Give ‘Em The Hook

A hook isn’t so much a trick to ensnare a reader as an invitation for them to enter the story.
on Feb 7, 2012 · No comments

Amid all the “shredding” yesterday, an interesting discussion emerged about hooks. Rather than slip in a comment, I thought it might be better to spend a little more time talking about hooks and the sorts of things I think about when writing or reading them.

I liked the way Becky introduced the writing samples–a hook isn’t so much a trick to ensnare a reader as an invitation for them to enter the story. It’s as if the author is inviting you into their house and providing a reason to linger awhile.  There are lots of ways to do this, and everybody has their favorites. I’ve provided a few examples below, from my personal library. You’ll probably recognize most of them:

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

“Call me Ishmael.”

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

“The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.”

“Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”

“Here on Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and sky is blurred; the two merge into one.”

“Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I don’t no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.”

“Jesus and I sometimes grab lunch at the Red and Black Cafe on Twelfth and Oak. It’s decorated in revolutionary black and red, with posters and pictures of uprisings on the walls.”

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

You’ll notice some of these opening sentences are from very old books. The idea of an opening hook designed to pull the reader in from the very first words isn’t new, by any means, but I think it’s gained more emphasis in recent years because the pace of our society has changed. Information flashes back and forth around the world, and success or failure often hinges on our ability to make quick, accurate decisions. This mindset overflows into our personal lives. We have a multitude of entertainment options that we can browse, sift, sort, parse, and record at the touch of a button. If something doesn’t grab our attention quickly, we’ll move on to the next option. So many choices, so little time.

Once we’re hooked, though, it’s likely we’ll devote a lot of time to the object of our interest. 

So, what makes a good hook? What’s going to convince me to step through the door and spend a pleasant afternoon?

Mystery: Probably the best hook for me is something that piques my curiosity. It’s like placing an odd conversation piece in the entryway, some eccentric item that makes me wonder about the sort of people who live in this house.  Charles Dickens props a dead man in the vestibule of A Christmas Carol. Tolkien’s first line of The Hobbit is elegant, and raises a host of questions. What’s a hobbit, and why does it live in a hole in the ground? Is it human? What does it look like? Where exactly is this hole located? Ray Bradbury’s door is held open for us by a lightning rod salesman in Something Wicked This Way Comes. What sort of person would sell lightning rods, and why? Who would buy them? A storm’s coming…what might happen?

Immersion: When you open the door to some houses, your host will grab your arm and pull you into whatever’s going on inside. You could find yourself in a game of Monopoly, shelling peas in the kitchen, or in the middle of an argument about tax rates. Similarly, it can be very effective to hurl the reader onto a battlefield or into an ongoing conversation. They’re immersed in the story before they realize it. Herman Melville uses a simple introduction to begin Moby DickIshmael greets us with a confident handshake and launches into his tale. We stumble through the door of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War just as someone is about to explain eight silent ways to kill someone. Yikes! Where am I, and who are these people? Why would anybody need more than one…well, you get the picture.

Orientation, or Disorientation: There are times you walk into a house and simply feel at home. You admire the beautiful architecture and furnishings, settle into an overstuffed chair with a hot cup of tea, and begin a leisurely visit with a good friend. A hook, in the same way, doesn’t necessarily have to grab the reader by the lapels and slap them around. It may only need to provide an overwhelming sense of place. I’ve entered a wonderful new world. Let’s see what happens. In The Snow Queen, Joan D. Vinge introduces us to her watery world, Tiamat, with a very simple, haunting image. In one brief sentence, we’re whisked away to a mysterious alien planet.

On the other hand, you might find yourself walking into something like the Winchester Mystery House. All the proportions are off, doors lead nowhere, staircases run every which way, and all our expectations about what a house should be are shattered. A story can also disorient us–and in such a way that we have to keep reading to get our bearings. Daniel Keyes opens Flowers for Algernon with a diary entry full of misspellings and grammatical errors that forces us to read on the level of his mentally-disabled protagonist. In Imaginary Jesus, Matt Mikalatos casually notes his regular appointments with Jesus–at a communist-revolution-themed cafe. Sometimes the vertigo bomb has a slow fuse: What seems like a normal morning in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games takes a sinister turn with a single word at the end of a sentence. Reaping. Uh, oh…I don’t think she’s talking about wheat.

Not the Hook I'm talking about.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of approaches to the hook, just a few I enjoy and find particularly effective in speculative fiction, where I’m always hoping to travel to an unknown world or have my assumptions about the universe shaken up a bit. A good hook is deceptively hard to write, and having tried to write a few myself, I appreciate a great one when I find it.

So, the next time you open a book, look for the hook.

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.
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  1. Kessie says:

    Ah, the anatomy of the hook! Thanks for the article. Hooks are notoriously hard to write. 🙂

  2. Galadriel says:

    I really like how you analyzed the different approaches. One of my current stories begins with the lines:

    In fifteen minutes, at midnight on the thirteenth of Delution, the Guabancexian Parliament will execute the infamous criminal River Song.
    The Guabancexian Parliament believes that I am River Song.

    I think it has elements of mystery, but especially disorientation. Who is this nameless ‘I,’ and why has Parliment confused him/her with a war criminal they are planning to execute? The names suggest a speculative setting, opening more possibilites….
    or maybe I’m overanalyzing my own work. Oh well, no harm done.

  3. Great post, Fred. I like the way you gave the examples, then did an analysis incorporating them. Very fresh approach. Plus I thought you gave us writers a lot to think about.


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