If your aim is to write engaging fiction—stories that people will read and clamor for, even shell out their hard-earned cash to acquire—there is something very important you need to understand. You are an entertainer. And that means you need to know how to write a hook that will capture your reader and keep her turning the pages.
Being an entertainer is an important and honorable job in a highly competitive field. As writers, we are not competing against each other. In fact, it is to our benefit to support and promote one another. No—our competition comes from movies, video games, internet surfing, Netflix, concerts, and all kinds of other entertainments.
That’s why it’s vital to grab and hold your reader’s interest, pulling her through your story from beginning to end. Using hooks is a great way to accomplish that objective.
What is a hook?
Hooks are tools used to engage and maintain a reader’s involvement, and no writer’s toolbox should be without a variety of hooks. There are many different types of hooks, and by understanding how to write hooks and where to use them to best effect, your reader will likely respond as desired.
Hooks are designed to pull you reader along to the next sentence, page, or chapter. They can be very powerful, but their potency fades, so new hooks need to be threaded in as the story progresses, keeping the reader moving forward along your story’s track.
The job of a hook is to raise small and increasing increments of curiosity in the reader, and this is done through word choice and placement. A smart spot for a sentence full of hooks is in the opening lines of a story or chapter, but that’s not the only place you’ll want to use them. Remember, as their power fades, you’ll need to replace them with new hooks.
Important points to keep in mind
Hooks are most effective when they are used in combination with other hooks, operating like a fail-safe system. Readers react to hooks in different ways and what works for one reader won’t necessarily work for another, so it pays to have a backup.
For example, a seasoned reader of thrillers will react differently to the suggestion of murder than will a reader of women’s fiction. If the book is the sixth in a series, a fan will react differently to certain hooks than will a newcomer to the series. There’s a lot to think about here, and I’ll go into this more deeply in a future article.
When crafting hooks, it is critical to pay attention to reader expectation and genre considerations, tailoring the hooks to what your reader needs and wants. If you overbait the hook, you’re just as likely to lose your reader as you would be with no hook at all.
Reader expectation is everything.
Raise a question in the reader’s mind
In this article, we’ll take a look at how to write one type of hook in particular—the Raising Question hook. I am not talking about the overarching story question. Remember, the purpose of the hook is just to pull the reader through to the next sentence, and the next, so it doesn’t have to be something big, and the answer may come in the very next paragraph.
But then you need another hook.
Hooks that create questions in the reader’s mind are the easiest kind to come up with. Does what you’ve written make the reader ask: who, how, what, where, why, or what’s going on? Then you’ve threaded in a Raising Question hook. Readers read to get their questions answered, so this is a powerful hook.
Let’s take a look at some examples
“I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.” The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
This hook occurs at the end of the book’s opening scene. It leads the reader to wonder: What happened in the winter of 1975? How did it change everything? What changed? What is he today? It so happens that these questions do apply to the overarching story question, but that’s not a requirement in crafting an effective Raising Question hook.
“On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria.” Absolute Friends, John LeCarré
This hook focuses the reader’s attention with some fascinating questions. What is Ted Mundy’s destiny? When did it leave him and why is it returning now? What’s he doing on top of a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria?
“The first time he took me to bed, Paul found the scar.” Adalet, Joslyn Chase
This is the story opener and raises a number of questions. Who is telling the story? How did she get the scar? Why is the scar important? What is the relationship between her and Paul?
And just to show you the hook can be short and simple, check this one out:
“The dog was green.” Running Out of Dog, Dennis Lehane
This hook occurs as the opening line of a scene in the middle of what is clearly a story based in realism, so it certainly raises an interesting question: Why is the dog green and how does that relate to the story?
How to craft a Raising Question Hook
The revising and polishing process is a great time to look for opportunities to craft and insert hooks into your story. Let’s pretend when I wrote the first draft of my story, Rachmaninoff’s Peasant, I started it like this:
Georgia heard a scream.
Okay. That raises some questions, but it doesn’t impart any flavor as to setting or character and does little to hook a reader. Let me try again.
Georgia heard one scream, followed by a string of continued screaming.
Well, now we know the screamer didn’t just stub a toe. Something horrific has occurred or is occurring, and that may create enough curiosity in the reader’s mind to carry them to the next paragraph where (hopefully) I’ll have threaded in another hook to keep them going. Still, I think I can do better. Here’s the published version:
“The first scream rose and lingered on a high G sharp before gliding down the chromatic scale to land and sputter out an octave lower.” Rachmaninoff’s Peasant, Joslyn Chase
This example is the first sentence in the story and grabs the reader with some compelling questions. Who is screaming? Why? What happened, and how does the listener know the scream reached a G sharp? The story takes place at a music school, so this hook is flavored with a sense of atmosphere, and may even set the reader to wondering what the second scream sounded like.
Are you hooked by the concept of hooks?
Don’t be afraid to look at strategic spots in your work, like the openings and endings of scenes, and rework those sentences to infuse more questions and more flavor into your stories. There are dozens of types of hooks, and I’ll be looking at some of those in future articles.
If you want to learn more about how to write hooks, a great resource is Mary Buckham’s book Writing Active Hooks.
Remember, the strongest hooks raise questions or reactions in your reader, so this is a good place to start studying and implementing more hooks in your writing.
How about you? Are you hooked by a book that raises questions in your mind? Are you careful about crafting questions into your stories to pull readers through? Tell us about it in the comments.
Let’s work on redrafting sentences and making them into powerful Raising Question hooks. Pick one or more of the following prompts and revise it like I did with my music school murder example. See if you can impart some of the flavor of setting and/or character for a story you might write.
Fred chose an apple from the fruit stand.
The bracelet fell off Maria’s nightstand and broke.
Dwarves are not the same thing as elves.
Dennis holstered his weapon.
Or make up your own starter sentence and show us how you built it into a power-packed hook. Don’t be afraid to expand into two sentences, or even three if you need to, but try to keep the hook tight.
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.