Monday, September 26, 2011

Employing Effective Hooks


What do you think of when you hear that word?

Me? I think of fish and how, if you hook a fish by the lip, you're giving him an easy escape. But if you hook the sucker through the cheek—nice and deep— he's yours. The same concept applies to readers—if you have an ineffective hook, the reader isn’t going to stay with your hero/heroine through the journey.

Now, novel hooks are quite subjective things.  What can grab a reader’s attention, may not grab another. Believe me, I’ve gone through novels and—though they sounded really good—the beginning didn’t pull me in and make me want to read more. So, I’d put the book down and try again later.

That “try again later” view isn’t what you want from a reader. You want them to read your work ASAP—you want them to think about it even in the wee hours of the morning when they can’t be bothered to get up out of bed, yet cannot wait to see where you’ll take them next. You want to hook them through the cheek and never let go!

I can think of a few novelists who have made me feel this excited. You know, I can’t do a blog on hooks without mentioning the author who has kept me on my toes throughout every novel I’ve read. Mystery/thriller novelist, Harlan Coben, has really made me judge—for that particular genre— how a hook is effective, what makes a moment just…stop your breath, just as things couldn’t get any worse, and make me—the reader—hunger for more.
Now, thriller and mystery aren’t the only genres that can have heart-stopping hooks. Any novel can, really. 

What’s their big, beautiful, alluring secret?

Hooks—the first line in a novel that kicks it off, in particular, and the last line that finishes a chapter. For this blog, I’ll be focussing on the hook that starts your novel because it’s the hardest to get just right. For this type of hook, it’s all in the technique, how the writer employs the hook and if it’s at the right moment that the story begins—if a character’s life is about to change…or be threatened, if a revelation is about to be revealed…lots of things can become hooks if done right.

Before you start panicking (believe me, I’d be panicking right about now—hooks are hard things!) I’ll give you a few examples.
There are many ways to begin a novel—depending on your genre, audience and on your novel’s point of view. I’ll go through and explain, and give you an example of each. Keep in mind, readers, this is a subjective matter, so what would hook you in would not do the same for me.


Now, this hook is one of the easiest ones to do: The novel opens with a question. The tricky part of this particular hook is that this question hook must then create more questions, a reason for the reader to wonder and thus—throughout the novel—find out the answer to the question.


Must it feel so surreal to fall?


This hook uses what we call an ‘epistolary element’—using a journal or a letter to tell the story. But with a hook, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for your narrator to mention that the weather was bad today or how his/her day was—you need to cut to the chase.


Saturday February 12th/2011

Today it happened. It finally happened!
Someone kissed me.
Well, granted, they were preforming CPR, but it was a kiss. That ought to count for something right?


Pretty self-explanatory—the chapter begins with a fact that relates to the novel’s subject matter or to a scene.


A woman’s heart beats faster than a man’s at seventy-eight beats per minute. But how much can the female heart stand? How many cracks and holes can be patched up and endured before those seventy-eight strong beats become muffled by a jaded shell, before she herself becomes like stone?
If you ask me, it doesn’t take much.

Looking into the Past

These novels generally begin with a prologue, or a short introduction, presenting the protagonist at a later age, looking back over their life and recounting it for the reader.


When I was eighteen, confused and jaded, I met the girl of my dreams. She stood across the road from me, her eyes shining, and her smile small and tentative. Curious and desperate, I stepped off the sidewalk corner to meet her.
And that was the moment I regret most.

The most common method of opening a novel, and the most difficult to grab a reader with, description sets the scene—the setting, the time period, character description. However, if the description isn’t compelling, doesn’t stand out in some way then there’s not going to be much of a hook to grab the reader.


I stared around at my son’s room, feeling the walls close in on me. He was here—in his pictures, in his posters and even in his dirty laundry. I picked up a shirt off the floor and breathed in the scent. Tears choked me as I imagined bars on the window. How could you? He was my son


Another self-explanatory hook: Dialogue hooks your reader—be it be a single line or part of a conversation. For this hook, a short, cut-to-the-chase line is best to hook your reader and keep them guessing as to what the hell your character’s saying and why.


“Don’t you get it, Dad? You can’t fix this!”
“Just give me a second chance—”
“It’s too late for that.”

That phone call haunted me. Became like a specter in the house, a specter with my child’s voice—screaming at me, strangled with tears.
Those were the last words we exchanged.


The hook that most often grabs a reader, but if done poorly, can often be taken as a ‘cheap hook’—a hook simply used to grab a reader and has no other purpose, doesn’t add to the story or to a character. Action hooks however can be effective tools to bring us right into the action, if it’s possible to deliver both character development and to keep from confusing the reader—while, at the same time, keeping the momentum.


Wasting no time, I sunk my fangs into the woman’s jugular. My hold on her throat tightened as she fought and I felt lightheaded as hot blood poured down my throat. It had a spicy flavor, the flavor of fire and of ice—burning in my veins. Like a vintage wine, I drank it in, thirsty for the rare taste of vampire blood. She was a young vampire, only a couple centuries old. Young and gullible. I took it all in, watching the light leave her eyes.

Which hooks do you guys like using? Which ones out of the examples above caught your eye? Why do you think that was?

- M


  1. A lot of these were great, it's hard to pick just one. I don't favor a particular kind, but use whatever strikes me for a particular story. The only one I have never used is a journal entry one, just because letters are hard for me to keep gripping.

    Awesome blog, Maddie. Well done.

  2. Great post! I like to use a variety of hooks in my writing to keep things interesting. :)

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