It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an aspiring writer in possession of a manuscript must be in want of a hook.
There is a very good reason why some of the most memorable lines in literature are to be found at the gateways of novels. A well crafted first line will grab the reader’s attention and pull them into the narrative. It will act as a propellant, set the tone of the story and showcase a writer’s creativity as well as their endurance.
Why endurance? It is a popular misconception that hooks are one-liners. The intensity of that first line has to be sustained throughout the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter and leave traces through the entire novel.
The hook is not a marketing gimmick, although it has been known to be treated as such. It is a promise of things to come. Crafting an incredible opening sentence will put us in good stead, but to keep the reader on-side, the story that follows in its wake has to live up to the expectations we’ve created. That’s the trouble with a good hook, once we got a taste of it, we are left craving more – insatiable readers that we are.
Another major oversight when it comes to using literary hooks are the closing lines of paragraphs and chapters: perfect places to dissuade the reader from putting down the book.
There are many ways to get a reader hooked. Here are my favourite trio:
If we begin a novel in media res: where something is already happening, the reader is plunged into the thick of it and are bound to stay with us. After all, they need not take the trouble of going through paragraphs of dull description before the spiced up, conflict riddled action begins. Of course, it must be a momentous form of action. If we can keep them wondering at the underlying motivation of our characters and desirous to find it out, all the better.
This is another form of action. Its inherent drama is an advantage in using it as a hook, and a few well-chosen lines of dialogue can showcase conflict better than any other literary technique. However, there are certain drawbacks to this, especially when it comes to making the transition from a conflictual encounter to explaining the context in which the clash took place. It must be handled with care so that the tension of the moment is maintained throughout.
Another example of beginning in media res. We start in the middle of a scene at a moment of intense conflict or tension – whether inner or outer – giving the reader a taster of what is yet to come. Once the scene is set, we return to where it all went wrong and guide the reader through the action back towards that moment. It is important to get the balance right between what is initially revealed and what is withheld with a promise that the next page – or perhaps the one after that – will hold the answer.
And a little extra for the adventurous:
Description is incredibly difficult to use as a hook and is one for the writer who likes a challenge. There are certain prerequisites to keep in mind if determined to take this path:
- It must be dramatic,
- It ought to establish the mood of the scene,
- It should reflect the protagonist’s inner world at a moment of extreme tension.
Whatever hook we choose, it has to make the reader feel something and prompt them to read on. Most importantly, we must remember that hooks only work if they are in keeping with the tone of the rest. A brilliant start will fall flat if what comes after doesn’t live up to it, and a drama-filled final line will read like soap opera theatrics if preceded by bland prose.
Perhaps a quick overview of what will unHook the reader may help? Here are some common mistakes:
- The Iceberg: This is the stand-alone offender. A hook that will catch the reader’s attention, but has no relation whatsoever to the actual story. Remember that marketing ploy that got you to read a story and then made you feel cheated when the content didn’t live up to the original promise? This red herring is it, and the rule also applies to hooks at the end of chapters.
- The Screamer: Sometimes referred to as the over-exited hook, this hyperbolic supernova of intensity is in danger of making the rest of the story sound pedestrian. Unless of course, we take pains to bridge the gap and maintain the intensity in the pages that follow. The easier solution is to tone down the hook and bring it in line with the main body of the text.
- Inaction or
ActionUnHooked: Just because something is going on, that doesn’t mean it is important enough to make it as a hook. If the protagonist is hurrying out of the door because they are late for work we are unlikely to read on, unless of course the Earth is about to be hit by a meteorite and they are the only one with a solution.
- Dialogue UnHooked: The main danger with using dialogue as a hook is the tendency to fall into the melodramatic. Moreover, when it simply floats on the page unattributed, dialogue is unlikely to work as a hook. It is a hard ask at the best of times. When it comes to opening sequences, infusing every line with tension and mixing in characterisation and scene-setting, without making it apparent to the reader, is key.
- The Void: This is, as the title suggests, the absence of a hook whether at the beginning or end of a chapter. The only solution to this problem is to practice writing them. Most of our favourite novels will have something to teach in this respect. For the cautious, the best advice is to err on the side of excess, and then pull back until the hook comes in line with the story.
Use that first line to pull the reader in. Make a promise, hint at more to come, and keep that promise. Let tension mount and if you do it well, the hook is in and the reader will find it impossible to slip away.