Wednesday 31 August 2011

The Little Hook

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.

If you found this post interesting please retweet it. Cheers.


Donna K. Weaver said...

Interesting post, Moody. I appreciate the distinction between being hooked and intrigued.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Yeah. You are pro at putting these writer tips up there. I expect your novel when it is finished to be a Pulitzer. If you transgress on any of this stuff you put up...believe will hear from me about it (cause I love to point out that stuff). /hugs

Mysti said...

Great post! You do indeed have some very useful things. Writing requires MUCH fiddling on my end, but that's part of the fun and challenge, isn't it?

Kim said...

As always, great info...

Sarah Tokeley said...

Thanks for this. I'd not really considered the difference between a hook and a surprise. Will bookmark this one :-)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I get it!!!!

mooderino said...

@Donna-it's a small but significant difference.

@Michael-you can always check out my writing on Authonomy. It's called Lickety Split(Wip). I very clearly do not live up to my own standards.

@Mysti-yes, but also the pain, terror and misery of it. It's the full package.


@Sarah-glad you found it useful.

Thanks for the comments, always great to know someone actually reads this stuff.

anthony stemke said...

A very interesting sensible post, good helpful info.

Unknown said...

Awesome post! Things to keep in mind when I'm looking for a hook. This puts it in perspective. :)

LD Masterson said...

This one's got me thinking. I'm going to go play with words for a while. Thanks.

Crystal said...

Good one! And thanks for the examples. :-)

Margo Berendsen said...

Fiddling around is most certainly a technical term in writing :) I like your take on raising an intriguing question to hook the reader on the first page, even the first line. That's different than the logline hook. Will definitely start "fiddling" with this idea in mind!

mooderino said...

@Anthony-thank you, sensible is as sensible does.

@Diane-glad to be of some small help.

@LD-I'm a bit of a tinkerer myself.

@Crystal-my pleasure.

@Margo-currently fiddling with my own magnus opus. Wait, that didn't come out right.

Samantha said...

This is great! As usual you are spot on!

Alleged Author said... name "Ginger" does inspire a question. Do Gingers steal your soul??? Thank you "South Park." Sorry. Love your posts because they inspire me to think about the technicalities of writing. :) They also help me to become a BETTER write. Yay Mood!

Alleged Author said...


Charmaine Clancy said...

I like all these hooks!
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

I stink when it comes to hooks. I recently compiled a list of all my opening lines, and it was an easy to see how bad I am writing hooks.

Thought I had a decent one for my latest Black Lake, and my wife gave me all kinds of grief. What do you think:

Weren't natural no way, humans living with a pair of ogres, much less the whole of 'em living below a lair where most nights three dragons slumbered.

-- Mac

McKenzie McCann said...

You phrase it so nicely and make it sound so simple. Honestly, I don't stress about my hook too much. I'm always worried I'll over-think it.

mooderino said...


@AA-yay me!

@Charmaine-I wish I could come up with a few more for my own stories.

@Mac-I think you have a strong narrative voice there, and the questions that spring to mind for me are how do you end up living with ogres, and why stay somewhere so dangerous, so i think it's effective.

@McKenzie-true, it can also be a problem if you go too far the other way and make it feel contrived.

Thanks for the comments, and thanks for all the RT's, much appreciated.


Arlee Bird said...

I suppose it really depends on the nature of the story and the tone the writer wants to set for the reader. My preference is the subtle start that opens a door to make me want to continue to open more doors until I get to where I need and want to be.

Tossing It Out

Lorena said...

I hadn't thought of this before, Mood. I always thought about the "big" hook. I'll keep this in mind from now on. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Lee-I think many people read something with not much apparently going on and because they aren't aware of the subtle hooks worked into the narrative they think it's the character that's keeping them reading, or that you don't need a hook to grab the reader's attention, and then when they write their own story they follow that logic and can't understand why it fails to hold the reader's attention.

@Lorena-my pleasure.

Christy Farmer said...

Hi Moody,intrigue is what makes a page turner. Stopping by to say hello from the contemporary group;)

S.C. Wade said...

Very nice post, my friend! Definitely helpful. I'm from your Mainstream/Contemporary Campaign Group, by the way. :-)

Donna Shields said...

Thanks. It takes me a few passes to get that perfect hook.

Christa Desir said...

This is very good...but I would read the second sentence of the 'Buckets' nickname to see if there was an explanation. Buckets rules as a should copyright that.

Ella said...

Great post; I love your takes on this process!
It really helped :D

mooderino said...


@SC-thanks very much, looking forward to checking out your blog.

@Donna-me too.

@Buckets-not sure many people would appreciate it as a nickname.


dolorah said...

makes sense.


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