Updated: Apr 8, 2021
When you go fishing, you need to have a good hook. You can’t expect to catch a fish without one. (I know that some people do catch fish with their hands, but for the sake of the metaphor, bear with me.) Without a hook, you will have nothing to keep the fish on the line long enough to reel it in, then you’re going to have to look for dinner somewhere else.
The same is true for writing.
You need to have a good hook early on in your story or else your reader could lose interest. They could put your story down after a couple of sentences and walk away with no intention of coming back. Then they tell their friends and no one buys your book and you have to find dinner elsewhere.
You Want to Reel Them In
Of course, when we are talking about writing, we don’t mean an actual sharp, pointy hook. If you put one of those in your book, I think that might convince people to actually put it down. Once they got the hook out of their finger, of course.
Okay, bad joke aside, hooks are very important. They grab the reader’s attention and keep them wanting more. The hook can be a single sentence or a single scene. It really doesn’t matter as long as it’s attention-grabbing and comes at the beginning of the story.
But how do you make something grab a reader's attention?
Well here are a few things to consider when writing the hook of your story.
Title. The reality is, stories have a few different hooks outside of the writing itself. One of the most important ones is the title. A good title, and cover, will grab someone’s attention as they are walking by the shelf, or scrolling through the store. Your title should grab a reader’s attention and convince them to pick up the story in the first place.
Start with action, not description. Action is far more attention-grabbing than description. Starting with an active scene will keep readers engaged and get them to start asking questions. They have no idea where they are or what is going on, and they will keep reading to find those answers, but don’t put the answers too far out of reach. If too many questions pile up and there are no answers in sight, readers will set the story down.
Build an emotional connection. Second to action is emotions. If you can’t start with an action-packed scene, try an emotional one. Emotions are powerful and relatable. If readers pick up a story and the character is having to deal with intense emotions from the get-go, then readers will have questions and want to find out more. Plus, this is a good way to showcase your main character and who they are. Readers who have bonded with characters are more likely to follow through to the end of the story.
Make your readers ask questions. I’ve mentioned it twice already, but if you can get your readers to ask questions and become intrigued by your story, then you’ve got them hooked. People like to solve problems and questions are just mini problems. Readers will keep reading to find the answers to their questions. But again, don’t overwhelm them with too many for too long or they will walk away from a lack of satisfaction.
Make a surprising statement. In a way, this is just another way of making your readers ask a question. You write something that catches the reader off guard and makes them wonder what happened to cause that statement or who would say something like that and why.
Examples of Hooks
Here are a few samples of hooks, mostly from books that I have on hand at the moment. I’ve read all of these books and their hooks got me. Plus, these books aren’t packed away in boxes still.
Halo: New Blood by Matt Forbeck: “I never wanted to be a Spartan.” This is a pretty big statement within the context of this franchise. Spartans in Halo are genetically modified, super-soldiers. They are the best of the best, so hearing someone claim that they didn’t want to be one is shocking and makes you ask why he doesn’t want to be a Spartan.
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan: “Yeah, I know. You guys are going to read about how I died in agony and you’re going to be like, ‘Wow, that sounds cool Magnus! Can I die in agony too?’” These are the first lines of the story and they immediately grab your attention while making you laugh and even tell you the main character's name. On top of that is the surprising fact that our narrator has died some agonizing death and is still talking to us. I mean, if that doesn’t hook you in and make you want to read more, I don’t know what will.
Minecraft: The Island by Max Brooks: “Drowning! I woke up underwater, deep underwater and this was my first conscious thought. Cold. Dark.” The character is in a very bad situation and you don’t have time to think about anything other than them getting out. What are they going to do? How do they get out of this? How did they even get into this situation in the first place?
The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” While this does go against the descriptions rule, it does so in a bit of a contradictory way. It tells you one thing, and before you can even think it, you’re told that you are wrong. On top of that, the long, rambling tone of these two sentences draws you in and makes you feel like you are talking to an old friend and now you are curious as to what exactly a hobbit-hole is like if it isn’t like what you originally thought.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan: “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” Percy goes onto warn the reader against being a half-blood and how dangerous it is. He also mentions that it is fine if you believe the story is fiction and that it is better this way. Basically, the more he pushes against you, the more you want to read to find out more. Plus, with a chapter title like “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher” how can you not want to know more?
Eragon by Christopher Paolini: Starts with an ambush being set up by some monsters as they await something coming down the trail. This naturally draws readers in by triggering their curiosity. Who are they waiting for and why? Only reading on will answer that.
The Wing Thief by Samantha Atkins: “Let me ask you a question. It’s a pretty straightforward question, but one you shouldn’t rush to answer. Do you believe in magic?” This simple question, combined with the way it's worded, gets you thinking about the world you are about to enter and introduces you to the narrative tone of the story. It’s a quick and simple introduction that draws you in and makes you think.
You Need a Good Hook
Hooks are a big part of writing. Without them, you will have a hard time getting readers to pick up your book and a harder time keeping the book in their hands. However, no hook is perfect.
If we go back to the earlier metaphor, not every hook works for every fish. When you go fishing, you have to pick the right hook for the job. Even then, no hook has a 100% catch rate and so you shouldn’t expect your hook to catch every reader, even if they are part of the demographic you are aiming for. All you can do when creating a hook for your story is make sure it grabs a reader’s attention.
The best way to do that is to get your readers to ask a question and seek an answer within your story.