Hooks: They’re Not Just for Fishing Anymore

Now that the editing process is underway, I have so many questions. One of them, of course, is how do I DO this editing thing? Fortunately I have a cadre of on-line and real-life writing friends to give me suggestions and share their methods with me. I am SO GRATEFUL that I am not trying to do this alone. I think I would already have given up.

But the question I’m wrestling with at the moment is, how do I know if my hook is good enough? See, I already care about my story, so I’m already hooked. How do I know when I’ve come across an opening that will make other people care about my story? Or at least be curious enough to keep reading?

I’ve been reading the advice of other writers this morning, and also reading opening lines and first pages of novels I really loved for ideas, and e-mailing my opening lines to people and asking what they think. And then I thought–hey, maybe I’ll share some of what I’ve found with my webfriends! Don’t you feel special, knowing how I’m always thinking of you?

So first of all, let me offer up a definition of a “hook”, just in case any of you don’t know what I’m talking about. Forgive me if I am insulting your intelligence! I like to try to be clear (but I won’t ponder my chances of success too closely). So, this is the basic definition, lifted from the Wikipedia entry:

A narrative hook (or hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep on reading. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally it is the Opening sentence

So what makes a good hook? There are tons of possibilities. I figured I would look through books that I loved, and see how they open, for examples.

Here are some of my favorites:

On the night that Davis Cooper died, coyotes came down from the hills to the town in the desert valley below. They came from the Santa Rita Mountains in the south. From the Tuscon Mountains in the west. From the Catalinas in the north. From the Rincons, where the sun would rise over the dead man’s body. —The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

I love this opening because it has a storybook feel to it. It tells us that we’re entering in to something magical–and I’m a sucker for magical.

“There are dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden.”

Meg Murray took her head out of the refrigerator where she had been foraging for an after-school snack, and looked at her six-year-old brother. “What?”

“There are dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden. Or there were. They’ve moved to the north pasture now.” —A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

I don’t think that one needs commentary, do you? Other than–Dragons in the vegetable garden? Wha?

Brenden Vetch found the Od School of Magic beneath a cobbler’s shoe on a busy street in the ancient city of Kelior. —Od Magic, Patricia McKilip

Again, this one is just sort of–what?

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. —Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke

I love how this one mentions magic so nonchalantly. Like it’s just an every day thing. This tells you something about the world of the story, doesn’t it? And makes you think, hmmmm . . . what would it be like if magic was “dull”?

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He stared down at the boy in the red zip-up jacket and shook his shaved head. “You can’t bring that thing in here.” —City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Obviously, this one raises all kinds of questions. What “thing”? Where is “here”? Etc.

And finally, my absolute favorite first line in the history of ever:

The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink. —The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan.

This one is great for many reasons. It makes me giggle. It uses incongruous juxtaposition, which I love. It tells you that Nick not only keeps a sword under the sink–which shows you that Nick is not your average guy–it also tells you that he has a favorite sword, which means that he has more than one. Which leads you to question why anyone, in the prosaic world of leaking sink pipes, needs multiple swords. Those two little sentences sure accomplish a lot.

You can see how these lines are all very different from each other, but they all have something in common. They are, as my friend Liz put it this morning “WTF worthy.” That is, they make you want to know more.

Of course it’s difficult to have perspective on the catchiness of your own hook. After all, you as a writer are already interested in  your story–that’s why you’re writing it. At least I hope this is the case. And that’s why you need writing buddies/critique partners! Because you can run it by them and get their input. Of course, they won’t all agree, as I’m discovering in my own informal survey of my friends. But you can get a feel for how people respond to your hook by sending it around to people you trust.

And where the hook is concerned, I suggest getting some reader friends to have a look at it too. After all, you’re hoping that someday the public will want to read your book (or story), right? So get the opinions of readers.

And finally, here are a couple of articles I looked at that you might find interesting:

How to Hook Your Readers – Right From the Start

Hooks, Lines and Sinkers

There you have it, advice from a total non-professional who is stumbling through the process for the first time!

What about you? What’s your favorite hook?


11 thoughts on “Hooks: They’re Not Just for Fishing Anymore

  1. Thanks for sharing this – I loved the examples. I always struggle with the beginnings of my stories and any advice is helpful. The last example (The demons lexicon) is apparently a brilliant hook because now I want to read the story. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Oh Cassandra Jade, you MUST read The Demon’s Lexicon, especially if you are a fan of Young Adult Fantasy. It’s one of my favorites!!!! I will be giving a more detailed review of it at the end of December.

  3. Now I have to add ALL of those to my reading list, because they sound so interesting!

    My favorite first line ever is from Ghee, by Robert V Aldrich. “It was a quiet summer afternoon until the forest exploded.”

    … Yeah, how can you NOT want to keep reading after a first line like that?

  4. “In a distant and second hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling starmists waver and part…

    The first sentences of the Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett.

    One thing I’ve heard about hooks is that they are supposed to draw the reader into the middle of a scene and keep them there.

    In Star Fire, my first sentence was… “Anna ran. The forest that had once been comforting, appeared sinister.”


    1. Terry Pratchett writes some of the best hooks ever. My favorite is still the one from the beginning of Wyrd Sisters (I quoted part of it on an earlier blog post so didn’t repeat it in this one):

      The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.

      The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunced figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?”

      There was a pause.

      Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”

    1. I’ve heard of her, but never met her or read her stuff. I didn’t realize she was local either! I’m going to have to check out her stuff. And her blog. Off to look . . .

  5. Nice examples, Michelle. I love how concrete they are for a reader/writer. It helps bring home your point, which is astute for a…how did you put it?…total non-professional stumbling through the process for the first time.

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