Ever try to get your story started in a dynamic and exciting way, but you just can’t seem to pull it off?
Ever feel like you’re taking too long to set up and establish your story situation?
Ever feel like your story needs more oomph somehow?
Open with a hook.
Make it short and catchy. (pun intended)
Design it deliberately to grab the reader’s interest. Don’t worry if it feels cheesy or over the top. Just set the hook. Be blatant and obvious about it.
Consider the following examples pulled at random from my bookshelf:
Sidney Shelton’s IF TOMORROW COMES: She undressed slowly and dreamily, and when she was finished she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show. [thriller]
Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW: Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground. He held his Sterrion 36 up by his head, the long, silvery barrel dusted with red clay. [science fiction]
James Patterson’s ALONG CAME A SPIDER: 1932 … The Charles Lindbergh farmhouse glowed with bright, orangish lights. It looked like a fiery castle, especially in that gloomy, fir-wooded region of Jersey. Shreds of misty fog touched the boy as he moved closer and closer to his first moment of real glory, his first kill. [thriller]
Jack Campbell’s THE LOST FLEET: DAUNTLESS: The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. [science fiction]
Erin Hilderbrand’s SILVER GIRL: They had agreed not to speak about anything meaningful until Meredith was safely inside the house on Nantucket. [women’s fiction]
Jude Watson’s LOOT: No thief likes a full moon. Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark. [children’s fiction]
And finally, Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE: When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. [thriller]
Although thrillers pretty much have to open with a hook, I’ve included other genres in this small sampling to show you how hooks apply to any type of fiction.
In each of these examples, there is an element of danger and/or action leading to danger.
You may be thinking that you aren’t writing an action-adventure story. You may intend something slower-paced. You want to make your setting an important element, and you feel the need to introduce it first.
So how about this from Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.
One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.
See what I mean?
Bradbury has taken longer than any of my other examples to set his hook, but once he’s caught you, you’ll keep turning the pages.
Keep in mind that stories need to start with a moment of change for the protagonist that has big consequences. And whether it’s positive or negative, change is perceived as threatening because change alters the status quo. It makes things different, and we aren’t quite sure we want them to be.
Use atmosphere or weather–spooky twilights, crashing thunderstorms–and make it extreme. Let your word choice set the mood you’re going for. (Spiky leaves, cracked sidewalks, houses hunched in silhouette against the setting sun) And try to either plunge the protagonist immediately into danger–say, within the first 25 words if possible–or put the character in the middle of dangerous action.
Don’t be subtle. Don’t cram too much information into the opening sentence. Don’t explain anything. Keep story action simple, clear, and direct. And set the hook. Grab your readers fast, and don’t let them go.