H is for Hooks

The word ‘hook’ is powerful. It immediately conjures a mental image of that curved, pointed object, used for one purpose only: to snare something so it doesn’t slip away. Use it for fishing, for lugging meat (you know, creepy meat-locker scene), or to dangle earrings. But if you hook it, you won’t lose it.

Who doesn’t want to hook their readers? Trap them with words so powerful, they’re helpless to do anything except turn the page and read on. All night if necessary.

*cue maniacal laugh*

But how?


There’s no easy answer. If there was, we’d all be spitting out un-put-downable books by the dozen. Certainly, you can’t hook all readers with every book. Not even close. But what you can do is try to hook those readers who are predisposed to give you a chance.

Ultimately, when you hook a reader, it’s usually because you’ve posed a question they want the answer to. This isn’t a literal, ‘guess what comes next?’ question. Rather, it’s an emotional reaction to something which has created a sudden, unexpected interest. Because people get bored. Easily jaded. And have short, short attention—

What was I saying?

Oh yeah. So, how do you create this reaction?

The down and dirty tricks I’ve learned are:

You have to hook readers at the very beginning. Duh, right? But your choice of first scene is critical. Don’t tell the readers what you think they need to know. Instead, show them what the world is like through the eyes of someone living in it. Immerse them into a current, immediate situation that forces them to react with a character.

J.K. Rowling did this with the first Harry Potter. Even though the first chapter reads much like a prologue, it was filtered through Vernon Dursley, highlighting the strangeness of the magical world by using Dursley’s intolerant perspective. We understood both the mystery of the world, and Dursley’s character within moments.

Another technique is to put a unique spin on each character or situation. Make the reader anticipate that interesting things will happen in each scene because of the one before. Write fearlessly. Let your characters and settings find fresh territory. For example, one of my major story locations was a Roman villa and, really, most people are going to congregate in the dining room or garden. However I also branched out whenever I reasonably could. Chicken coops are surprisingly interesting.

Works for characters, too. Let the voice of each one come through, beyond revolving around the main protagonist. Remember that all your secondary characters have lives of their own—goals and interests and fears. Let their perceptions of the world season their motives and dialogue, and they’ll add more life to the story.

One last thing to remember: avoid stale bait. Please, please, for the love of all the puppies and kittens in the world, don’t open with a dream. You know why that’s not a hook? Because you’re not being truthful with your reader from the outset. A reader wants to trust that you’ll make them gasp with brilliant switches that have been carefully set-up, not because you club them over the head with cliché. Plenty of articles out there list the common faux pas of openings, though just because it’s on some reader’s (or agent’s) do-not list, doesn’t mean you can’t. Just be purposeful in making it shine.

So keep baiting that hook with fresh ideas and hopefully the nibbles will turn into bites.

This is an entry from my bestselling* book, A is for Adverb: An Alphabet for Authors in Agony. To read the entire alphabet, join me weekly for #WriteTip Tuesday. If you’re in a rush, get the whole book free by signing up here, or do this writer a solid and buy the book on Amazon.

*Totally a bestseller for, like, a day on Amazon.ca.

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