I’ve touched on this in previous articles, but it’s one of those subjects that are eternally popular with writers, especially beginners, who are keen to employ as many tricks as possible to get their novels noticed, and one of those ways is to engineer a good hook – something that grabs the reader from the outset.
But how do you grab the reader in the first place?
Open some of the books on your bookshelf and make a note of how they begin. What is it that grabs your interest and compels you to read them? Does the book engage your curiosity or fascination? Does it start with a bang? Or does it start slowly and gain momentum, yet at the same time is interesting or quirky? You’ll find the results will be varied – some books are great openers, some take a while to warm up while others are a damp squib.
So, what elements make a great hook?
The Crucial Moment
Start at a crucial moment. Every writer should know this one. If you start at a pivotal moment within the story – the protagonist in a bad situation, for instance – you stand a better chance of hooking the reader, who will immediately want to know what happens next, because it forces them to immediately become part of the story. It creates immediacy. They simply have to know what happens, for example:
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not” - City of Glass by Paul Auster.
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall” –Tracks, by Louise Erdrich.
If you create intrigue, then you create a sense of curiosity, which draws the reader’s attention. Intrigue acts as a lure to get the reader to keep reading. Like the crucial moment, it engages them, makes them wonder. For example, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, intrigue is created by the use of the surreal:
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Iain Banks’ The Crow Road has a great opening, one that creates intrigue and surprise in equal measure: "It was the day my grandmother exploded."
Create Memorable Description
Some experts advise against opening with description, but in truth there is nothing wrong with this, as long as it is well written, it engages the reader with the right imagery and has enough intrigue to compel the reader to continue reading.
The idea is to make the description compelling, whether it is tonal, atmospheric, beautiful or action-led. The right words help to draw the reader from reality and into the fictional world you’ve created. The imagery you create should transport them and they won’t want to leave. Many books begin with description, as these examples show:
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting" - The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.
“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him” - The Wings of the Dove by Henry James.
Introduce the Protagonist
Don’t spend three chapters setting the scene with no hint of your protagonist until page 4. Introduce your main character immediately and make them interesting, fascinating, exciting or heroic. He or she will carry the story, so you have to ensure that the protagonist is the kind of person the reader will want to know all about, and like.
Readers will have questions. Why is the main character in that situation? What has brought them to that opening, that crucial moment? How will they get out of it? Those are questions readers ask, and they will continue to read in order to get the answers, so get your main character on as soon as the page is opened.
Open With Conflict
Conflict is the driving force of your story, and readers love conflict because – just as in real life – we just can’t help but get involved with (and sometimes enjoy) disagreements and arguments. It’s human nature to fight of flight. That means you might open with a tense standoff between characters. Or perhaps a fight scene. Or a chase scene.
Whatever you decide, readers will want to get involved in the same way as we do in real life, they will want to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and how it will be resolved.
Open with a Bang
This doesn’t always have to be literal – when we say ‘open with a bang’ we mean that the opening should start right in the action – maybe it’s a chase scene, maybe there has been a car crash, maybe there’s a battle of some kind. And of course, you can actually open with a literal bang – an explosion of some sort.
Whichever you choose, opening in this way is a short burst that will grab your reader’s attention. They will want to know if your protagonist is going to be okay, if he or she made it out of the car crash, survived the explosion or managed to avoid being caught in the battle…
Making the Hook Work
To make the hook work there are several factors at play that should not be overlooked. Firstly, writers don’t have to use every one of them, but instead, employ some of them as a means to lure the reader and make them invest in your novel.
Whether you have used conflict, opened with action or you’ve placed your protagonist in peril and started at a crucial moment, make that hook work by keeping the momentum you have created. Don’t start with a bang and end the chapter with narrative that grinds to a stop. Keep the story moving at all times.
Wherever possible, try to foreshadow. Hint to the reader that something is impending – it keeps their interest and creates that all important intrigue.
Don’t stop teasing the reader. Just because you’ve hooked them doesn’t mean you can relax. You have to keep them hooked, right to the end. Ensure you keep the reader turning the page – keep them intrigued and curious, get them to ask ‘what next?’ If you start with an impact, keep the stakes raised. Don’t make it easy for your protagonist, make it hard, and make the reader want to share the protagonist’s journey.
You’ll see that most of these hooks are interrelated – the engaging characters, crucial moments and descriptive elements etc. They can all connect together to give the best chance for hooking the reader. Think carefully how you open your novel – it’s the difference between being read and enjoyed to not being read at all.
But by far the best thing that keeps a reader interested, however, is a well developed, rounded and well written story that knocks the reader’s socks off.Next week: Chapter or Scene Break? How and when to use them.