A good story can escort us from our everyday life and transport us—for a little while at least—into another world. All our worries fade, and time stands still. If you’ve experienced this yourself, you no doubt remember it well. You can probably tell me every detail of how that book ended and how it made you feel. From the perspective of a writer, is the story hooks that do this.
Every writer wants to wow their readers and leave them amazed by that unexpected, “I never saw that coming” ending. In fact, many writers spend eons crafting what they perceive to be the perfect ending. But perfect endings are worthless if you can’t get your audience to keep reading until they get to it.
Ideally located within the first few lines of your tale, a story hook draws your audience in and compels them to keep reading. Good hooks for stories can be more than just one line. For novels, story hooks can last for several pages.
Examples of Great Story Hooks
- “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
- “A screaming comes across the sky.” Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
- “A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.” The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
- “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.” Divergent by Veronica Roth.
Spend at least as much time on your story hooks as you spend on your endings, because the truth is, it doesn’t matter how great an ending you create. Without good hooks for stories, you’ll be dead in the water if you can’t immediately convince your reader your story is worth their time.
Ways to Write Good Hooks for Stories
- Introduce an intriguing character. Put them in an interesting setting. Give them a problem to solve.
- Start with a bang in the middle of an action scene to create a sense of urgency from the outset. Just be careful with this because if you lose momentum, your reader will bail.
- Set the scene or create an image, weave or tie it to universal memories and use that to pull your reader into the story.
- Write about something that doesn’t yet make sense or refer to something the reader doesn’t yet know.
- Speak to your reader using a compelling narrator, either third person (speaks to the reader directly in a fresh way) or first person ( a reflective tone that enables the reader to relate by putting them right into your character’s brain).
- Begin with a quotation that speaks to the problem, the theme, or the overall arch of your story.
- Keep the reader guessing. Throw your character into a mysterious situation (deep end) but don’t provide all the pieces or let us know he can swim, just yet. Be cautious because you will need to carefully balance unraveling the mystery with debuting characters and giving the reader a tour of your fictional world.
- Set your opening up so the reader is intrigued and keeps reading to find out what happens next.
A Story Hook is NOT a Hook Summary
Keep in mind that when we’re talking about story hooks, we’re discussing the hook or attention grabbing technique used within your story. This is quite different from a hook summary for your novel that is typically used to pitch to an agent or publisher.
The main difference between the two is the audience. A story hook is designed for your reader to keep them reading your novel. A summary hook is designed to catch the interest of an agent, editor, or publisher and convince them that your story is unique and saleable. It’s part of your sales pitch. It’s typically included in your query letter or book proposal, and its purpose is to let the agent or publisher know about the when, what, who, bigger what, and why of your book.
A suggested formula for a hook summary is “When [Opening conflict] happens to [characters]; they must [overcome conflict] to [desired goal or quest to be completed]
Things to Avoid to Create Good Story Hooks
First Line Dialogue
Unless you can immediately show your reader who’s talking and give them a reason to care about what they are saying, save the dialogue for a little later.
Too Much Description
It’s the classic rule of show don’t tell. Too much description or backstory all at once can get boring very fast.
The introduction of too many characters all at once can make the reader feel like a celebrity with too many flashbulbs and fans crowding them. If a reader has to take notes on who is coming into the story, it jars them out of the story. That’s the opposite of what you want in a hook.
Non-critical Information Overload
Show your reader what they need to know when they need to know it. Giving information in your opening that won’t be relevant until the middle of Chapter Two wastes their time and detracts from the scene at hand.
Many people have short attention spans and live very busy lives. Our plates are overflowing daily. But avid readers have proven that they will, in fact, make time to read good stories. Legendary writers such as Leo Tolstoy, J.R.R. Tolkien and more recently J.K. Rowling have proven the life of a good long story isn’t dead. The secret to a great story then, in part, is to engage the reader from the start, bring them with you to the end by keeping them reading. That is the role of story hooks.