Hook and Line

IMG_3622Problem: How do I grab a reader’s attention right away? Do I need to use something dramatic or shocking?

In the last post we looked at the importance of keeping your readers in mind when you write the beginning of your novel or short story but how are you going to get their full attention when you want them to read it? This is where your ‘hook’ comes in. The narrative hook is your the first sentence, or paragraph, that you have set up to draw your reader into your story and make them want to read on. In this post we will look what creating a hook involves and how dramatic that hook really needs to be.

What is the hook?
An unanswered question
A hint of suspense
Seasoned writers also make good use of their unique writing style

How does the hook work?
It triggers curiosity
It gives clues to the kind of book or story you are offering them; what they can expect to find in it.
It offers something a little out of the ordinary
It contains a hint of conflict or a hint of problem to come

Try this:

Take about half a dozen contemporary novels or short stories off the shelves and look at their first sentences. What do you notice? Do they make you want to read on? Why/Why not? What device have they used to lure you into the story? What information do they give you about the stories to come, if any? Is there any relationship between the titles of the stories and their first lines?
Now try some of your own. You only need a few lines. You don’t have to finish the story, so see what you can do with these and have fun. Can you get your first sentence to include any of the ingredients mentioned above. Something that surprises or intrigues?

Your hook can take many forms, it can be shocking, it can be quirky, it can be surreal, it can make you wonder, it can have you see things differently, it can be immediate, or it can steal up on you. If it is to work well though, it should be something a little out of the ordinary; something that makes you sit up and take notice.

The Dazzling, Attention-Grabbing or Shock-Horror Hook:

A number of writers seem to think that you have to ‘start with a bang’; begin with something that makes you sit up and take notice has to be shocking or full of drama and conflict but although it can be, it doesn’t have to be.

Advantages:
It certainly gets attention.
Readers remember it
Can work well if it’s right for the story and not overdone

Disadvantages:
It’s not necessarily the best one for your type of story
It can look clumsy, or amateurish, as if you have had to resort to tricks to attract a reader.
If it’s too dramatic, what follows may feel like an anti climax. You may be setting the reader up for something you can’t deliver
Bizarre openings mean readers need orientation or they may become confused.
Drama and tension are good ingredients to use but can be overdone

Here is an example:
‘There is blood showing under the door of the bathroom’
(from ‘Little Lewis Has Had a Lovely Sleep’, a black comedy by Elizabeth Jolley)

We know something bad has happened but have to read on to find out what it is.

The Less-Drama-Little-Wriggly-Worm Hook:

This sort of hook, may or may not come in the first sentence. It may take a little longer to build, perhaps the whole first paragraph which may appear unremarkable at first but persuades the reader to continue until something unexpected is dropped in.

Advantages:
A little less obvious and tricksy
Not as explicit but just as powerful, especially in creating mood
Works as juicy bait attached to the hook

Disadvantages:
Relies on a good writing voice to gain the reader’s confidence but that takes time to develop
Can appear a more leisurely approach but this is misleading. It is controlled and doesn’t waste time. This might be hard to get right.

Here is an example:
‘On the last day of summer Mrs Bohannon fell in love. The poplars fallaciously pathetic looked horrified, their branches rising on the wind like startled hair, and a pilgrim cloud wept a few chill tears. It began in the garden as these things will, and she fell in love with her husband’s son.’
(From ‘the Other Side of the Fire) by Alice Thomas Ellis.

There is nothing unusual about falling in love, though we note she is already married. There is nothing especially unusual in that either but we read on because the style of writing is quirky. The way the environment reacts to Mrs Bohannon’s affliction sets the reader up for something unusual just around the corner but it is not until the last few words that she drops the bombshell. It is more than a little unusual to fall in love with your husband’s son and we are immediately curious about the consequences of this. It doesn’t bode well.

Try this:
Experiment with various story hooks. Begin with one of the attention grabbing kind and then try a more understated approach, developing character and situation without high drama. Whichever hook you use, the expectations raised in the opening must go on to be satisfied in the rest of the story, or not, if that what is intended.

Decide on your hook:

Do you want to draw your reader in with high drama or do want to build in tension a little more slowly? Ask yourself if your hook is the best one for the type of story you are writing. They say there is only one right beginning for each story (no pressure then!) so you may find you need to get your story written first and then go back and reconsider this.

I hope this post has helped you to see how you might get a reader’s attention and that you can do this in different ways. However, the hook is only the door to the beginning, and the beginning lasts longer than the first few lines. So, having got your reader’s attention how will you keep it?

Next Post: Well the hook is only a few lines. I can probably manage that. But what then? How do I keep my reader, reading.

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About lesleyjjackson

Author, Short Story Writer and Poet - Offers help to new, confused and blocked writers
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