openings as provided by the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon (all affiliate-linked below). I’ll let you be the judge as to whether each story’s concept, opening lines, and opening event hook you or not.  Here we go . . .

This page contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

1. Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens

  • Logline: In a quiet town on the North Carolina coast in 1969, a young woman who survived alone in the marsh becomes a murder suspect.
  • Concept Hook: 
    • If this story is considered literary fiction, the murder is the hook that sets it apart. 
    • If it’s considered a murder mystery or thriller, then the literary aspect is a hook that sets it apart. 
    • Irony: If the young woman has always been alone, why would she be a murder suspect?
  • Opening Line:  “Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky.”
  • Opening Event:  There’s a body in a swamp, “which would have absorbed it,” but two kids on bikes spot the victim’s denim jacket.
  • Other opening hooks:  Kya’s Mom inexplicably leaves the house:  “Who had left the shack? Not Ma. She never let the door slam. But when Kya ran to the porch, she saw her mother” walking down the driveway in her best clothes and carrying a suitcase; lots of caring-about-the-character happening; lots of voice in general.
  • Microtension:  The microtension in the opening page is mostly establishing the main character’s uncertainty and concern.
    • The morning is quiet, described in a way that makes it sound like it’s always quiet, and then Kya hears “the screen door slap.”  Slap is a good word, since what’s about to happen to her is like a slap in the face.
    • When she looks out at her mom, her mother’s “shoes were fake alligator skin. Her only going-out pair.”
    • “Usually . . . Kya knew her mother would return with meat . . . But she never wore the gator heels, never took the case.”
    • Kya wants to “holler, but knew not to rouse pa.”  Even when her mom’s inexplicably leaving.

2. Lost by James Patterson and James O. Born

  • Logline: The new head of an F.B.I. task force takes on a crime syndicate run by a pair of Russian nationals.
  • Concept Hook
    • High Stakes (I had to look at the jacket copy to get it, but those who read James Patterson may, upon seeing his name, just assume high stakes)
    • Wish-fulfillment: What’s it like to head an FBI task force and take down international bad guys?
  • Opening Line:  “Miami International Airport isn’t exactly a tranquil space on a normal day–if there’s such a thing as a normal day in MIA. Now, as I watched a human trafficker strolling toward the immigration portal with six kids in tow, it felt like a hurricane was about to hit indoors.”
  • Opening Event:  The main character watches a human trafficker with six kids and makes no move to take him down. He wants to see how the guy gets the kids through the airport rigmarole.
  • Other opening hooks
    • Opens in the middle of things with immediate stakes: human trafficker with six kids in tow
    • dialogue of questions without, or with delayed, answers
    • easy-to-read voice
    • kidnapper takedown is left unresolved while they jump to a new scene (and fit in some backstory).
  • Microtension:
    • “human trafficker strolling” – juxtaposition of contradictory images
    • main character’s relaxed attitude contradicts the situation. The guy fidgeting next to him is tapping a rhythm that MC recognizes. “The man stopped tapping out ‘Jingle Bells’–hey, I got it”

3. Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

  • Logline: A 12-year-old boy tries to start over after becoming the sole survivor of a plane crash in which he lost his immediate family.
  • Concept Hook:  What’s it like to lose your whole immediate family in one fell swoop?  When you’re twelve?
  • Opening Line:  “Newark Airport is shiny from a recent renovation. There are potted plants at each joint of the security line, to keep passengers from realizing how long they’ll have to wait.”
  • Opening Event:  The Adler family is going through the luggage and body scanning process at the airport.
  • Other beginning hooks
    • The fifteen-year-old son tells the security guy that he wants to opt out of the scan. 
    • “There are four reasons I’m not going through this [body scanner] machine. Would you like to hear them?”
  • Microtension:  It seems to me the concept hook is doing most of the work here, because we dread its coming.
    • The recognizable ordinariness of going through the security process juxtaposed with what we know is coming
    • Guard describes the pat-down as “thorough,” italics in the original, which gives me a little surge of indignation.
    • The mom says the kid will be okay, but then “can’t bear to look” – words contradicting action
    • “[S]he focuses on the tactile pleasure of her child’s hand in hers. She has missed this.”  Wait–what? Why?

4. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

  • Logline: Tumult ensues when Alix Chamberlain’s babysitter is mistakenly accused of kidnapping her charge.
  • Concept Hook: What if you were a babysitter charged with kidnapping the kid?  (When I first read this, I thought the concept was, What if you left your kid with the wrong caretaker?  This logline might be clearer if restated as, Tumult ensues when a babysitter is mistakenly accused of kidnapping her charge.  . . . but making it “Alix Chamberlain’s” babysitter gives it a little extra hook–who is this Alix?  Why are they so important?–so what do I know…) 
  • Opening Line:  “That night, when Mrs. Chamberlain called, Emira could only piece together the words ‘…take Briar somewhere…’ and ‘…pay you double.'”
  • Opening Event:  While Emira is at a friend’s birthday party, her day-job calls and asks if she can take their kid to the grocery store so she doesn’t see the police.
  • Other beginning hooks: The police–what? Amazon cut the page before I could get the answer or any more hooks . . . but I read to the page cut. So there must have been some. 
  • Microtension: I think the technique used here is the same as that used in Dear Edward: We know what’s coming, and we watch the character being happy and having fun while dreading the juxtaposition we know is coming.  And in this story’s case, we’re also wondering how it’s going to come.

5. The Guardians by John Grisham

  • Logline: Cullen Post, a lawyer and Episcopal minister, antagonizes some ruthless killers when he takes on a wrongful conviction case.
  • Concept Hook:  Irony: the MC is a lawyer and a minister?  A minister who antagonizes, who is the aggressor?  (These hooks may not play out in the story, but the way the logline is worded they add some irony.)
  • Opening Line: “Duke Russell is not guilty of the unspeakable crimes for which he was convicted; nonetheless, he is scheduled to be executed for them in one hour and forty-four minutes.”
  • Opening Event:  Cullen Post visits his client on death row less than two hours before he’s scheduled for execution.
  • Other hooks:
    • Stakes: a man’s life is at stake, and we’re made to believe he deserves to be saved.
    • “I’ve suffered through two of these countdowns in other states. One went full cycle and my man uttered his final words. The other was waved off in a miracle finish.”  Gives us hope. What’s going to happen to this death row guy?
    • Character bond: Cullen Post is a guy who helps those who can’t help themselves, and he believes in them, in their innocence. He feels deeply for the one guy he failed.
  • Microtension:
    • “Tick away–it’s not going to happen, not tonight.”  MC’s certainty makes me wonder if, instead, it will.
    • MC recognizes that the warden is “not a bad guy, just doing his job,” but “He’s also the enemy, and whatever he wants he will not get from me.” Contradiction of feelings toward another character.
    • The news is on and it’s talking about wildfires. The death row man’s “countdown is not a big story on the national front.”  No one else cares about this likely innocent man. Seems like an injustice, which tugs at my heart strings.

6. Moral Compass by Danielle Steel

  • Logline: Shortly after Saint Ambrose Prep goes co-ed, a student is attacked and the community falls apart.
  • Concept Hook:  Plays on diversity and the fear of change.  
  • Opening Line:  “It was the day after Labor Day, one of those perfect, golden September mornings in Massachusetts, as the students of Saint Ambrose Preparatory School began to arrive.”
  • Opening Event:  140 females are about to join the 800 males of Saint Ambrose Prep.
  • Other hooks:  Sets up conservative thinking as a source of conflict.
  • Microtension: Lots of telling and backstory and character soup, which I couldn’t keep from skimming. I tried. No showing until the fifth page of text. Pretty sure this book wouldn’t be on this list if it weren’t written by Danielle Steele.

7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

  • Logline: A sibling relationship is impacted when the family goes from poverty to wealth and back again over the course of many decades.
  • Concept Hook:  Wish-fulfillment: What it’s like to become rich; what it’s like to become poor.
  • Opening Line:  “The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs. ‘Your father has a friend he wants you to meet,’ she said.”
  • Opening Event:  The main character’s father brings Andrea to meet him and his sister.
  • Other hooksTelling us what it’s not makes me more curious about what it is:
    • “‘Is it a work friend?” . . . Sandy considered the question. ‘I’d say not.'”
    • “Our father didn’t have friends, at least not the kind who came to the house late on a Saturday afternoon.”  Then what kind of friend has come?
    • After the visitor/friend comments on some paintings, the narrator wants to laugh, but doesn’t want to embarrass her.  “Andrea would have had no way of knowing that the people in the paintings had come with the house, that everything in the house had come with the house.”  What?  Why?  How?
  • Microtension:
    • Father and Andrea “didn’t notice us, or they didn’t acknowledge us–hard to stay–and so we waited. Maeve and I knew how to be quiet in the house, a habit born of trying not to irritate our father, though it irritated him more when he felt we were sneaking up on him.”  Yeesh. What’s Father gonna do?
    • “He was wearing his blue suit. He never wore a suit on Saturdays.”  Then why is he wearing one now?
    • “‘It must be a comfort, having them with you,’ Andrea said to him, not of his children but of his paintings.”  Yikes.

8. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

  • Logline: Theo Faber looks into the mystery of a famous painter who stops speaking after shooting her husband.
  • Concept Hook: Why might someone shoot their husband–and then stop speaking?
  • Opening Line:  “I don’t know why I’m writing this. That’s not true. Maybe I do know and just don’t want to admit it to myself.”
  • Opening Event:  Prologue: A woman writes in her diary.
  • Other hooks:
    • ” . . . so I’d never have started writing this if it weren’t for Gabriel.”  Who’s that? How so the inspiration?
    • She’s “feeling depressed lately, about a few things. I thought I was doing a good job of hiding it, but he noticed.”  What’s bugging her?
    • “He asked how the painting was going–I said it wasn’t. He got me a glass of wine, and I sat at the kitchen table while he cooked.”  Ah . . . she’s the painter, and her husband seems nice, attentive.  But now I know what’s coming . . .
  • Microtension:
    • She overemphasizes how much she loves him.
    • “Sometimes I think–No. I won’t write about that.”
    • “This is going to be a joyful record of ideas . . . No crazy thoughts allowed.”

9. The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

  • Logline: In Depression-era Kentucky, five women refuse to be cowed by men or convention as they deliver books.
  • Concept Hook:  Always love a book about books.  Also, setting and women bucking the trend.
  • Opening Line:  “Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it.”
  • Opening Event:  Margery O’Hare rides a mule through the quiet winter forest.
  • Other hooks:  Someone approaches with a rifle.
  • Microtension:
    • The silence of the place is overemphasized, making me anticipate something that will shatter it.
    • Unexpected dialogue: “‘Goin’ somewhere?'”
    • The rifle is “cocked, and he carries it, like a fool, with his finger on the trigger.”  Her attitude is more blasé than mine.

10. Long Bright River by Liz Moore

  • Logline: Mickey risks her job with the Philadelphia police force by going after a murderer and searching for her missing sister.
  • Concept Hook:  Stakes: losing job for seemingly doing her job (irony here, too) and recovering her sister.
  • Opening Line: “There’s a body on the Gurney Street tracks. Female, age unclear, probably overdose, says the dispatcher.”
  • Opening Event:  The narrator is training a fellow officer on taking calls, and she thinks this body might be Kacey, even though it hasn’t been her yet.
  • Other hooks:
    • Who’s Kacey?  (Oh yeah, her sister. Don’t know why, but loglines go right out the window for me once I start reading.)
    • The character is almost hyper self-aware, including of her faults.
  • Microtension:
    • About the trainee: “I’ve only known him an hour . . . already I know more about him than he’ll ever know about me . . .”  Makes me want to know about what apparently is hard to know.
    • Character is certain she’s “not stupid.”  Does that mean she will be stupid or that I’m going to be wowed with brilliance?

11. The Institute by Stephen King

  • Logline: Children with special talents are abducted and sequestered in an institution where the sinister staff seeks to extract their gifts through harsh methods.
  • Concept Hook:  Genre: supernatural/horror (plus name recognition: Stephen King)
  • Opening Line: “Half an hour after Tim Jamieson’s Delta flight was scheduled to leave Tampa for the bright lights and tall buildings of New York, it was still parked at the gate.”
  • Opening Event:  An airline agent asks for someone in the cabin to give up their seat to “a federal officer who needs to board.”
  • Other hooks:
    • “a Delta agent and a blond woman with a security badge hanging around her neck” enter the cabin.  Uh-oh.
    • “Tim Jamieson suddenly decided he wanted to get the fuck off this plane and hitchhike north.”  Tells us where this story’s going, opening up our anticipation.
  • Microtension:
    • “Tim saw several people unlimber their cell phones in case of trouble. There had been trouble in these situations before.”
    • “The best part wouldn’t even be the cash money in his pocket.” (Offered by the airline as an incentive.) “The best part would be standing out there by himself.”  Really? Interesting character here if he thinks that.

Well, that’s it for me.

What about you?  Have you read these books?  What sort of hooks stood out for you?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up Next

Not sure. Was thinking of doing an own-work-Friday post, but I’ve already done concept and logline, so we’d just be looking at hooks and microtension–but I guess I could use that character introduction post for that, see if I can add hooks and microtension. Yeah, I might do that. We’ll see.  What else?  Still want to do that Da Vinci Code Rhythm post, maybe adding hooks to the analysis.  Also considering a Beginnings post, and I still want to do Scenes–need to, too; it’s just such a big (overwhelming) topic. What else?  Oh, was thinking of doing more on microtension, have a book coming for that, so we’ll see if I can find anything more than what Maass has to say.  Also considering Narrative Drive. Maybe Interiority/Inner Monologue.  I guess we’ll see what strikes me . . . unless someone has a tool they want to see.  If you do, let me know in the comments.

Anyway, see you soon!


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