Grab Your Reader’s Attention by Writing the Perfect Hook
In a book containing 100,000 words, one sentence has the power to grab your readers or get your book sent to the DNF pile forever. That is, of course, the first one.
The first line of a story has a lot of responsibility, and it’s this beginning where we have the opportunity to sink our claws into our readers with a solid hook.
In this article, we’re going to learn all there is to know about writing hooks, which includes:
- What a hook is and why it’s important
- The different types of hooks
- Techniques for writing hooks and pitfalls to avoid
And, by the time we’re done, you’re going to know exactly how to reel your readers in.
What is a Hook in Writing?
Want to be let in on a little secret? You’ve already read a hook in this article. In fact, you’ve now read two.
A hook is an opening sentence or paragraph in a piece of writing intended to capture the reader's interest.
Usually, the hook only refers to the first sentence of the entire piece, but that’s not necessarily the case. Chapters and scenes in books and subsections of articles (like this one) can all have hooks, too.
The whole point of this style of opening is to, as the name suggests, hook your reader so they’re compelled to read on. On top of that, this type of opening can:
- Set the tone of your novel
- Establish the narrative voice of your writing
- Provide a glimpse into the story
We all know first impressions are important in life; in writing, they’re even more crucial.
Hooks in Different Styles of Writing
To be clear, this article will be discussing hooks in fiction writing—specifically the start of your book—but the principles could be applied after a scene or chapter break, too.
However, it’s worth quickly looking at the application of hooks in different forms of writing.
Fiction: A hook can serve to introduce the plot, characters, or setting in an intriguing way.
Non-fiction: A solid hook can present a compelling fact, example, question, or statement to draw readers into the topic.
Blog posts and articles: Use this kind of opener to address the reader's immediate need or curiosity to keep them reading.
Remember, no matter what the style of writing, you always want to write a darn compelling first line.
The Importance of a Compelling Hook
A hook isn’t a hook if it isn’t captivating. I mean, that’s the whole point, right?
Consider this famous opener from George Orwell’s 1984:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
This hook is pulling double duty. First, it gives us important information to understand the setting of the story: a bright cold day in April. That on its own wouldn’t be very compelling, though.
Then Orwell hits us with “and the clocks were striking thirteen.” I mean, come on! That’s a universally strange thing. Clocks don’t strike thirteen; they can’t. So we’re immediately introduced to an extremely unusual scenario that forces us to ask what’s going on.
A sense of anticipation or curiosity is the bedrock of a compelling hook. An effective opening like this, after all, determines whether the reader is intrigued enough to continue. Orwell’s first line has been good enough to compel countless readers to keep going.
At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, the role of hooks is also more important than ever. Readers have shorter attention spans than those who cracked open (or loaded up) books in the past. Objectively, digital media has made it harder for us to focus, so it’s incumbent on you to grab onto your audience.
On top of that, the sheer volume of media out there, books included, means your first impression needs to convince readers not to put your book down and get their entertainment hit somewhere else.
With that in mind, let’s understand hooks better so we can get them right.
Types of Hooks
Not all hooks are created equal. I mean, they all equally rock and help enthrall your reader, but they look different and go about that mission in different ways.
We’re going to look at them in detail, but the different kinds of hooks are as follows:
- Narrative hooks
- Descriptive hooks
- Question hooks
- Shocking statement hooks
- Anecdotal hooks
Let’s dive into each one.
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." –Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Narrative hooks start the story off at a crucial moment, in the midst of or hinting at conflict, or by providing a sense of intrigue.
I haven’t read Rebecca before. Heck, at the risk of sounding uncultured, I hadn’t heard of it before starting this article. But that hook immediately provides a sense of intrigue: where is Manderley? Why is it so important? Again?
Narrative hooks like this one serve to immediately immerse your reader in your story. It’s ideal for instant engagement.
"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.'" –Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood is a non-fiction book, but I think that opening line would make for a killer hook in any mystery or thriller novel.
Descriptive hooks, true to their name, use vivid imagery to paint a scene or describe a character in a way that captivates your reader’s senses. These types of hooks create a strong visual impression to establish either the setting or a particular atmosphere.
Capote does this perfectly. We get a little bit of detail about the high wheat plains, but “a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’” puts in more legwork than five lines of description ever could.
"Who is John Galt?" –Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
One of the most powerful ways to write a hook for a reader is to ask them a question. Now, this style of hook doesn’t necessarily work with every POV or narrative style, but when it works, it works.
That’s because it encourages the curious reader to keep reading to find out the answer. Not that you’ll usually provide that answer in the next line or chapter, as is the case with Atlas Shrugged, but the curiosity can become insatiable in your reader.
Shocking Statement Hooks
“It was a pleasure to burn." –Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
The best way to immediately grab someone’s attention and elicit an immediate, near-primal response, is to throw something shocking at them.
A shocking statement hook does just that, knocking your reader off balance from the first words of your story. This can be done with a startling or even a controversial statement.
In Fahrenheit 451, that opening line is wild. What—or who—is burning? Why was it so enjoyable? This kind of hook forces you to ask questions about the situation and find out more.
"I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man." –Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Notes from Underground”
Anecdotal hooks open with a short, amusing, or interesting personal story or fact. This kind of opening personalizes the story, making it relatable or at least interesting for the reader.
It can also introduce a sort of mystery, as Dostoevsky does. That hook introduces us to an anti-hero character who knows he is sick but, as we learn, intentionally avoids treatment out of spite. It’s equal parts powerful and compelling.
Writing a Hook That Grabs Your Readers' Attention
Finally, armed with all this knowledge, let’s chat about how we can craft our own captivating openers.
Techniques for Crafting a Hook
I’m going to provide you with a bunch of techniques you can use in your writing, but there’s something you need to keep in mind: not all of these techniques work for every hook. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise after reading about the different types of openings—after all, question and descriptive hooks are structured very differently.
But the following advice should point you in the right direction and arm you for the hook you want to use.
Create a sense of mystery - Introducing a question, puzzle, or ambiguous statement all but forces your reader to keep going. Most of us need to know the answer or risk being haunted by that mystery for many sleepless nights. This could extend to introducing an unresolved situation or a character who is clearly hiding something.
Go all in on word choice - While purple prose and vivid details could slow the middle of a paragraph to a crawl, I encourage you to take out all the stops in a good hook. Be precise and intentional with the language you use and choose words that will fascinate your reader. (Think about the use of “pleasure” in the hook of Fahrenheit 451.)
Provoke thoughts and contrary opinions - If you’re going to ask a question, consider one that either piques interest or challenges assumptions your reader might have. Bonus points if you frame a dilemma or a moral question that is tied to your larger themes.
Leverage emotion and relatability - While you’re crafting an intense opener, remember that the best hooks are relatable. If you ask a question or introduce a scene, your reader needs some sort of attachment to care about it.
Experiment with different tones and styles - You have some leeway in the tone of your hook, but remember that it’s introducing the rest of your novel’s style, too. So don’t start a dark fantasy with a fart joke, but consider a politically charged one. Also try out the different types of hooks to see which works best.
Potential Hook Mistakes to Look Out For
Not to stress you out, but your opening line is one of the most important in your book. So keep your eyes peeled for some of these common pitfalls when writing hooks.
Information overload - If you’re providing details with a descriptive, narrative, or anecdotal hook, don’t infodump on your reader. Tease just enough to encourage them to keep reading.
Being too vague - Being mysterious doesn’t mean withholding all information. Generic statements and clichés don’t engage readers; they actually turn them off your book altogether.
Not connecting to the plot - If your hook doesn’t align with your plot or your theme, your reader will get grumpy. Ensure the hook is as relevant as it is catchy.
Bonus Tip: Refine Your Hook
Lastly, I encourage everyone to get specific feedback on your hook. Talk to your editor. Ask your beta readers and your critique partner for their thoughts. Ask your non-writing friends if the hook is effective at all.
Not everyone will have great feedback, but if you constantly get told your hook isn’t doing its job, consider reworking it.
Hooks Are Just One Part of Writing Craft
Don’t get me wrong, hooks are important. And stressful. And fun. And effective.
But you’ve just read a whole article about one line in your story. There are thousands more for you to write.
Luckily we’ve got your back. There are hundreds of articles at DabbleU, a free e-book to help you write your first draft, an entire community of writers—Dabblers and non-Dabblers alike—over at the Story Craft Café, and a non-spammy newsletter to help your craft.
All for free, no matter where you are in your writing journey. How’s that for compelling?
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