Friday, February 7, 2014

Fifty Ways to Hook Your Reader

(Do you remember that hit song by Paul Simon? As a kid, I felt SO ripped off that Paul only actually wrote FIVE ways into the lyrics. Yet here I am, doing exactly the same thing.)

When I posted in December about figuring out where to start your story, the very talented Sarah Dunster asked a good question about hooks. Mark Penny responded--quite astutely--that the first quarter of the book should go thusly: hook/inciting incident/plot turn. I agree completely. Lots has been written analyzing both the inciting incident and the first plot turn, while defining the hook remains a little more hazy. Here's my crack at it.

Your hook should be (or at least start) on page one, and its function is do to exactly what it describes: hook the reader. It raises questions in the reader's mind that the reader wants answered. When I'm reading a book, the hook lets me know I can trust the writer. Once I'm hooked, I have a reasonable certainty of knowing that my time (and money) spent with this writer will not be wasted. I'm safe and relaxed; I'm invested and intrigued.

So, yes, writers. Spending a large amount of time perfecting your hook is very much worth it. Here's a subjective, somewhat overlapping, NOT exhaustive list of ways to hook your reader. 

First sentence: This one we all learned in middle school English class, right? It's a classic for a reason: it works. Consider, first from George Orwell:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984)
And Jane Austen:
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)
And C.S. Lewis:
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
Genius first sentences like the above examples establish voice and world and theme and raise reader questions--all with just a few carefully chosen words. 

Here's the first sentence from my work in progress. It came to me out of the blue one day, a pure gift from above, and I think it will sell this book:
I swear: I did not mean to set the squirrel on fire. 
See? Don't you want to read more? But there are other ways to establish the hook.

Voice: A compelling and unique narrative voice can grab a reader very effectively. Think of The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield:
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.
He's a spoiled, angry rich kid, yet his vulnerability and insecurity grab the reader and force us to empathize with Holden, even when we don't ever really like him. (Remember, your reader doesn't have to like your main character, but she does have to care about him.) Holden's skillfully rendered voice allows vulnerability to seep through his petulant bluster, and that vulnerability is key. 

The Catcher in the Rye is told in first person, but you don't have to use first person or even your main character to hook a reader with voice. Terry Pratchett is brilliant at creating voice within a third-person narrative. Here's an excerpt from the first page of his book The Wee Free Men
Miss Perspicacia Tick sat in what little shelter a raggedy hedge could give her and explored the universe. She didn't notice the rain. Witches dried out quickly.
Pratchett instantly creates interesting questions for the reader with his wry, authoritative voice. Who is this witch with the wacky name? If she's powerful enough to explore the universe, why is she outside under a raggedy hedge? Why do witches dry out quickly? Using voice, Pratchett has promised a fascinating story in a quirky world. 

Flash forward: Many writers choose to drop the reader into the thick of the action, in medias res, as it's formally known. We immediately find our main character(s) reacting to a situation. Margaret Atwood's narrator Offred in The Handmaid's Tale describes being imprisoned with many other women in a smelly gymnasium patrolled by stern female guards. Andrew Wiggin endures having a monitoring device removed from his body as he wonders what will happen next in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game

Hooking a reader with action first, backstory later, has been successfully used as far back as Homer writing The Odyssey. Never mind when your character got up in the morning or what she had for breakfast. As Isaac Asimov counseled, "Start your story as late as possible." Which may mean beginning right up near the end, like Harper Lee does in To Kill a Mockingbird, or writing a near-climactic prologue, as Stephenie Meyer does in each of the Twilight novels. 

Visualization: But maybe your story isn't action-packed. Maybe it's a pastoral romance or a leisurely memoir, or maybe it's fiction that tends to be more literary/upmarket than commercial. You still need to hook your reader. This can be done in quieter, more contemplative works through visualization--painting a vivid scene for the reader. 

Marcel Proust does it gorgeously in Swann's Way. "For a long time, I used to go to bed early," he writes, then goes on to describe in painstaking detail--"the whistling of trains," the "shifting kaleidoscope of darkness"-- the particulars of a young child falling asleep. 

Jeannette Walls is no less a master. From her "true-life novel," Half-Broke Horses
It was late on an August afternoon, the air hot and heavy like it usually was in the rainy season. Earlier we'd seen some thunderheads near the Burnt Spring Hills, but they'd passed way up to the north. I'd mostly finished my chores for the day and was heading down the pasture with my brother, Buster, and my sister, Helen, to bring the cows in for their milking. But when we got there, those girls were acting all bothered.
Make sure you have a firm grip on "show, don't tell" if you want this kind of hook to work. (That's true for all hooks, but especially this one.) And make sure there is some question raised and some emotion evoked so the reader is willing to commit to your story. Pretty scenery is one thing, but readers want story above all. See Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for more fantastic hooks through visualization. 

Quote: When I first read Frank Herbert's Dune as a kid, quotes from fictional sources such as the Orange Catholic Bible immediately sucked me into Herbert's deep, vivid, fully-realized world. Quotes are a great communicator of both theme and tone, a shorthand of sorts. 
The sleep of reason breeds monsters.– Goya 
(Second epigraph from Stephen King's The Shining)
Whether it's a quote at the beginning of the story (in which case it's called an epigraph) or a heading for each chapter or section, it can clue the reader into what to expect in the following pages. Note that it's much easier from a copyright standpoint for the writer to use fictional quotes than real quotes--unless the quoted source is in the public domain (or unless you're Stephen King, and your publisher will happily shell out some cash to the original source). 

Okay, so I, like Paul Simon, only made it to five. (But here's a bonus: your title itself, like mine, can be an excellent hook.) I'm sure you can come up with more. Hit me with your best shots in the comments. 


  1. Love! Will be coming back to read this post for ideas/self-editing. I really wish I could come up with a genius-sentence hook. New Goal: someday write a book with a genius-sentence hook.

  2. Good stuff. Different bait for different fish, but always bait. And a hard, strong piece of metal to keep them on the line.

  3. I need to reread this next time I start a new book. Hooks (or rather, entire beginning chapters) are one of my biggest weaknesses. I have to revise them more than almost anything else. Great post!