Anyone else learn about hooks in high school? You know, those one-line bits of magic that supposedly made your college application essay more interesting and enthralling to the poor brain-numbed grader?
Joking aside, hooks are in everything – or at least the concept of hooks is. A hook isn’t necessarily a one-liner. It can be an idea, a character, a world, a word, a situation, etc. By definition, your hook is whatever grabs your audience and pulls them into the story (hence the name).
I think of them as those big old stage hooks from Vaudeville days. Instead of pulling bad acts off the stage, however, they’re pulling recalcitrant audience members back to their seats (“And you’re gonna stay there until I’m done.”).
Hooks aren’t limited to the start of the story, but that’s what I’m going to focus on today – that and using hooks with the art of the unexpected (and this goes back to the Ken Hill quote I kind of ignored at the beginning).
How do you make a good hook?
Ok. Hard question. There are lots of different points of view on that and lots of different variables that come into play. Think about it: you probably wouldn’t want the same hook for a romantic comedy as you would a murder mystery or a science fiction story.
That said, here are some basic types of hooks that I see commonly and have named as I saw fit (dun dun dunnnn).
1. The Puzzle
A puzzle is the basic idea behind most hooks: give the readers a few hints about what is happening but not enough to actually know what’s going on. If you can successfully pique their curiosity, they’ll keep reading to find out the entire situation.
“Call me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick
First Witch: When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
— Macbeth by William Shakespeare
“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
None of these really tell you anything about what’s happening in the story. They do make you want to know (and that’s the secret to the hook).
2. The Setting
“Maycomb was a tired, old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it.”
— To Kill a Mockingbird (the movie)
The first line of this movie introduces the town in a way that gives it character and makes us curious about why the author would talk about it that way. In books, starting with the setting is most common with stories where the setting is vital to the plot (like To Kill a Mockingbird) or that have a lot of worldbuilding (like science fiction and fantasy, for example).
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
— The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Authors have gotten away from this type of hook more recently because it isn’t very active. Readers today have shorter attention spans, so it can be harder to get their attention with a description of a place. It’s possible, but be wary of making it too long (or long-winded).
3. The Character
The characters are the heart of any story. Most likely, if the reader isn’t interested in the main character, he/she isn’t going to keep reading the book. Getting the reader attached to the main character early is a great tactic for keeping him/her reading the rest of the way through.
“Hello. My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump. You want a chocolate? I could eat a million and a half of these. My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
— Forrest Gump
You heard his voice in your head when you read that, didn’t you? As a movie line, the voice and delivery add even more character information beyond the intriguing clues of the words.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
— The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
As a book intro, this line doesn’t have the voice and delivery to help it, but it doesn’t need them. It gives us a really strong impression of what Eustace is like without describing him in detail at all beyond his name.
4. The Conflict
Hooks don’t have to be oblique and subtle. If the plot conflict of your story is part of the selling point, why not start by telling the reader what it is?
“Many moons ago in a far-off place
Lived a handsome prince with a gloomy face
For he did not have a bride.”
— Once Upon a Mattress
What do you think the musical is about? It’s pretty self-explanatory, right? The next example isn’t a line of music, but it certainly got the audience’s attention.
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.”
— Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
5. The Spoiler
The best part about this type of hook is that it gives away the ending of the story, but the audience doesn’t know that. We think that it’s a puzzle/character/conflict hook and don’t find out until the end that it was more. As a writer, pulling that off would make me cackle with glee.
“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” — To Kill a Mockingbird (the book) by Harper Lee
“This is the story of how I died.” — Disney’s Tangled
6. The Tease
Nothing grabs a person’s attention like conflict and high stakes, and there is no moment in the story with more of that than the climax. With this hook, the audience knows that this is part of the ending – only they don’t know how.
“People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.”
— Fight Club (movie)
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.” — Fight Club: a Novel by Chuck Palahniuk
This book and/or movie starts maybe a third of the way into the climactic scene (rough estimate). Immediately, we know that there’s a life or death situation and that there’s a convoluted character relationship. We don’t know any of the details, but we want to: we want to know what happens! Does the main character survive? Why is his best friend doing this?
Then, right as we’re starting to move forward in the scene, the book jumps back to the exposition. We have to wait all the way through the exposition and rising action to find out how we got to this point, and even then, we don’t know how the scene will be resolved. This is a great way to give the book a fast-paced, active start to get the audience’s attention.
The Best Part About Hooks
The best part about hooks (IMHO) is that you can combine these types in whatever way that you like. Adjust the hook to fit your book and make it as strong and compelling as you can.
Go on! Grab those readers!