By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle
The most successful writers are talented hookers.
Okay, do I have your attention now? I’m talking about literary hooking, of course. As in fishing, to expand the metaphor, hooks generally work together with baits and lures. The job of the bait or lure is to attract the reader; the job of the hook is to make sure that once the reader opens your book, they won’t put it back down and choose another.
Your hook has to work fast. Depending on what you’re writing, you’ve got the first page or two for a novel, the first paragraph or two for a short story, and the first line or two for a poem.
So, what kind of hook should you use? That will depend on what you’re writing, and what kind of reader you’re trying to catch. There are almost as many different hooks as there are stories. Fortunately, they can be sorted into a few broad classifications.
1. The startling, intriguing or rhetorical question. Since a question mark is shaped like a hook, I might as well start with this. A general type of rhetorical question can be effective, especially in a first-person narrative. In most novels, something generic along the lines of, “Why do these things always happen to me?” But this hook can sound whiny. Making it a statement tends to remove that.
2. The intriguing statement or assertion. It seems logical to follow with the intrigue not phrased as a question, such as my introduction to this post. You kept reading, didn’t you? Sentences that contains an unusual term or image make very good hooks. Consider Orwell’s 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” One thing this hook lacks is an idea of where the story goes. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” If your book has a theme, using an intriguing assertion of it as a hook allows you to bookend your story with an ending passage that echoes it and brings the story full circle.
3. Introduction of a character or setting. This kind of hook is another way to set the tone and the mood as well as the theme, which gives the reader an idea of what they’re getting. When coupled with an odd turn of phrase. C. S. Lewis’s hook in Dawn Treader: “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.” Sinclair Lewis introduces us to Elmer Gantry with a simple, “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” In some stories, the setting is actually a character and your hook can describe it, along with a feature that people don’t want to look away from. Your hook should be about the most interesting character and flow naturally to the other characters in the story.
3. The Action Hook. A favorite in thrillers and suspense fiction. It can be the first page or the first line. Some become classics. The opening line of Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca was “The last camel died at noon.” I think one of my favorites has to be Iain Banks in The Crow Road, which opens with, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” How could you not keep reading?
4. The Inspirational Quote. Very often, you can find a pithy quote or aphorism from a famous speech, poem, or proverb that encapsulates your theme. But remember, the purpose of your hook is not just to catch your reader. You should also give the reader a taste of what’s to come, and not disappoint the reader, because you want to gain the reader’s trust. You want that reader to actively seek out your future work. If you’re using a quote, it must have a direct bearing on your story.
5. Dialogue. “Call me Ishmael.” The American Book Review’s website listing of the 100 Best First Lines From Novels lists Melville’s hook in Moby Dick as #1. It directly engages the reader, bringing the reader personally into the story. This technique can be used effectively where the story is told as a frame narration, i.e., the main story is being told by a narrator to either the reader, or to some other character.
The Anecdotal Memoir. “My father was murdered because he missed the last bus home from work.” The hook is that this seems a bizarre motive for murder. But you have to read on to find out that the narrator’s father had no money so he had to walk home and was killed by a mugger who, frustrated that the man had nothing worth stealing, took his life. But had he caught that last bus, the narrator reasons, he would have arrived home safely, as he always did.
After you finish a first draft, and a second, and a third, and all the way through the final, at the end, the last thing you need to do is review the hook. You may find that the edits have changed the story enough that there is a much better hook that you would not have thought of before those edits went in. You may end up seeing the book differently and changing the type of hook.
Remember that while, word-for-word, the hook is probably the most important part of your story, it’s still much too short to outweigh the rest. It can only keep the reader intrigued for a while.
What keeps them reading after the hook passage has long faded from mind is the pacing, which will be the focus of my next post.