11

I intuit that hooks are things that hook. (I'm quite astute in this way.) They can be good prose, relatable characters, rich settings.

Books must start with a 'hook.' This is a current truism. The hook is (often) seen as establishing the tone of the book, placing the reader into the setting, into the mindset of a main character. The (implying singular) hook should be the first page of the story, perhaps the first 300 words. Or the first sentence.

My cherished beta readers have indicated that they do not know what it is that my characters want, and it finally dawned on me that this is a stumbling block for them (and myself) - if they knew what my characters wanted, they would be more 'hooked' into the characters.

With this dawning realization I began to wonder, what other elements can be conceived of as a hook? Put otherwise, it had not occurred to me to see character desire, specifically, as a hook. It had not occurred to me to take a broad view of what a 'hook' could be. (It had not occurred to me to hook my readers in as many ways as possible! I saw the readers merely as people to be entertained - not quarry to be poached and reeled in, and now I see that they may ... wish to be reeled in and I'm happy to re-envision my efforts through the lenses of hooks!)

Through the valuable contributions of esteemed contributors on this site, I understand that style, setting, tension, story, and so on are important to writing in a compelling fashion. These can all be considered 'hooks' but are not typically seen or defined as such. I am hoping to gain insight into what does and does not constitute a hook, the more specific the better. I'm not looking to tread over old ground, although I expect that may be necessary. I'm curious as well, what does not constitute a hook. Perhaps there is a reason that setting is not? seen as a hook although it is seen as a necessary component of effective storytelling.

10

First, I would not say a hook has to be in the first 300 words (a normal published page is about 250 words). Anybody that picks up a book with the intent of reading it will give you more credit than *one page, you will get three or four: As long as the prose is going somewhere.

For me, that "going somewhere" has been literal, in my current novel I start with a character actually running somewhere relatively fast, in a hurry but the reader doesn't know why. She seems calm and collected, hyper aware of her surroundings, thinking about things to do and people she knows. But it is not an idle jog, she is intent on getting there on time. Then in some pages, when she arrives, I reveal the purpose of this hard run was to escape the scene of a major crime she had just committed. Which reveals character, she is a professional, she's fit, she's fast, the run reveals some setting, her musings reveal some relationships that matter later.

So this "intent on getting somewhere fast for an unknown reason" is a minor "hook", it does keep the reader reading for a few pages, but then it is over, it did it's job, so it isn't a major hook that lasts for chapter.

This is what constitutes a hook, IMO: a question the reader needs answered. Why is this girl running? Where does she have to get, and why does she have to be on time? There are other questions or clues. She stops and walks the tree line silently at a blind bend in the path, then seeing it clear resumes her pace in the worn middle.

The reason it is important that you do not need a major hook so fast is that you want to set up a major hook (big ass question) just like anything else. IMO, a major hook isn't great unless it has context. To get that context, you can use a series of these "minor hooks" before you spring a big hook (question) the reader will want answered, that will pull them through more than just a few pages.

Think of it as building a rope bridge across a chasm. first, tie a thread to a stone, and throw or catapult that stone over. Use the thread to pull a string over. Use the string to pull a rope over. Use that rope to pull ten ropes over. Minor hooks, middling hooks, big hooks.

While each hook is operating, you are exposing character and plot and setting up the next-sized hook.

9

A hook is anything that answers this question: Why should I care?

Give me, the reader, a reason to care, and I'm hooked. It's that simple. A hook can be a desire to know what happens next. It could be a vulnerability and a threat to exploit it. It can be a desire and a related obstacle. It can be setting, if there is something in the setting that makes me care, like the opening line of William Gibson's Neuromancer, which doesn't work for everybody, but it worked for me. The sooner I have a reason to care, the sooner I am investing mind-share in your story. The sooner I'm investing, the harder it is going to be for me to walk away because I already have attention and time and mind-share invested. Hook me before the first period, and I don't waste time wondering how much more line I'm going to reel out to the author. Bury your hook at the end of the opening chapter, and I may never get there, or I might get there and decide that it just isn't worth what I just waded through, and so I move on to another book.

Fail to make me care, and you break the first rule of fiction. If you can't give me a reason to care on the first page, then why should I give you a second page? The reader doesn't owe you anything. You, in fact, owe the reader, who is loaning you time and attention in the hopes that you will pay off. The hook is that signal that there is a payoff. It is the signal from the author to the reader that the author knows what he is doing, and giving the story additional attention will be worth the reader's time. Make the reader care.

In summary, the hook is anything that engages the reader.

7

I hate the word hook (in this context, it is useful for talking about fishing). It implies some kind of violent capture (fishing again). Who wants to be hooked? Fish? Drug addicts?

The problem with the word it that implies a kind of sudden and intrusive attachment. That leads writers to suppose that their lead has to involve some immediate high stakes action. But usually those openings fail to "hook" the reader.

I look at it this way. A story is an experience. A reader picks up a book hoping that it will give them the experience they are looking for. It is an excepted part of the story experience that the story starts in "the normal world" from which the hero will be summoned by the call to action. So logically a book opens in the ordinary world. Examples of this include the Shire in LOTR and Privet Lane in HP.

But there can be no violent hooking of the reader in the presentation of the real world. By its nature, the real world is not in a state of disturbance when the story opens. That is to come when the call to action arrives. And if the call to action arrives too early, the story won't work because we will not understand what is a stake for the hero when the call to action calls them away from the normal world. We won't understand what attachment cause them to resist the call to action. The normal world matters.

What then attracts the reader when they open the book and start reading about the normal world? I think a much better way to think about it is a promise. The opening of a book should give the reader a promise of what is to come. If the story is an experience, it should open with the promise that it will be the sort of story that the reader wishes to experience.

And I don't think that promise is one particular thing, one "hook". I think it is everything, the totality of the experience that the book presents in its opening pages. This will usually be the experience of the normal world, but different kinds of stories have different kinds of normal worlds. The promise it about establishing the kind of normal world in which the kind of story the reader wants takes place.

The normal world is also the foundation on which we establish what the character wants. The story ends with the return, so in a sense, what the hero wants is either the return to the normal world, or a return to a transformed normal world. The hobbits return to the Shire, but a transformed Shire. The hero seeks either restoration or transformation of the normal world, and so we cannot understand what they want except in terms of the normal world in which their story begins.

Where then must we begin? With the promise of the normal world, and thence to the transformation or restoration of the normal world that drives the hero.

5

A hook is something that catches your reader in the first moments and continues to reel them in at a differing pace throughout your work.

That's about it.

The first page, if not the first couple of sentences, have to hook your reader into wanting to know more - more about the world, the character, the problems, the past, the future, ...

The details depend on your style and your specific story. For example I remember reading a book that started with the main character basically saying "I fu&!ed up... How did I get myself involved with a dragon, just because that damned elf somehow found out my secret?!" Now I wanted to know three things:

  • What is currently happening? -> draws me in for the next pages until the action fades
  • Why is the dragon such a problem? -> draws me in for some more pages until I get a view of the world and the role dragons play in this world
  • What is the secret? -> the secret was not revealed until only a couple of pages were left, but it was alluded to throughout the whole book; each chapter contained hints and remarks about this...

This is the problem with the word hook: it's not just one hook that you need.

You need to get your readers to start turning pages. Then you want them to feel like the next interesting thing is only a few more pages with a slightly different pacing. And after they've read through half the book they probably won't let that big secret shrouded in mystery.

Therefore you have to plant some hooks early that can be used throughout the whole book. And in between you always use little hooks of the first kind that I've shown. Little skirmishes hook your reader for the next pages and can be used regularly. These are contributing to the goals for the medium term, which should be used sparingly. And you as the reader know that there is one overarching long-term goal behind everything that you want to reveal.

What exactly you use depends on your style, the genre you are writing, your target audience, ... Dragons for example will work perfectly fine for me, but they might bore you to death and make you put the book away. A fighting scene that is probably happening a couple pages makes me want to read just one more chapter, while you may not think highly of senseless fights. Maybe a mystery helps you and your story? The hint to the next witness? The next room in a thriller?

Cliffhangers are an often, sometimes overused, way of hooking your reader to read the next chapter. These are the short-term kind that I've mentioned and you should be careful to not overuse them. I remember reading a book that ended with a cliffhanger after each chapter and each chapter was a mere 4 or 5 pages. They always showed that something horrible happened - and three sentences on the next page it was obvious that everything was just a misunderstanding... After 20 such chapters these cliffhangers bored me because the author used the same thing over and over and over again without any variety.

Be therefore careful of only thinking in terms of hooks - they are not everything, but merely a tool to keep your reader interested in your book and wanting to read a little bit more to get a little bit more information for the next pages, the next chapters and until the end of your book - depending on which hooks were recently used and are currently in the focus of the main character.

3

Excellent answers already - tricky to come up with something that hasn't already been mentioned.

The thing that hooks a reader will depend on what sort of book it is (I'm using the word "book" to separate it from "story", though it could be a film, poem, interactive game or almost anything else). Detective writers will often start a book with the crime, which doesn't (at that point) involve the main characters and is the reason behind the story rather than part of it. Science fiction and fantasy books will want to establish an ordinary world that isn't the ordinary world of the reader.

With other sorts of book, the important thing may be the style. Writers like Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams were particularly good at this. If you're going to twist the readers expectations with comic asides throughout the book, it's important to get this in early and to keep the reader involved in the humour ("I couldn't put it down." Sometimes he regretted his decision to become a veterinary surgeon.).

Whether you think of it as a hook or as something else, the early pages establish the relationship between the reader and the narrator (often - but not necessarily - the reader and the writer). Problems occur if this isn't done effectively, or is done in a way that's inconsistent with the rest of the book. As dknestaut said, it's showing the reader why they should care, and a way to do this is to show why the narrator cares enough to be telling you the story.

  • This makes me think of a pet peeve trope I have come to be so bored of where a movie opens with a scene of the villain, and then a scene of the hero having an average for him, weird for us day – Andrey Feb 5 '18 at 15:47
  • @Andrey - Ah, yes - the Star Cruisers moving into place before young Luke goes out to check the moisture traps. Classic stuff... – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Feb 5 '18 at 16:22
3

Let me tell you a story. Go on, pull up a chair and siddown. Atta boy. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Let me tell you a story. A tale really. Happened to me back when I was a wee liddle thing but a handful of years old. Had my ma tell it to me over and over, 'cause I don' really 'member it myself.

Don't try to hook anyone. Don't use techniques to draw them in. Because what hooks one, will turn another off. What you need to do, is understand who your target audience is, and understand what they are looking for.

If you're writing an erotic tale, then there needs to be the promise (a promise kept) of steamy bedroom play (bedroom being optional, because the kitchen and/or forest's grassy floor will do just fine).

If it's a romance, you need two people who want to be together.

That's why 'setting' can be a hook. If you are writing Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Setting and scene is the best hook. Why? Because the target audience is trying to get away from the mundane, so showing them something fantastic?

Standing on the bridge of your new ship, gazing out at the planet you just left as the line of sunset slowly eases across the lazy orb passing beneath you?

Or standing on a hilltop, gazing down on dragons swooping down and stealing cows from your family's farm?

Readers who choose the genre for the fantastical sense of other would love it (even if some jaded readers have seen it a thousand times and roll their eyes).

A hook, in this sense, is nothing more than showing your reader:

I know what you want, look, here it is. If you want more of this? Keep reading.

And what that something is depends on your reader, or how you offer them what they didn't think they wanted.

So really, in order to tell you what a hook is, you need to tell me what story you're writing, and I'll tell you what hooked me. For some, it's setting, for some it's the premise (I've been hooked on bad stories, simply because I love what it was meant to be).

But you know what hooks me every time? The voice. Not the scenic descriptions, not the plot, not the characters. Just the way things are told. How melodic it all seems to be, how the words roll off the page and burn directly into my mind, just for how they were written. That magical balance of the tone used that compliments the POV character in such a way that I believe this (likely) fictional person in a (likely) fictional world is telling me their tale.

Hence, why I opened with a character I'm sure you imaged was elderly, likely not highly educated, and has this story to tell. You don't know what the story is, but if you like listening to your grandparents telling you stories from their past, from their childhood? Then you want to know. You want to know if there's cookies on the table, if there's water being boiled for tea or coffee, if there's something you remember from visiting your grandparents.

And if you weave your story right. If you capture the essence of what people loved about listening to those old stories. Then you don't need a hook. The story is the hook, and it's all you'll ever need. As long as you understand what your reader expects to find, so you can consciously go with that, or against it.

1

The hook is the way the author addresses the reality of the modern audience, which has innumerable demands on its attention, and unlimited alternate sources of entertainment. Once upon a time, it was possible to slow-build your narrative. Now, if you don't grab people immediately, you've lost them.

I would have to disagree with Amadeus that you'll always get three or four pages from a reader. I'll give chapters and chapters to an author I know and respect, but any book that wants to "cold call" me must grab me quickly. I'm sure I've made snap judgements about a book in less than a page, and I'm also sure I'm not alone.

So what makes a good hook? It's something that promises the readers the book will be worth their time. Depending on the reader this might be a striking concept, a memorable voice, stunning prose, an action-packed situation, or a relatable character. It's whatever makes your book compelling, the only difference is that you have to demonstrate it quickly.

  • I agree that you don't typically have four pages to pull the reader in. This is not because they have short attention spans -- if they did they would not read novels at all -- but, as you say, because they have an abundance of choices. But I think the idea of a hook is tremendously misleading here. The opening is the beginning of an experience and it is the flavor of that initial experience, the first lick of the ice cream, the first sip of the wine, that determines if the reader will continue. This is not one thing, it is everything. It is the promise of the whole, not one of the parts. – Mark Baker Mar 13 '18 at 20:09
  • @MarkBaker Can you elaborate on that? I feel like there's a valid critique here, but I'm not sure whether it's directed at this answer, or at the entire concept of a "hook" – Chris Sunami Mar 13 '18 at 20:26
  • At this answer in the sense that it posits that a hook has to come earlier today. But also at the whole concept of hook, in the sense that the idea of hook as a thing that comes in at any particular point, seems misguided. Every work, every scene, paints a picture and makes a promise. It is not like I tolerate X dull words waiting for the hook to come. I want the savor of the kind of book I like from the first sentence and I want it to grow with each paragraph that follows. Experience is continuous; the recreation of experience must be too. – Mark Baker Mar 13 '18 at 20:38
  • @MarkBaker As usual, I think your comments serve the craftsmanship of a well-written book. But I find it hard to accept that the audience of today doesn't have different and more immediate demands --note the parallel trend towards ever "hookier" music. – Chris Sunami Mar 14 '18 at 13:26
  • I think today's audience is more varied than it has ever been. You can't appeal to all of it and you don't need to to be successful. Instant action may be the flavor some readers are looking for, but it is certainly not what all readers are looking for. You have to know what your audience wants. – Mark Baker Mar 14 '18 at 13:46

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