Ya Gotta Hook ‘Em to Reel ‘Em In

Here reader, reader, reader! Source: Pixabay Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Alma T. C. Boykin

I was reading a history book that had, to date, the least effective “hook” of a starting sentence I have read. The book is far better than the first line, but if that’s what sells the story, this volume would have stayed on the shelf.

“The Korean Peninsula is an average-sized historical region in the world.” Eugene Y. Park, Korea: A History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022)

What’s odd is that when I was working on my MA thesis and dissertation, I was constantly reminded that the final product needed to be readable and perhaps even saleable. The days of the “academically dry shows that you are a professional” book are going by the wayside, at least for most English-language monographs. Granted, some things can’t be made into gripping reading, but dull for dull’s sake? Ah, no. The first sentence does a disservice to the rest of the book.

Since fiction is written to sell from the beginning, you have to hook readers, then reel them in. This means being engaging, fast, catching their interest and keeping them reading until they’re too invested in the story (or too entertained) to quit. Then you reel them in and scoop them up with your net as your buddy with the camer—

Sorry. Watched one too many episodes of the Bass Masters World Tour. Where was I?

Because of the option to sample an e-book, as well as people who still pick up a print book and read a little, you do have to go past that opening sentence. Based on the complaints I’ve read about books where the roof-preading and great writing stopped after the first chapter, you also need to keep going, but y’all already know that. Those first few pages sell your story, and the rest keep readers coming back and wanting more. But first you have to lure them in. Larry Correia managed it perfectly with the opening of Monster Hunter International. He promises action, he signals setting (modern corporate world, at least to start), gains your sympathy and understanding, and it is SO different that you want to know why exactly the PoV character defenestrated his supervisor. Jim Butcher managed something similar with the opening of his first Harry Dresden novel. The reader blinks and says to herself, “So, it’s usually your fault? Why? What did you do this time that’s different?”

Here’s the opening of Dragonlord of Mystara by Thorarinn Gunnarsson. It’s the prologue. “There indeed was a tale, told in words to inspire the adventurous heart to overflowing with the glories and sorrows of the mighty deeds of those elder days.” Right there you know it will be somewhat formal and “old-fashioned” sounding, probably high fantasy based on the language or (if written more recently) a certain subset of historical fantasy. There’s going to be derring do. The writing style will probably be omniscient third person, a narrator telling the story to an audience, or a chronicler writing the tale onto parchment. Chapter one begins, “Although Thelyvn had lived in the village of Graez all the years of his short life, he didn’t belong there and he knew it.” (18) Ooh, is this a fated hero? A changeling?

Prologues go in and out of fashion, but this one serves a useful purpose, and lets you know the writing style and genre (if you didn’t get genre from the four adventurers and the ticked-off dragon on the cover.) The “real” first sentence does the same thing – catches your attention.

So, your homework is to write an opening for a book or short story that catches the reader and makes him want more. One sentence. Then write a sentence that is so boring, flat, or otherwise lousy that it chases off a reader. (NO politics or religion—that’s cheating and far too easy to use to scare off readers. And no academic jargon unless it is a character spouting said jargon.)

The rest of us will try to help you sort out what’s working and what’s going “splat” and lying on the floor like a dropped gefilet fish.

72 thoughts on “Ya Gotta Hook ‘Em to Reel ‘Em In

  1. The nuclear fire, the poison fallout, the ruined infrastructure, wasn’t nearly as destructive as what came after.
    It started small, like an avalanche. First a farmer, then a small town, then a suburb, until the urban cores stood alone and cut off. At least cannibalism was relatively rare; they could always try to eat the bugs.

    In the year 2525, pretentious songs of dubious quality rose from the bongwater to retard a generation.

    1. One sentence.
      (Wags finger at self)
      You must be caffeinated to function, and you *know* this!

    2. I remember that song, but for the life of me, I don’t know why I bought the album. The songs ranged from dreary to creepy, with the high points aspiring to mediocrity.

      Zager and Evans wrote terrible songs.

    3. Can you make the sentence active voice? It works OK as is (although I’d use “were not” instead of “wasn’t.” The fourth sentence doesn’t make a lot of sense without an earlier mention of the bugs – are they what most people imagine when I say “insect” or are they like the ants from *Them* or are they the slang term for something else?

      1. Good call on the contraction. I use them too often.

        I actually like passive voice for first lines, and for quickly setting the scene. While it is to be avoided, when telling a story, I think it’s great for setting the frame the story occurs within.

        Ummmm…. Yes? (Myrtle mugged me the other night. After I figured out how to get unstuck on the WIP, a shiny was dangled.) The gimmick is that the disaster caused insect colonies to develop hivemind sentience. The twist is that larger mutant bugs require more independence, start developing a sense of individuality, and take an active interest in the hairless monkeys who have always had the problem… (Of course, the regular bugs see Them! as heretics, while the humans are having issues with nearly being wiped out, no longer being the dominant lifeform, and bugs being extremely creepy even before insect-related traumas. It’s a mess, good for many sequels.) Got a good page of details before the dream faded.

  2. Hopefully hook:

    The girl in the cream dress caught everyone’s eye as she came down the zeppelin gangplank, one hand holding onto her hat, and the other the handle of the valise chained to her wrist.


    The invasive plants of North Central Texas are varied, creating issues far beyond reduction of native ecosystems.

    1. Can you turn the second clause into an action and split the sentence? ” . . . one hand clutching the brim of her hat. The gossips murmured: why was there a valise chained to her other wrist, and was *that* truly the latest spring suit?”

      It works fine as it is, but the focus seems almost too narrow, as if the camera gives you a glimpse of the figure, then focuses on the valise and ignores everything else. That might just be me – your style is different from mine.

  3. Were they following me or are they just guessing?

    Young Rushalentar used his SIGHT to peek around the stone edge of the doorway he’d ducked into, without exposing himself.

    [Sorry, just the hook version (I hope), no flat…]

    1. Do you need the last phrase? Could you work it into the next sentence, showing us why he’s being stealthy? Otherwise it works well.

  4. The dragons weren’t that bad in themselves, but they arrived on THAT day.

    It was orthogonal.

  5. “Eighty-five hundred years ago, in a little hunting village along the Hotan River in the Gobi Desert, a demon fed.”

    It’s flat, but you still want to know what happens next. >:D

    1. It’s flat, but to me it suggests that you are deliberately older style, more like some of the pulps. It also works if someone is telling a story to get information across.

  6. “I hate fondue parties. My bread keeps falling off the fork.” Doug adjusted the plastic lei around his neck. “At least Jenny Watkins was smart enough to pick a different theme this time.”

    The housing development, only half built, had stalled out about two years ago; no one knew why.

    (I hope these worked.)

    1. The second one actually catches more than the first one. The second one implies a mystery – is it a crime (someone diverted the money), urban fantasy (there’s an earth spirit that doesn’t like being bothered) sci-fi (a strange electrical pulse keeps making the machinery fail), cosmic horror (a curse that proves to be a Great Old One’s partial manifestation is driving the workmen insane . . . ) You could tighten it up a little, depending on genre.

      Is the first one romance, literary fiction, contemporary fiction, mystery, urban fantasy? It works for literary fiction, which tends to be slower and more focused on here-and-now, probably for contemporary fiction as well. If it is romance or something else, your next paragraph is going to have to do a lot of lifting to cue the reader and keep him reading.

      1. Those are good points, thanks. It’s a mystery, and I thought opening with a neighborhood potluck/party would be a good way to introduce the characters. The plot is intertwined with the development project. I’ll keep working on it.

  7. In the winter of my seventeenth year I met the Yellow Yokai.

    (That’s actually the first line of a future chapter)

    “Okay, you can’t really call it a lawn, but at least all the weeds are neatly trimmed.”

    (It’s hard to come up with a dull, boring sentence on purpose. I think most of them must be unintentional)

    1. It’s hard to come up with a dull, boring sentence on purpose. I think most of them must be unintentional

      It is. Even saying, “Bob is a complete normal, utterly boring person, to whom nothing in the least exciting ever happens,” isn’t actually a turn off, because most people will read that and assume that, as a matter of fact, something very abnormal is about to happen to Bob and will keep going to find out what it is.

      Heck, I remember reading a book about twenty years ago that started with, “Mr. and Mrs. Dusley of Number 4 Privet Drive were perfectly normal.” As I recall, that book didn’t sell too badly : – )

      Best I can think of to do is overwhelm people with details. Something vague always has a chance to catch people wondering what happens next, but if you push too much information too fast, eyes will start to glaze over.

      1. One problem you’re seeing is that we’re all writers. We can imagine a dozen things that might come next. Not every reader’s mind works like that. 🙂

        1. I’m not a writer, but MGC is part of my almost-daily reading. I might not have a dozen things imagined, but 10 is close enough. 🙂

      2. From current WIP:

        “Bob, the person they were talking about, sneezed abruptly as he was walking. He appeared to be a little old man wearing khaki slacks, a blue collared shirt, comfortably worn sneakers, a tan windbreaker and a BlueJays baseball cap.”

        Immediately, you just know this is not some regular old geezer. ~:D

    2. Well, my effort was stolen from my chapter in Atlanta Nights, where I aimed for bad description and used some auto-corrupt help for malapropping.

  8. From my next novel (hopefully a good hook):

    “The world was a much weirder place than Emma Greer had ever realized. And she had always thought it was pretty strange.”

    A not-so-good hook:

    “The McLane plant in Longmont, Colorado, United States of America is at latitude 40.16232 north, longitude 105.05257 west, is exactly 34 feet, 8 inches tall, and sits 80 yards, 2 feet, and 9 inches back from Colorado State Highway 119.”

    1. The first sentence works. The second could be changed (depending on genre and style) to “Which wasn’t saying much.” Why did she think it was strange – a vivid imagination? She saw things other people didn’t? She’d just always assumed that words had colors? Can you work a hint into the second sentence?

      1. Second try:

        “The world was a much weirder place than Emma Greer had ever realized. And she was someone who had always more than half believed in magic.”

        1. That works well. You could also link the two, for emphasis. “… had ever realized—and she had always more than half believed in magic.”

    2. I dunno, the second one draws my interest too. I want to know why the 2’9″ matters. Maybe if it was 2’10” the asteroid/spacecraft/laser/giant squid would have missed it?

      My brain, sometimes I can’t take it anywhere…

  9. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (Seriously, it reads well, but doesn’t really mean anything.)

  10. My opening line:
    The Council of Admirals meeting started in much the same way as it had begun ever since what was then the Britannian Navy had initiated the practice. The only difference of any significance was that whereas the first meetings had taken place on the surface of Britannia, now they were held on the Orbital Station Imperial Crown (where the headquarters of all the armed forces of the Imperial Commonwealth had been based for over a decade).

    The opening chapter is a series of short vignettes to set the scenery, so the opening line of the story proper:
    Victoria Arsmith kept glancing through the cockpit of the transport shuttle in order to see through the pilots’ viewscreen. It had been a long journey, but her destination was now growing ever larger ahead.

    And a hopefully boring example:
    The lecturer droned on and on. Somehow he was able to turn even Cantor’s diagonal argument into a lullaby.

    1. Can you tighten up the first sentence and add a time cue? “The meeting of the Council of Admirals opened the same way as they had four hundred planetary years before, when the Brittanian Navy sailed the waters instead of the stars.” The information that follows can be worked into the story later. Your example tells a lot – can you show instead?

      Is Miss Arsmith glancing through the cockpit into some other space, or is she glancing into the cockpit to see the viewscreen?

      1. Thanks.

        The Britannian Navy was founded as a planetary space navy, so perhaps this:
        “The meeting of the Council of Admirals opened in accordance with the traditions that had been initiated upon the founding of the Britannian Navy two hundred and fifty standard years ago.”
        Everything in the second sentence can be dropped if needed with the exception of the meeting being on OS Imperial Crown, but I can slip that into the next paragraph. (The reference to the Imperial Commonwealth is pretty important, but I’ve already referenced the shift from Britannia to the IC in the third paragraph.)

        And perhaps this:
        Victoria Arsmith kept glancing through the cockpit of the transport shuttle in order to see the fleet apparently stationary in space through the pilots’ viewscreen. It had been a long journey, but her destination was now growing ever larger ahead.

        1. “…in accordance with traditions initiated two hundred and fifty standard years ago, at the founding of the Biritannian Navy.”

          I’ve got several ideas for the second one, but they require rewriting it into a style that’s not really yours. What you have works, and clarifies my earlier confusion.

  11. Poor Thorarinn. I hope he is okay, whatever name he is using now. And I hope he is publishing books under some name or other!

    (If Patrick O’Brien could make a fictional life for his pen name, it should not be unforgivable for you! Just avoid fictional illnesses and siblings.)

  12. If I couldn’t get the flippin’ motor to light in the next seventy-two seconds, the Moon would have a brand-new crater. Maybe they’d name it after me.

    There has long been suspicion that the specific microbial populations of the lower intestine affect overall mammalian health, but details remain unclear.

    1. Good first one – clear genre signal, the reader’s in the middle of the action, and not overloaded with details.

  13. A party of seven was expected to arrive at Egerton Hall any day now, but only one of them mattered to Helena Gladden.

    Pug had carried off Lady Egerton’s bobbin pillow again, and Helena crouched down with a sigh to retrieve it from under a nearby chair.

    (I’ll let you guys decide whether either of them is hooky.)

    1. The first one is passive voice. Is that a convention in Regency romances? If so, it should work, otherwise you might see if you can shift it around to active voice.

      The second one . . . Can you break it after “again?” Or add an em-dash after pillow, for a sense of resignation? That would strengthen the second sentence.

  14. “The Korean Peninsula is an average sized historical region of the world, blessed with somewhat more than the average share of history.”

    Hm, maybe a modifier before the word history…. “Blessed with rather more than average history.”?

    Trying to figure out HOW I’d re-write that clunker.

  15. “Fisher, the Lieutenant wants to see you.” These are words that have been making me nervous since I was a 17-year-old in the Navy, They’re no better at age 42, I assure you.
    The Sargent told me at line up, that the Lieutenant wanted to see me.

    1. Good one! No subgenre signals, but the cover art and title could provide those. For one sentence, you might include a tag for who is speaking and his/her/its mood or expression (or species?)

      1. here’s a little more that fills in those blanks: The title is Death Warmed Over,
        “Fisher, the Lieutenant wants to see you.” These are words that have been making me nervous since I was a 17-year-old in the Navy, they’re no better at age 42, I assure you. What’s worse, a Navy Lieutenant didn’t have nearly as many ways to ruin your day as a Police Lieutenant does. So when the Shift sergeant said them at the morning lineup, my first thought was “oh shit, what now?”
        Of course, that’s not what I said, what I said was “No problem, Sarge.” And after line up, I walked over to the LTs office and knocked on her door.
        “You wanted to see me LT?”
        “Officer Fisher, you’re not on patrol today. I have something else I need you for.”
        “Sarge know I’m not covering my area?”
        “Not yet, but he will. He’s going to have to have the two neighboring officers split your duties for a day or two. I need you to go into Monroe and liaise with Monroe PD and Sno. county.”
        “OK, but what do they need a Park Police patrol officer for, that they can’t do themselves?”
        “John, they don’t need a Park Police officer, they need YOU.”
        “Huh? What the hell did I do now, boss?”
        “You didn’t do anything, but you’re going to. They have a case where neither the County sheriff’s K-9s nor the Monroe K-9s can get any traction, they need your special talents.”
        “Oh, so it’s time to go “beast mode?” Great, I just really enjoy all the love and concern I get from my fellow officers when I go furry.” I said, sarcasm dripping like crude oil off of every word.

  16. From something I recently submitted (attempt at hooky):
    Some days the best you could manage was a fresh cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee.

    For flat:
    The trees were green and the cows were eating the leaves.

    1. Could be romance, could be new adult fiction, could be noir mystery or cozy, could be literature. To me, “… you could manage” implies either stress or scarcity. That might be what you are aiming for.

      1. The full paragraph is as follows:
        Some days the best you could manage was a fresh cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee. After my night that was really all I wanted as I trudged through the dark of the grand old City. Not that I’d say no to something stronger, but at 4 am they tended to look at you strangely unless it was a joint that catered to the night shift.

        It’s Noir-ish, and yes, stress in this case.

  17. “If there is anyone else left alive to read this, this will be my last post on the system net. It has been seven years since the fall. Seven years of homo zombicus wandering the globe. And everywhere else in the solar system, I imagine. I don’t know for sure. But there has been no indication of other survivors anywhere on the ‘net.

    Perhaps they don’t have wifi. The hypothetical survivors. Not the zombies.”

    And it’s the most un-hookiest hook for a story I’ve ever written, and I’m usually bad at hooks. Blurbs, I can do. Hooks, well, they need work. The prologue/chappy 1 doesn’t signal the genre (action sci-fi with a side of nerdiest scientist) well at all. The dialogue is an autistic mess. Then there was the time the MC grew a third arm towards the end of act 1 that totally wasn’t spontaneous mutation, I swear.

    Probably going to be fixed in the last editing pass. Have to explain some things, clean up the pacing, add more Raspberries, and decide just how evil the world is going to be, post chapter 80.

    1. The first sentence isn’t bad. It could be sci-fi (star-system network), post apocalyptic thriller, or a few other things. “If any still-living human reads this, this …” would also work, and adds a bit of mystery.

      “Homo zombicus” to me says sci-fi.

  18. Two story openers:

    “Joseph Kenwer’s grandfather had died ten years too late.”


    “As the chill of a spring night settled in, Eleazar tucked his cloak around himself and looked around carefully. Everyone was exactly where they needed to be to make sure none of the sheep wandered off and that no predators, of either the four-legged or two-legged kinds, wandered in.
    There were always such about, of course. Lions, bears, leopards, cheetahs—it was a long list, but those were what the slings were for. Neither he nor any of his family could match David, of course, but they could usually hit well enough that the animals would decide to go take their prey elsewhere.”

    1. The first one works as is.

      The second one . . . would it still work if you had “… Eleazar pulled his cloak closer and looked around …” I’d also see if there’s a word that might replace “carefully.” For some reason, as is, the sentence feels draggy and clunky to me. That might be perfect for the genre you write in and the style, so don’t change it if you prefer the original.

  19. “If you’re reading this, I’m dead. At least I’d better be, because if I’m not, you’d best walk away now and hope to heaven above I don’t ask how in the nine hells you found your way here.”

    1. The first sentence works. The second … might read better with an em-dash between “now” and “hope,” to build tension and make the sentence flow better? Or add “that” between “above” and “I”? It feels like a run-on as written.

      Another possibility would be to add “right” before “now,” so you have parallel colloquialisms. Then the rhythm works without adding conjunctions or punctuation.

  20. “You just know it’s going to be one of those days when you open the manual and it’s 666 pages…”

    (Hadn’t planned to do another hooky one, especially since I owe a flat one, but just had this literally happen. How can such a little thing be so cursed?)

    1. That one works very well as is. You might end it there. Of tweak it to, “You know the thing’s going to give you problems when you open the manual and …”

  21. He always had a fair amount of luck with the ladies but women never fell at his feet until the Ultra Female Flier collapsed at the edge of his rental property…

    Not sure if this will be a real story but was trying to think of a good “hook”. 😉

    1. “Although he’d always had a fair amount of luck with the ladies, no woman had ever fallen at his feet until …” That tightens it up and keeps a more active feeling in the narrative.

      1. Thanks.

        Another change that I was thinking about was “until the flying woman collapsed at the edge of his rental property…”

        I’m thinking that my main character would be getting into “international espionage” here. Not that it would be first time that he (a well-known super-thief) had done so. 😉

  22. A few entries:

    It was not enough for Kaede to simply sit through the ceremonies for the King of the Gods on that pleasant spring evening: she had promised to be well-behaved as well, as was expected of the eldest daughter of the world’s richest man.

    “You know, if Kari catches you looking for Cosmette again she’s going to be mad.”

    And intentionally dull:
    The sun was bright and the air was warm.

    I’ve occasionally started stories and parts of my serials with a weather report. Usually it happens after a major story arc wraps up and I haven’t decided what the next one will be. After I have it figured out I usually go back and fix it unless I’m pressed for time or abandoning the project.

    1. Yeah. Starting stories with a nice day is surprisingly hard. Had one that started with the characters talking over breakfast. It worked so badly I ended up outright skipping the first third of the story. Ended up working much better.

      Just as well too, because I ended up being able to re-use the happy breakfast as a template for disappearing character story.

    2. The first one would work for a story with an older-slower narrative style, although “she had to behave properly as well, as was expected of …” You might move the “On that pleasant spring evening” to the beginning. It would set the time and season, and allow the rest of the sentence to flow better.

      The second one has a lot of potential as is. You have a conflict right there, and at least two other characters – the speaker and the speakee.

      1. I’ve tried to vary the way I start the different parts of my serials. If I always open with dialogue it feels repetitive, but for the first part I feel totally comfortable doing so.

        I like your advice for the first sentence. I’m going to take it, thank you!

  23. It’s a prologue. I haven’t decided if I’m going to keep it or not:

    “I don’t like this idea, necromancer.”
    “You’re not here to like or dislike the plan. You are here to carry it out.”
    The wraith said nothing, simply bowed its head.

    The first sentence of my dissertation:
    Democracy is like pornography – everybody knows it when they see it, but nobody can define it.

    Flat sentence:
    Surveys were distributed to all students at the opening ceremonies of EuroSim.

    1. Does the wraith always speak with contractions? If you make it more formal, (“I do not like this idea, necromancer,”) it would separate the two voices, and give a hint of the wraith’s tone very early on.

      “In November 1876, twelve heavily laden freight wagons creaked their way over the rough terrain, following a horse-drawn coach along an old trail first blazed by bison and those who hunted them.” The opening of my dissertation. You get genre (western), setting (dry, Victorian) and characters (buffalo.) I like yours better!

  24. I was six years old when they sold me.

    Although technically illegal, slavery had returned to parts of the former United States and Canada.

    1. The first sentence works well. There’s no genre cue, so it could be historical fiction, modern fiction (narrator in Middle East or similar culture), or dystopia of some kind.

  25. Hook:
    The mayor was having trouble with poison again.

    People sometimes like to poison an unpopular leader.

    The mayor was having trouble with poison again. It was a combination of things. Since the biowar decimated the North American heartland, we’ve been having trouble getting things to grow. And sometimes, what grows turns out to be less than – nutritious – let’s say. An additional problem to that was that it was ridiculously easy to poison someone by mistake, not to mention intentionally, by mistake, if you know what I mean.

    1. “The mayor had a poison problem—again.” Can you make it more active? As is, it would work if the mayor then speaks and you do a tell-by-conversation.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: