7 Tools to Hook Your Reader

by Monica M. Clark | 14 comments

Hook your reader

Photo by Stefano Mortellaro

I’m at the stage in my writing where I’m pitching agents, so I’m still obsessing over my first chapters and this idea of how to “hook” your reader.

Given that, on Saturday I attended a workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD called “Mastering the Hook.” There, I learned from Kathryn Johnson—a historical fiction novelist who has published over forty books—seven tools for drawing in a reader.

1. Surprise

First and foremost, something needs to be different in your story if you want to hook your reader. What’s the twist?

2. Emotion

Kathryn pointed out that the brain uses emotion to gauge what’s important to us. In fiction, this means your character’s reactions to adversity will show the reader what’s important to them.

Put your protagonist in a difficult situation and show his reaction. What are your character’s fears? Needs? What do you want your reader to feel?

3. Protagonist Goal

We’ve all heard this before, but only because it’s important. Your protagonist needs a goal. An agenda. And we need to know what it is early in the story.

What does she desperately want or need to achieve before the story concludes? What internal and/or external issues are preventing her from getting it?

4. Need-to-Know Information

Discern what information the reader needs to know at the beginning. The tricky thing is figuring exactly what that is. Kathryn pointed out that while we believe readers need to know everything, in reality they require very little.

One way to avoid the temptation of an information dump is to start the manuscript with the character doing or reacting to something.

5. Specific Details

Specific details enable the reader to visualize your story, which is necessary if you're going to hook your reader. Consider how can you make your scenes as real as possible by using precise descriptions.

6. Conflict

As I mentioned in # 2, your characters must face their demons and react. And eventually they must resolve the problem. Figure out the central conflict in your story and make sure it’s clear at the beginning.

7. Logic

Tom Clancy and Mark Twain said it- fiction has to make sense.  There needs to be a cause and effect in your story. Would your character do XYZ in light of who they are?

Kathryn used the example of one of her students who had his main character, who was a “desk jockey” who did nothing but type all day, suddenly able to climb a treacherous mountain. It simply didn’t make sense that he had those skills. Thankfully, this was easily resolved by giving the character training.

Still Need Help Hooking Your Reader?

As with a lot of writing advice, most of these things are easier said than done—thankfully there are places you can turn for even more advice!

Kathryn was heavily influenced by a book by Lisa Cron called Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the First Sentence.

I read the opening chapters in Barnes & Noble, and it states that while technical writing ability is important, to get the reader to turn the page, you have to tell a good story. Her example? The Da Vinci Code—didn’t really have great writing yet sold millions of copies because it told a good story. May be worth checking out.

Who do you think is the best story teller?


Take fifteen minutes to write a story, keeping these tools in mind. Share with us below!

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Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).


  1. Brianna Worlds

    Valstroth was curled on the ground of the floor of the big treasury. He didn’t know why he was in here. He was scared, and he was alone. Why had his daddy made him go in here, why had he locked the door? He curled in a ball around the flame pendant, in the corner closest to the enormous, circular door, big enough for a dragon to fit through. It had to be, for daddy to fit.

    Valstroth looked at the pendant, cradled in his small, grubby hands, feeling the warmth radiate off of it, burning away the dank cold of the room. Daddy had said that knights were coming, creatures like him, with two arms and two legs, wearing lots of metal, that were going to try to kill daddy because he was a dragon. He said that they wouldn’t hurt Valstroth, because he was like them, and had told him to stay in the treasury.

    Outside, he heard daddy roar, and sensed the heat of a torrent of flames, followed by valiant cries and the pure note of metal against scale. Valstroth knew what that sounded like, because he had thrown a knife at him once when he was mad, and it had made the same noise.

    Valstroth was scared.

    He didn’t know how long he sat there, curled in a ball, staring into the flickering flames of his necklace. It was small, fitting snugly in the centre of his small hand, a small orb filled with fire that was white, blue, red, green, and orange, all at once. It wasn’t rainbow, it was just all of them. He loved it. It made him feel safe. It felt like daddy. Outside, he heard more clashing, and more roars, steadily become more desperate; weaker, less fierce. One last pure note wove through the air, beautiful and lovely, and then there was silence, but only for a second. The group of knights broke into cheers, and Valstroth felt shock lurch through him.

    Did that mean daddy was dead?

    He dropped the pendant, hands forgotten. No, it couldn’t. Daddy was too strong, too big. He could never… he could never be beaten by creatures as small and weak as him. Even as the denial raced through him, tears welled in his eyes and spilled over, his lower lip trembling. The knights’ war cries had dissolved into jovial chatter, and Valstroth sat alone, afraid and crying, surrounded by darkness. All was darkness, except for that one light, the fire that daddy had given him–

    The fire stuttered and weakened, and Valstroth lunged for it, clutching it in his hands. At his touch, it brightened again, and Valstroth sighed in relief. He dropped it over his neck, and stared at the door.

    He waited. Daddy had said that if the knights won, that they would come in here and see him. They would find him. Sure enough, he heard loud laughter coming closer, and as they neared the door, he heard them say, through three feet of steel, “I bet this one has droves of gold. He was so old.”

    Valstroth wanted to scream at them to go away, to leave him and his daddy alone. They hadn’t done anything to them! He didn’t want to go with these people, even though daddy said that he’d be safe. Be safe with his own killers!

    As the door started to turn, clicking down through the levels, like a screw, Valstroth stumbled to his feet, scrambling back into the gloom. He stood, heart beating fast, back pressed up against the cold, hard wall of stone and iron. He trembled, with fear and anger both, his flame glowing, pulsing like a heart on his chest, illuminating the cavernous, empty room.

    Finally, the door shuddered open. Through the murk and gloom, he could make out three figures as they entered the room. Valstroth nearly collapsed with shock; they weren’t like him, they were huge! They had to be twice his size, and three times as bulky, coated with metal. They did have arms and legs and hands like him, though. They squinted through the darkness, eyes locking on Valstroth’s light. “No gold,” the man said, obviously disappointed. “But what’s this? A rare magic item?”

    “Who- who are you?” Valstroth asked in a stutter, terrified.

    The man stopped for a minute, then cocked his head. “Hey! Hey, it’s a boy. What’s a little boy doing in a dragon’s den?”

    Another one of the knights came up beside the first, footsteps shatteringly loud against the ground. “Was probably kidnapped by this here dragon.” He sounded knowledgeable, pitying, and Valstroth wanted to slap him. He hadn’t been kidnapped, daddy had taken care of him. His real family had died, so daddy had decided to raise him.

    “Poor guy,” the first one said. “It’s alright, little fella. You’re safe now.”

    Valstroth only numbly shook his head though, sinking to the floor. “No,” he whispered. “You’ve killed him. You can’t kill him. You can’t. No one can kill him.”

    The knight walked towards him, and Valstroth shook his head harder, more urgently. Suddenly, the third night spoke up.

    “Hold up, Reyve,” said he. “We don’t know how long he’s been here. You might scare him.”

    Reyve paused reluctantly. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah.”

    “Please,” Valstroth said. “Please don’t hurt me.”

    The third night reached up and took off the metal on his head, and Valstroth blinked. He did look human, like himself. He had light brown, curly hair that was plastered to his head with sweat. “It’s alright,” he said. “I’m like you, see?”

    Valstroth didn’t move as the knight walked towards him. He was quieter than the others, and Valstroth tensed, but didn’t run away. Finally, the man crouched in front of him. He squinted at Valstroth, and asked, “What’s your name.”

    “I’m Valstroth,” he said. “Valstroth Osdykum.”

    The man’s mouth quirked. “Valstroth ‘of the dragon’, eh? That’s not a language I’ve heard in a long time.”

    The man reached out to pick him up. “No!” Valstroth screamed, throwing out his hands, instinctively channeling the heat within him. Flames, white hot with desperation, exploded from his hands and hurtled into the knight, but the knight appeared unaffected. His armour had melted off, so he was wearing only a linen blouse and tie-up pants. He had his hands thrown out to the side, his mouth moving quickly, and shock was in his eyes, as pronounced as the curls in his hair. The two other knights, who hadn’t yet moved, didn’t appear to have noticed anything.

    “Don’t touch me,” Valstroth ordered, looking defiantly into his eyes. “You killed him!”

    Valstroth thought the man looked pained, but it was hard to tell, because his vision was blurring, and his head felt funny. He remembered feeling like this after he had tried to cook a deer by himself, and had accidentally charred the entire thing. He had used too much fire. He tried to keep his eyes open, but his vision dimmed and his legs weakened. He slumped forward, and the man jumped forward and caught him against his shoulder. He smelt like daddy, like fire and dragon, which Valstroth thought was strange, but it made him feel safe. As darkness converged on him, the man said quietly, so quietly that only he would here, “Don’t you worry. I promised him I would protect you.”

    • Belah

      I don’t know how you can write such awesome stuff 🙂 Has it been published? I definitely think it would be an amazing story that many people would enjoy.

    • Brianna

      Oh man, I wrote this so long ago! Thank you 🙂 It’s been a while since I’ve looked at this story.

  2. TheCody

    This is all I can think while watching the woman with her blue plastic plate: Oh God. It’s fucking awful. Awful. Awful. Awful.

    Her platter looks like your standard Tupperware found at any Wal-Mart. What’s on it is far from standard. My stomach churns and I swallow bile.

    My friend Phirun reaches out and pulls one off the plate. He says something in Cambodian I don’t understand. Hell, I’m not even sure the language here is called Cambodian. He reaches into his pocket and hands the vendor some money then grabs a second one. The vendor smiles at him. She is missing several teeth but her smile is bright and her eyes shine. She looks at me and speaks.

    I don’t understand, but instinctively shuffle backwards. I swear I’ve had nightmares that started like this. Dust from the street poofs up. My shoes are already filthy.

    People surround the vendor and clamor for her wares. Money flies back and forth as her tray is cleared.

    Phirun steps up to me and holds out his arm. I scream and want to run away but can’t move. My body has shut down. Like the time I tried skydiving.

    Phirun laughs. “It’s all in your head.”

    He’s right, but I don’t care. Why the fuck did I agree to do this? I know the answer. Alcohol. Eight beers makes you feel invincible. That was last night. Today, completely sober on a dirt road in million percent humidity, I feel like hiding in the back of the old teal bus inching by. But I can’t; I was so cocky last night. We talked for hours about the ass I’d get back home.

    “Just take it,” he says.

    I look at it. Spindly and black and vile. A whimper escapes. Ass or no, my brain refuses. I shake my head so hard a small pounding starts in my temples. “I can’t.”

    He gestures around. Two kids, no more than six, are fighting over one. They’re so freaking happy. The victor, a pigpen-like girl, takes a huge bite, laughing.

    “She’s braver than you.”

    Without warning, Phirun drags it up my arm. I imagine it, alive, crawling. I tense, like I’ve been struck with rigor mortis. “FUCK FUCK FUCK! Don’t ever do that again!”

    He pulls back. “I just want you to feel it. They’re not hairy like you think. It’s all fried off. They’re smooth. Like crab.”

    They don’t look like crab.

    “Will it help if I take a bite first?” he asks.

    I nod. Anything to delay will help.

    He holds it over his mouth and lowers it like a sword swallower. Halfway in, he bites down. I clench my fists when I hear the crunch.

    He looks at me, two long, jointed legs sticking out of his mouth.

    “Jesus Christ,” I say.

    “It’s good,” he mumbles. “A delicacy.”

    He chews a few times and swallows. “Your turn.”

    I bite my lips like a toddler refusing medicine.

    “Fine,” he says. He breaks off a leg. It cracks like a toothpick. He discards everything else. “Just eat this and we’ll call it even.”

    It looks sort of like a pretzel stick. Not seeing the torso and appendages and eyes helps. As does the thought of telling people back home.

    Phirum reaches out in slow motion and places it in my hand. I flinch like he branded me.

    He’s right, though. It’s not hairy. And it never smelled bad. Like garlic.

    “It’s just a pretzel stick,” I tell myself.

  3. Luther

    My skin stung from the impact of the rain and hail, now coming down like grey pencil shavings and so hard and fast, we could not see further than 25 feet, and the little
    protection of a fabric canopy on our boat was coming apart and little red welts
    were starting to appear on my arm – I was too frighten to be afraid! The wave
    action caused the fiberglass ski boat to be pushed up and down on wooden pilings
    underwater, that at one time supported a dock, and in my mind I pictured one of
    the timbers bursting through the fiberglass and water sprouting up and pouring
    into the hull. If we released the exposed pilling, we could be swept from the
    mouth of the Pamunkey River out to the Chesapeake Bay where the waves would be
    bigger and more dangerous for our small river craft. I thought, maybe it would
    be better to just let the boat sink, but it wasn’t my boat.

    • Joy

      Gripping! I want to ending! 😀 One thought, I think that simply saying “the waves caused” instead of the “wave action” would be more concise. At least, that’s what stuck out at me.

    • Luther

      Thanks for your help.

  4. Joy

    Okay…So this one took longer than 15 minutes… I think I’m naming it “Little Miss Snooty,” because that makes me smile. Here it is:

    I remember the day that I realized I’d rather be good than great.

    It was my first piano recital. Teacher looked so calm and composed, but we kids squirmed in our chairs. All of us, that is, except for Little Miss Snooty.

    Her turn came right before mine. She sat down at the piano, got a smug look on her pretty face and played the complicated concerto seemingly without effort. I felt my pride being stung. This was my first year. My recital piece was a simple folk song.

    The audience applauded as she rose and curtsied. I wouldn’t have minded her so much if she didn’t have that look on her face. I hated that look–her chin up, her eyes bragging, her well-set curls bouncing. She thought she was better than me–better than every other nervous kid in the recital. Shoot! She probably thought she was better then the teacher!

    My cheeks were red and my hands sweaty. I was in no mood to play my song. But I didn’t have a choice in the matter, so I took a seat at the piano anyway. I glanced out at the small crowd. It seemed to grow before my eyes. And then I saw Little Miss Snooty. She still had that look on her face. I turned my eyes to the sheet music, simple and undecorated as it was. It might not be a great song, but it was a good song. I had worked hard, practicing all year. I was going to show everyone–including Miss Snooty–that I could play piano!

    I glanced one last time at the audience. That’s when I saw Mom. She had that smile on her face–the reassuring kind. Her eyes met mine. I was ashamed of my thoughts about Little Miss Snooty. I remembered all those times that she’d had told me to control my temper. I also remembered all those times that she’d told me that I was good pianist.

    Forget Little Miss Snooty! I couldn’t outdo her song, but I could outdo her! I could smile and put on a real show. It might not be great, but it would be good.

    My fingers felt stiff as stage fright set in, but then I pictured Mom in my mind. Forget the crowd too! I would play the song for Mom. Just for Mom. I took a deep breathe and then let my fingers play the tune they’d practiced so many times before.

    I finished the song and knew that I’d played better than Little Miss Snooty. I’d played from my heart, while she had only played from her head. I’d played for my mom, while she had just played to show off. I had a smile on my face–a real smile.

    I wasn’t great, but I was good.

    • Rebecca

      That’s cute, I’m a piano teacher and I don’t like Miss Snooty types (they can be some of the most annoying kids!) I just wanted to ask, are you taking on the voice of an adult or a child (that part is a bit vague to me) and somewhere in between

    • Joy

      I remember a certain girl at a piano recital many years ago being sort of like Miss Snooty. I guess she gave me some inspiration. 🙂

      Thanks for pointing that out. Honestly, I’m not sure about the age of the narrator (so I can see how it would be vague). When I first started writing it, I think it was a child talking, but by the end I think I may have changed to an adult looking back in time type of view. I will have to think about that and possibly work it out. Thank you! 🙂

    • Kip Larcen

      I love the two ideas of 1) playing for someone special instead of “showing off” and 2)playing well from the heart trumps playing great with no heart. I would only suggest 3rd person point of view. Sorry I got in the discussion late but I really liked the two concepts .

    • Joy

      Thank you, Kip. I’m curious about why you’d suggest 3rd person point of view instead. I almost always write in the 1st person, so it would probably be good for me to do more practice in the 3rd person. 🙂

    • Kip Larcen

      Hard to explain why I mentioned the idea of 3rd person, but your piece reminds me of something Laura Ingalls Wilder would have written, and she used 3rd person in a way I liked. She told us exactly what young Laura was thinking but then kind of narrated the “moral” of the story.

  5. Bailey :)

    Challenge accepted.
    OK, here goes…
    Everything must end. My life as Aden Bailey ended that day; the day they locked me in a library and gave me pen and paper. “Dot your I’s, cross your T’s.” They told me. They told me that I am to write history for the rest of my life. They told me I’m a Child of the Written Word, a Son. I was only 9 years old at the time, with no idea what would happen in the next 10 years.
    I was alone. All I had was the screams that I had to keep bottled up inside; if I let them out I might scare the children next door. Besides, journals, paper, and pens don’t answer.
    I hated silence. My Ma is a doctor and she needs complete silence when she’s performing an operation. And when there wasn’t silence, there was screaming, sobbing. I would try to comfort them, but I didn’t know a thing about death. My Dad died when I was 7, but he was in the army and was never home.
    I hated the silence, but at least there wouldn’t be screaming or sobbing. I won’t have to make a hopeless attempt to comfort the families of lost patients. It wasn’t total torture, no. The real torture began when she came in.
    Eleanor Flowers, my first real friend. We got along really well. We had no choice. We were going to write history together for the rest of our lives. Our lives wouldn’t be long, but every moment, even the moments when she was gone, made the impossible task we were given that much better. And that was the most painful, most beautiful torture I could’ve ever gone through.
    They took her away from me. They kept her away from me. As my Eleanor and I wasted away the years together, we would always talking about escaping. And I did escape. Then I would spend the next year trying to find her, and I refused to stop until my Eleanor was in my arms again.



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