Hook!

You’ve got about 25 words to hook a reader on page 1 of your story.

Not 25 paragraphs or 25 pages. Words, folks. It equals out to an average-length sentence.

Ergo, the first sentence of your story should grab a reader’s attention strongly enough that the reader finishes reading all of page 1 and turns to page 2.

What kind of hook you use is up to you and your story instincts. Some hooks are crude and some are sublime.

You want to be startling, intriguing, dramatic, vivid, and bold.

You don’t want to open with a long-winded passage of description. Please resist the urge to begin with pages of story background or an explanation of how your planet Mithar developed its unique mythology.

But readers need to know all that in order to understand the action that’s to come!” wailed a student of mine when I told him to cut the first 50 pages of his fantasy manuscript.

Not a chance, kid.

Readers want to know a few simple things when they start a story:

1) Whose viewpoint are they in.

2) Where is the story located.

3) What’s happening now.

Why do we need viewpoint so fast? It helps orient readers to your imaginary world. It gives readers someone to connect with, maybe even like enough to keep reading. Think of viewpoint as a conduit into your story.

As for where it’s taking place, that simply means day or night, raining or dry, city street or the hay loft. Establishing the setting doesn’t mean including a green Michelin Travel Guide.

Get into the story action fast. If you’re stalling, you either haven’t any confidence in your plot, you don’t know your protagonist, or you’re scared. Probably you’re scared because you don’t know your lead character and you haven’t worked out your plot to any useful degree. Iron out those problems and then begin the story in action.

Whatever action your protagonist is engaged in, make it current to the story situation. Not past history, not background. Keep readers guessing a little. Keep them intrigued. Keep enticing them with hints of explanation to come … later.

If you’re fly-fishing in Montana, you don’t stand in the stream and explain to the trout that you’re going to fillet him and fry him up in cornmeal for that night’s supper before you cast your lure.

Chances are all that talking will scare the fish away.

Here are two samples of opening lines from published novels. Consider whether the hook answers the three questions I mentioned above and whether you would at least read the next paragraph.

I know which one I like best. How about you?

1) As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park. (from Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas)

2) “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White)

23 Comments

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23 responses to “Hook!

  1. M G Kizzia

    I vote for White, even without Strunk.

  2. I’m curious, where’d you get the 25 word statistic? I’m not calling you out because we all know its true…just curious.

    • Over the years, I’ve heard editors talk about it. My writing mentor, Jack Bickham, also used to say the same thing. It’s not an iron-clad rule. Nothing in writing ever is. But it’s a useful guide and a reminder to get off the blocks fast.

      • Definitely true and something I’ve inately understood as a long time reader, I think this is part of the reason why I write the way I do. I need something, one line,one idea, to spark everything else. Its the same thing, some 25 words or so that will just take me and make me run with it. Kind of makes me wonder if I’ll change my first sentences much or not.

  3. Charlotte’s web is a great example. I liked the other one too. What are your thoughts on these great books that do not follow this technique?

    “The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air.”- The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan.

    “The river lay heavily upon the desert, bright as a spill of molten metal from a furnace. The sky smoked with heat-haze and the sun beat down upon it all with the strokes of a coppersmith’s hammer. In the mirage the gaunt hills flanking the Nile seemed to tremble to the blows.” River God by Wilbur Smith.

    Or this classic . . .

    “Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a work house; and in this work-house was born–on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events–the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.” Oliver Twist (note: said hook sentence is 99 words long).

    • What great examples!

      These Robert Jordan and Wilbur Smith excerpts hook through setting, and that is super hard to do well.

      While I love many of Dickens’s works, and OLIVER TWIST is one of his best stories … quite frankly if I had no idea who Dickens was, this opening wouldn’t grab me at all. The only hook is a small mention of the workhouse. That would have gripped Victorian readers, of course. The workhouse was a nasty threat hanging over many of them. But today I pick up a Dickens novel because he delivers terrific stories beneath the layers of verbiage. Keep in mind that this guy was paid by the word, and he had a large family to support.

      🙂 Deb

  4. It might not be exactly 25 words, but it most definitely is the very first sentence. If it grabs you enough to keep you reading, that’s the important thing. And I completely agree with what you said about knowing where your story is going. You should know at least to some degree where it’s heading.
    While well known authors can, and have, sometimes started “at the beginning” so to speak, in terms of having their characters go about their business before anything happens, that sort of thing will usually turn off new readers completely. When I was getting closer to pubbing my book, I started downloading debut writers to see what they were doing in terms of hook. I would say very easily, maybe 8 out of 10 times their characters were just going about their day. I generally stopped reading before the first page.
    There’s a reason they call it a hook. the sharp end catches the fish. 🙂
    Great post.

      • CD

        I suppose starting with the routine is intended to show the reader a “control” day of normalcy before dropping the bomb (story problem) on the character (reader), so its unexpectedness will be evident to the reader. Of course, if you open on a boring day, what audience will keep reading? Most readers can experience a day like that without paying for an author’s aid.

        When Grimm opened, it showed a college student in a red hoodie heading out for a jog in headphones — just long enough for you to see her enter a wood where she became unseen to others, and long enough for the viewer to be shocked when she was snatched into those woods by something big and fast. The normalcy (of a jog) was important to make the shock work, just as the later normalcy of a police procedural was necessary to making the premise of the story surprising. Establishing a sense of normalcy is an important enough element to making a surprise surprising that the world must be full of examples of how to do it without trying a reader’s patience. I strongly suspect that just a few words to evoke a common shared experience will be enough to give most readers a sense of the humdrum. Pages and pages of what it’s like to walk through the character’s house (or a Tolkien forest) are probably a bit much.

        As for Oliver Twist: I don’t think the “hook” had really become an essential part of the book business yet. Think on Tolkien’s openings, and they’re much more recent.

      • You’re right! This kind of story set up comes right off the archplot structure of western mythology. Think Joseph Campbell.

  5. Hi, Deb. I got a question for you about Hooks and classics. I thought you would probably know something about this. Are hooks a relatively new ‘invention’ for authors? I’m reading through some classics and its just not something I see (Chekhov, Dumas, Dickens for example). Others do it (Twain, Poe). Any insight into this?

    • I’m taking a wild guess, so here goes. In the 19th century the usage of hooks probably depended on the author and how adventurous the story might be. Hooks weren’t especially needed to hold reader attention then.

      For example, Chekhov was writing about character and situation, not something that needed to jump fast off the mark. The opening of Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE is a party, where you meet a bazillion characters all at once and have next-to-no idea of what’s going on.

      Dickens uses hooks sometimes–e.g. A TALE OF TWO CITIES (“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”) However, in DAVID COPPERFIELD, we get “I am born.” (Snore!)

      But Poe and Twain were very deliberately setting up story problems and conflict, or establishing mood and foreshadowing. They were both highly commercial writers with an eye on their audience. However, I imagine that they set hooks instinctively because that was the type of writers they happened to be. Poe wrote a lot of short fiction, so that likely trained him to get on with things. Dickens was a commercial writer also, but he specialized in serials, spinning out his tales as long as possible. Consider also that 19th century readers were process-oriented. They enjoyed the unfolding of the story and were in no hurry to see it finished. In an era when many families owned maybe a half-dozen books (besides the Bible) or less, they wanted long, involved, slow-moving ones that provided maximum entertainment as families sat in the parlor each night and listened to a chapter read aloud.

      I’d say that conscious usage of hooks is more a modern invention, or a technique that’s been pushed to more prominent usage as the types of entertainment have increased. Unlike Dickens, we’re competing with movies, TV, video games, sports events, social media, etc., and we have to keep upping the “wow” factor to hold the attention of our audience.

  6. CD

    Sometimes a commercial success can open with a hook that managed to have no action at all:
    “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Douglas Adams, opening line of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Of course, with that title, opening by presenting such a setting has a certain attraction even though there’s no character and no action in sight yet. You’re being sold on the absurdity of trivializing the setting – your own planet – with the easy insults presented by the author. If this absurdity appeals to you, you’re in luck: absurdity drives the humor of the whole book.

    I sometimes have an awful time discerning whether my opening is sufficiently grabbing, so I’ve had to think hard about my openings and try a few out on people. Since I write nonfiction for my day job, making stuff up to write is really a change of gears for me when I write for fun.

    • No matter what “rule” anyone comes up with about writing, you can always find an exception that defies the usual method. To me, the tiny hook in this Adams opening line is “…the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm …” It’s absurd; it’s unexpected; it’s funny.

      What we’re doing with hooks is trying to grab interest. What interests 16 readers may leave the other 800,000 unmoved. You can write the most blatant hook out there and not touch anyone.

      Or, you can write an opening paragraph like this: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” (HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR’S STONE) Without the book title and without the chapter title, this hook is small and weak. But it grabbed readers just the same.

      It’s a very good idea for you to have readers that will give you feedback, especially since you do have to switch gears from nonfiction to fiction.

      • CD

        Exactly. The absurdity of dissing Earth as not worth notice was the key, as promptly underscored by the “update” of Earth’s entry from “harmless” to “mostly harmless” which is being submitted about the time the planet is being destroyed to make room for a bypass.

        My first problem when I undertook to write a fantasy novel was that I was modeling on Tolkein. Tolkein spins a great yarn, but “hook” isn’t one of his traditional strengths as I understand it; he spends time telling readers about the world and its history before telling you there’s a Hobbit named Bilbo who wasn’t expecting an army of Dwarves as house guests, and hadn’t advertised himself as a professional burglar. So my first novel draft — written ages ago before there was a blog like this or Jim Butcher’s by which to steer — opened as if a chronicler’s memoir or a reference. And not a funny reference like the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

        Honestly, I sort of liked Tolkein’s lulling readers into a sense of normalcy by the history and geography lesson before dropping the bomb that a respectable hobbit was expected to LEAVE HOME in the company of rough men who took him for a burglar. But if hooks are the sine qua non of a sale, emulating a Tolkein opening wouldn’t be a winning strategy.

        One day I’ll revisit that old novel, but it’ll be hard to think how to lay out the story without the creation myth and so forth.

        As for the Harry Potter opening, it was apparently rejected about a dozen times before someone signed poor Rowling:
        http://harrypotterrejected.blogspot.com/2010/01/harry-potter-rejected.html
        I don’t think the “hook” was its primary selling point. As I understand the story, the ms was saved from the Christopher Little’s wastebasket because his office manager’s eye was caught by the fact that Rowling had bound the thing in black:
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/jul/15/harrypotter.books
        Who says the cover isn’t important?

      • Oh, goodness, no! You can’t use Tolkien as a close model now. There’s plenty to learn from him, of course. His complete understanding of his story world, his ability to depict it simply and clearly, his pitting of good versus evil, and his taking his protagonist through an arc of change.

        But please don’t try to emulate his pacing, lack of hooks, wobbly scene structure, etc. He had a tremendous Idea. He published it in an era far different from ours. Probably his descriptions and setting were themselves the hook. Along with his voice. He offered a place of enchantment that drew readers in.

        As for Harry Potter, technically the start is a wobble. I’d say the manuscript was very lucky, whether due to its cover or whatever. I have a little book in my library called ROTTEN REJECTIONS that recounts rejection letters of numerous famous or classic books. No one said that all editors have the knack for acquisitions …
        🙂

      • CD

        ROFL, but nobody told me 15 years ago that Tolkein had become unpublishable *grin*

        One thing I *definitely* learned from Tolkein was how NOT to pace a story: I quit reading LOTR on Book I so many times I can’t count, and almost every time was while slogging through some wilderness growing weary of the wildlife or the hunting or the like, waiting for the characters to be presented with something that could lead to a decision or a change of pace. The only reason I finally read them was that I wished on philosophical grounds to have read them before I saw the movies, so I read each just before the films. They were great, but it took lots of motivation to get over the hump. I wouldn’t expect readers to do that a lot in a world with so much more readily accessible and reader-friendly stuff to read.

        Now can someone tell me why the story is better if the Elves are at the Battle of Helm’s Deep, or if some of the good guys are re-written as minor villains?

        But the stuff I’ve written recently tries to grab readers better. I’m particularly proud of the speed with which I set things up from scratch in my most recent WIP, Snowflake:
        http://cdragons.livejournal.com/596.html
        Now, I need to write the rest of the novel 🙂

        As for rotten rejections, the fact that Butcher, Rowlings, Stockett, etc. all have tall stacks of rejection letters suggests that getting published isn’t a matter of product quality but depends on something else – knowledge of the field (and of specific target agents), salesmanship, and other factors that go far beyond mere mailing of a manuscript.

      • Yeah, while I enjoyed THE HOBBIT, LOTR hasn’t been something I’ve stuck with. The Elven poetry finished me off somewhere in Book II.

        Rejections happen to the best–and worst–writers. Sometimes (not often) agents pull in a big favor to get a manuscript sold. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of the editor’s personal taste, or the editor already has a similar storyline in production and doesn’t want to repeat it. Since last week, I’ve seen two novels in the store that have similar premises to an idea that I’ve been mulling over quite a while. Sometimes the editor can’t or won’t take a risk on something that’s different or new or out there, even though that manuscript may launch a new genre and prove wildly successful for another publisher.

        The whole acquisitions process is highly subjective. Writers find that difficult to accept, probably because we’ve worked so hard to create a manuscript that may not be read past page 2 or 20.

      • CD

        In the forward to the “Ultimate” Hitchhiker’s Guide compendium, I learned something additional about the book: it was a solicited manuscript. It was solicited on the basis of a radio production the author had written.

        Of course, the reason that it sold so well after publication was entirely based on the sort of humor displayed in the first paragraph. On the other hand, the entire prologue — the first chapter the reader sees — is without a main character (maybe the Earth?) and without any description of conflict (except for the brief reference about the man being nailed to a tree for what he said about how to be happy, and the unexpected thing that prevented the girl from telling anyone how to be happy without anyone having to be nailed to a tree). The whole reason to read on is based on the humor in the author’s perspective on the world, as there’s precious little else by which to be hooked.

        And it sold like hotcakes.

        Of course, to get THERE, first it had to get into print ….

      • Sometimes, the best hook of all is simply the author’s unique voice.

  7. CD

    Uh, I didn’t intend that as a plug for Snowflake over stuff one can find on the shelf, but to highlight the huge difference between my slow Tolkein-inspired openings and what I have since learned to set up with <150 words.

    I'm working on the hooks, really I am….

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