A while back (checks date… a decade?! Yikes!) Sarah did a Hooking the Reader series. The information in that workshop is still great stuff. And to show that the Internet is forever, the Iowa Park Library Writing Group picked that article up, and I was asked if the email address in the post is still valid. No, I’m afraid not. However, this is Mad Genius Club. We’re here to help other writers become even better writers, navigate their way to publication, and steer clear of the rocks and shoals of the industry.
Today, if you post your hooks in the comments, I’ll give you a breakdown of what works and what doesn’t. This being MGC, I won’t be the only one doing that, and it’s open to all of you Dear Readers. Let’s have some fun!
Hooks aren’t just for books. You need to be able to attract attention to your work, and that begins even before the reader starts in on the first page of your book. Hooks start with the blurb of the book, whether that is read on a sales site, or the back of a physical copy. Hooks are what catch a bored and idle browser who stumbles over your ad somewhere on the internet, hidden in the flow from the firehose of information bathing every individual who ventures online. You are competing not against other books, but all the various forms of media that exist to amuse, entertain, and offer escape. The hook to catch attention must catch fast, hard, and it can’t be obvious.
When you hook in a reader, you aren’t catching them like a fish, so you really don’t want them to see you as a shark lurking in the shadows. Instead, think of it as luring in a feral kitten. He’s curious, but he’s been bitten by terrible books. You have to provoke the curiosity, packing as much appeal in you can as your offering – and that includes the cover, too, but that’s a whole ‘other series of posts. Pick one, and start reading through them! Because once you tame a reader and show them that your books make them happy, they will come back over and over. Furthermore, they will bring other feral readers with them.
So the question was: how do I learn how to write a hook for my story? I can give some general guidelines, but the truth is that it depends. Oh, sure, you should always be writing them in active voice. Never passive! You don’t want your hook to ramble, and if you’re writing ad copy and have a character limit, it becomes akin to composing poetry, in that every word counts. As for the rest? It depend on the genre of your book. You don’t want to lead your reader astray, and try to cram them in the cat carrier right off the bat. If they come in expecting romance, and get ray guns, you’ll spook them and they will sprint off into the night, yowling.
The best way to learn how to craft hooks is to read, a lot, no, more than that! making notes of punchy lines and paragraphs that pique your interest. Then, try composing some of your own, and run them by other readers of your genre and that part’s important. If you write dark fantasy, and your test reader prefers beach reads of gentle drama, there’s a disconnect. Fortunately, we here at the MGC are voracious readers of all sorts of genres, which is the benefit of having a whole bunch of writers, plus the commentariat.
So! craft a sentence, up to a paragraph, and post it in the comments. We’ll tell you what works, and what doesn’t.
Because he was still married to Annie, they called him to identify her body.
Because he hadn’t seen her in five years, he almost couldn’t do it.
The shape under the sheet in the morgue was too thin and the face that they revealed to him was gaunt, hollow-cheeked, marked with old bruises. This was a face that had suffered and looked much older than thirty-seven.
Annie had never suffered when she had been living with him.
Great set of opening sentences.
The first two sentences are passive, but lyrical. I’m not sure it’s a call to read on, though. Very bleak beginning, and while some readers will be curious, others may wonder just how dark it’s going to get.
My regular readers usually expect things to get as dark as possible.
Yep! Knowing your stuff, I actually think this will work nicely for your readers.
A legendary sword, and the man who wielded it.
Lord Danut Adrescu returns to his keep to find a mystery and a warning. A battered young Healer who cannot speak, and a vision of battle with a half-bull monster. What links the two? And what ties them to his new sword, a battle-claimed blade made by the finest Italian swordsmiths?
Full disclosure: I was one of the beta readers, so I know what is behind this.
Battle-claimed threw me for a bit. At first I thought it related to the making of the sword for some reason, and then I realized that Adrescu must have claimed it in battle. Duh.
This is active – the character is clearly doing things. I think it should pull readers looking for fantasy in to want more.
Thanks. I went through a few possibilities before trimming down to this one.
(I generally lead with a hook as the first (and standalone) line in the blurb itself.)
Magic without understanding, and a wizard’s guild with no members.
Right, and this would work for ad copy as well.
If you ever wake up cold, scared, and drowning, and someone tells you to pick, vampires or mermaids-
Take my chances with the afterlife
and then what? The punctuation here is ambiguous. I would rephrase this sentence.
This is a sequel, so always tricky.
The Spiderstar must be destroyed, but Jetay’s new allies may not be up to the challenge!
Jetay has freed himself and his brother from slavery, and joined the Partisans in their interstellar war against the evil Red Knights. Unfortunately the Partisan military is an undisciplined, poorly led force, and the Red Knights grow ever closer to their goal of unleashing the ancient, deadly weapon known as the Spiderstar. Lady Lanati has a plan to destroy the Spiderstar, but it would force Jetay to choose between love and duty. Even worse, he might even have to use the same memory removal techniques which were once used against him….
That is passive. Perhaps…
Jetay must destroy the Spiderstar, with or without his new allies.
“The blood sponged out easier than I expected.”
That’s nicely hooked! It’s a mystery for sure, based on that opening.
Indeed, I had a rock’em-sock’em mystery in mind, but, on reflection, it could morph into urban horror/fantasy/whimsy.
“The blood sponged out easier than I expected. One must love modern fabrics. In Rumania of old, bloody, or not, the servants tried in vain to get stains out of linen and wool, scrubbed as if their lives depended on it. Too bad it did.
Anyway, glad I’ll get the borrowed formal shirt back to His Grace Vladimir pristine.”
Must make the fairy tales unintelligible to kids. Why oh why would the test for marrying the prince be washing the candle wax out of his shirt?
Lo siento. No entiendo
FanFiction-dot-net limits your story summary to 384 characters. Here’s what I did with them:
It was a crater, and a woman with long purple hair stood in the middle. She didn’t know who she was. She couldn’t remember where she came from, or how she got there. The police didn’t know what to make of her, and when they tried to arrest her she flew off with breathtaking speed, leaving only a kiss. All Daniel Evans knew was that the world would never be the same again.
This sounds like fun.
You can read it on FanFiction if you want. Look me up under the same user name as here. I’m working on chapter 18 of ‘Lost Soul’ now.
Sensors Technician Scout-ships (Scout-ships Qualified) Second Class Marsha Clem pondered the vagarities of life as she sipped her Latte at the coffee stand just inside the “front gate” of Phobos Naval Shipyard. On the one hand, as “day after duty” and after being up for the last twenty four hours straight, she should be back in the barracks in a rack. On the other hand, The Chief of the Boat had called a field day, so no one was in the rack, and this sure beat the hell out of climbing around in the outboard chasing the dust, dirt, and metal shavings that are a ubiquitous part of an SRA (Selective Restricted Availability, a mini overhaul). At least they retrofitted the yard with the grav system after we bought the technology off the Chckpop, so a girl could sip her coffee like an adult, instead of sucking it out of a bulb.
Strip all the qualifiers out here. Later, in the book, you can dive into the minutiae of her rank. for this, you want to start with no more than “Sensors Technician Marsha Clem” if even that much. Your tenses flip in that paragraph as well, from past to present to past.
The tenses flip because she’s reflecting back (self-talk) how do I fix it?
I’d say make it all past tense, as she’s musing on the past.
Sensors Technician Scout-ships Second Class Marsha Klem pondered the vagarities of life as she sipped her Latte at the coffee stand just inside the “front gate” of Phobos Naval Shipyard. On the one hand, as “day after duty” and after being up for the last twenty four hours straight, she should be back in the barracks in a rack. On the other hand, The Chief of the Boat had called a field day, so no one was in the rack, and this sure beat the hell out of climbing around in the outboard chasing the dust, dirt, and metal shavings that were a ubiquitous part of an SRA. At least they retrofitted the yard with the grav system after we bought the technology off the Chckpop, so a girl could sip her coffee like an adult, instead of sucking it out of a bulb.
Looks much better!
OK, it’s still bugging me. I don’t think ‘vagarities’ is a real word; use ‘vagaries’ instead.
Lady April Delavane saw her future in a guidebook, and it was good.
Well it left me trying to puzzle out what was going on so definitely seems effective at grabbing attention.
That’s a good grab! Time travel, of some flavor.
Opening paragraphs of the current plot bunny trying to fight its way into words (at 3K of a projected 70K, it feels early yet to be calling it a WIP).
“I’m a hunter,” Axel Horst told me. “The headman of Altstadt hired me.” The words jerked out of him to the rhythm of the train we rode. He sat opposite me, wearing dark, baggy trousers, riding boots, and a leather trenchcoat unbuttoned and spread out to show off a leather waistcoast, with no shirt underneath. It would have looked only a little odd where I grew up, out on the plains of Silverland on the South Continent, maybe too hot for summer and the chest too exposed for winter. Here in Noricum in autumn, where every man with any money seemed to wear a suit and tie in public, it seemed a little vulgar.
Axel had already told me far too much about his hunting. He’d told me about the lion he’d bagged in the south of the continent, beyond the borders of Noricum, the pack of giant wolves he’d fought in the north, the guns and tactics he’d used, and of course how long it took.
I was starting to get bored, but he was a handsome man: well over six feet tall, with shoulders and muscles to match, shaggy blonde hair, brown eyes, a square jaw, cleft chin and almost flawless features. About the only thing I didn’t like the look of were his squared-off hands with their ugly, stubby fingers. He looked at me all the time, in a way that showed that he liked women, so I didn’t mind listening to him talk and talk about his hunting.
“So what kind of animal does the burgomaster want you to kill?” I asked.
Axel just smirked. “He was a little vague about that part,” he said. “Sometimes my employers don’t want to put a name to whatever it is that’s eating the local livestock. But the pay is good, so I plan to go out there and bring down whatever it is.”
You want to hook the reader before they have to read this far. I’d say the detailed character description shouldn’t be in the first paragraph. Cut all that, open with the dialogue you have for Axel and the MC, and then you can paste it back in. Never, never, open with the boring bits!
Opening from a recent short:
Cool green leaves rustled invitingly. Dark and sharp edged met brighter pointed leaves of trees she’d never learned the names of, even in nearly twenty years in these Tennessee mountains. She nodded politely to the bobcat lurking in the brush.
He twitched an ear at her but otherwise didn’t take his attention from the rabbit he was stalking. She’d no fear of him. He wouldn’t bother her. He was too much a gentleman for that. She shook her head at herself.
There she went being all uncanny again. What would the town think? Well they weren’t here to see it so they’d have nothing to think on. This time.
Nice, but the second sentence should be tightened up or removed altogether. Pay attention to your sentence lengths – right now this reads staccato other than that second sentence.
I’ll fiddle with it tonight after the kids go to bed and see if I can improve the rhythm. Thanks!
For some old school professional examples, it’s hard to go wrong with Richard Stark’s (aka Donald Westlake’s) Parker novels. Here are opening lines from a few of his novels:
A few years from now, reusable spacecraft provide routine, daily access to space. And as always, it’s the enlisted boots on the ground that keep everything going. They need a special combination of people, both laser-focused detail-obsessed computer jocks and the oil-stained salt-of-the-earth folks who just make things work.
Space Force enlistees go to boot camp in Boca Chica. That’s also where the Space Force operates its workhorse, the Shrike, the military version of the SpaceX Falcon 9. The landing pads are nicknamed down pads, a name reflected in the local military hangout, The Down Pad, which provides food, drink, dancing and gaming.
But not everyone who wants to join the Space Force will make it. Jake Blacksmith, an enlistee with a complicated past, has to fight to get in. Camden Tanner, an enlistee more comfortable with computers than people, has to fight to fit in.
As Blacksmith and Tanner rotate between the base and The Down Pad, each must navigate his own path to becoming a Space Force guardian. Do they have what it takes?
“Behold, all present! Let it be known throughout the land the unswerving justice of the king!”
The entire court faced the woman standing before the throne. Gloriana stood very still in the corner and watched in stunned silence as the guards brought out chains and put them on her mother’s arms.
The guards marched off with her, as if she were not a princess.
Otherwise, it’s a nice hook.
The cloud hung over the hills, darker and larger than ever, though not, thought Marcus, by much.
His father muttered that the king had to have had word by now, what took so long, but his mother said they should rejoice to live under the shadow of Stephanos’s tower. Though her voice was very cool. They did not talk much about how they came to this village, when Marcus was still small, but he had heard her say that the necromancers were why she had not had another child.
I’d start with that final sentence. The first sentence is awkward and you might read it aloud to yourself.
“Bureaucracy is the bane of the supervillain.”
My name is Bill. I’m a Fed. I had been tasked with investigating [scary acronym] the correspondence school of choice for aspiring henchmen. Officially, the supervillain gimmick was a metaphor, but we’d seen a lot of their graduates as unindicted co-conspirators. Somebody decided that we should look into it, and it was my lucky day. I was in my first class “Be the Dragon: Human Resources for Effective Organizations”. The instructor continued.
“Bureaucracy exists to diffuse blame, so that none can be accountable. Supervillainy concentrates blame into one point. When you see a supervillain on the witness stand scoffing that ‘he couldn’t possibly have known that’, he’s telling the truth. His support staff certainly did, but that was never the question. The supervillain exists to shield his organization, so that it can accomplish superhuman things in his name.”
(The first line is the hook. I just included the next bit to show where I was generally going with it.)
Advice from the musical world: The last thing you write is the opening number.
This *always* happens to me, no matter what I’m writing. If I reread any paragraph of more than a couple of sentences with a critical eye, I’ll find that I wrote the perfect intro right at the end.
‘Tis a fearful thing to first show your child to the world. But here goes…
Alex watched as a fireball erupted behind a third bomber, 1,000 meters below his circling vantage point. Unlike the first two, though, instead of simply heeling over and setting a direct course for the ground, the black smoke coming from the port outer engine thinned out and then stopped.
“Good pilot, there,” he thought to himself. He hoped this one managed to get home in one piece. Not that it would help him all that much if it did – Colonel Maddox was probably going to award him his own personal reentry orbit as soon as he got the shuttle into the hangar bay.
His path had seemed so obvious, just – What? A bare half hour ago, less even? Even Athena was being ominously silent, without her usual sarcastic commentary on where he had gone wrong this time…
(This was the opening for the novel – until I was convinced that the female protagonist’s origins were more interesting. So this is the beginning of Chapter 2 now. But that isn’t quite as well worked out.)
I thought I’d posted one yesterday, but apparently WordPress disagreed. Will try again!
Captain Martin Talbot was looking for a place to die. With blood trickling down to stain his saddle, and the enemy hot on his heels, he guides his horse up the bed of a stream, hoping to find a hole in the streambank to hide in.
You switch tense from past to present there in the second sentence.
Otherwise it’s good. I’m wondering why he desires a hiding place when he is planning to die.
When you deal with the creatures Duncan calls up, you need saintly levels of self-control. (Ironic, isn’t it?) They exploit any carelessness, and they’re extremely clever.
So when his call came I dropped everything. He could get into hideous trouble without me, and we both knew it.
Her eyes narrowed as she knelt among the ferns and inspected the scene in the pool. A king and queen might have a fine banquet, with every delicious item they could have cooked or baked or brewed, but the guests who were enjoying this feast were uncommon.
Indeed, one would expect them only at christenings.