Most people when they think of a hook in a story think of the Hollywood, high-concept version, something like:
Martha Harry was the best spy in the business, but what no one knew, not even her bosses at the CIA, was that Martha was a vampire.
Which is fine if you’re writing a high-concept story of that kind, but hooking the reader at the start of a story is more to do with phrasing and learning how to pose a question without a question mark.
Martha Harry, or ‘Buckets’ as she was known to anyone who had been at school with her, lived in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan.
There is now a question that will appear in the mind of anyone who reads that opening: why was she called 'Buckets'? It doesn't need to be a question that the whole book is about answering, it just keeps the reader on the other end of the line, an especially useful technique at the start of a book.
If I were to rephrase it as:
Martha Harry's nicname at school was ‘Buckets’ because her father owned a factory that made buckets.
Then it still makes sense as it gives you an unusual piece of information about the character, but it takes the question out of the reader’s mind and puts it on the page.
Martha Harry, or ‘Ginger’ as she was known to anyone who had been at school with her, lived in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan.
Now it’s changed to a much more easy to understand nickname the question goes away. It could turn out later that the reason she was called Ginger was for some completely unexpected reason, but it won’t provide a hook, it will be a surprise. A surprise can’t hook you because by definition you don’t know a surprise is coming until it gets here. It would be a perfectly good way to wrong-foot a reader and give them some interesting info on the character to reveal she had once won a gin drinking contest at twelve years old, but as the opening of a story there would be no hook the way I wrote it above.
A hook version might be:
Martha Harry had been called ‘Ginger’ since her schooldays, even though she wasn’t a redhead.
Now there’s a question in your head.
The point is to hook a reader doesn’t require a HOOK, it only requires the reader to be intrigued by something. And to do that you just have to tell them something they doesn’t seem immediately obvious.
It also doesn’t mean be vague. If you leave things too open ended it can read flat and generic.
Martha Harry had a special nickname that only her school friends knew the truth about.
So what? It could be an interesting truth, or it could be a very dull truth. The thing about hooks is that they need to be eye-catching in the set-up as well as the pay-off. Since the former leads to the latter you can’t rely on the punchline carrying all the interesting stuff. If the set-up doesn’t catch the reader’s attention, they’ll never get to the killer bit you thought would win them over.
The problem for most aspiring writers is that they can’t see how to turn the opening lines of their story into a hook without turning it into:
Why did everyone call Martha Harry by the name ‘Ginger’ when she wasn’t even a redhead. That’s what everyone wanted to know, but she wouldn’t tell them. It was her secret.
And then they feel it’s too over the top and not in keeping with the tone of the story they’re writing. But not being able to implement a technique effectively doesn’t invalidate the technique. And although it would be nice to write flowing prose, one draft, in the mail, writing is a very technical process that requires fiddling around (technical term). No matter how you open your story there is a way to rearrange the stuff you’ve already got so it reads like a hook. You just have to find it.
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