The hook is what gets readers interested when they begin to read your book. You have to grab their attention, motivate them to keep reading. So many things are competing for your readers’ attention and there are sooo many books to read. Why is yours worth their time?
Before I dive into what makes a good hook, let’s talk about what not to do.
Trick your readers.
Don’t give them a false sense of what your novel is about. The hook should set the tone for the novel and pose a relevant story question. They should find themselves asking what happens next, not “wtf did I just read?”
Start with a ton of action and no context.
There’s nothing wrong with bringing the reader in in the middle of some action, but don’t go overboard. The reader will need some context about what’s at stake and who the characters are. It’s too early for them to have an emotional investment in your character, and they might not care about the conflict. So, if you start with action, take the time for character development when the heat dies down.
The hook is not the place for info dumping, or, a ton of exposition. Give context clues about the backstory, or world, if you’re world-building. Save the bulky stuff for when the reader cares enough about the characters to know more backstory, and enough about the world to learn about more culture.
A Good Hook
OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about good hooks. Take a look at one of your favorite novels. You’ll probably notice the hook is in the first paragraph. If not, it’s definitely in the first chapter. The sooner you can squeeze a hook in, the better. The hook should make the reader want to know more, and should tell the reader what’s in store. The best hooks set up the entire story.
Some examples and why they work
In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the hook is the first sentence.
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”
Who is Tyler? Why is he shoving a gun in this guy’s mouth? The tone and the tense are interesting and you can tell right away this will be a fun read. It also works to set up the question of the novel and ultimately the climax: Who is Tyler Durden and what is his end game?
In Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, the hook is at the end of the first paragraph.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This was the day of the reaping.”
“This was the day of the reaping” is the hook. What is the reaping, and why is it giving Prim nightmares? I want to learn more about the narrator, Prim, and the reaping. Not only does it make you want to continue reading, it sets up the problem of the entire novel and even the trilogy: Katniss versus the powers that be.
Interview With The Vampire
Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire has hooks all over the first page. The first one is the first sentence.
” ‘I see…’ said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.”
It’s interesting that this is a vampire. But so what? Vampires aren’t new.
” ‘I’m really anxious to hear why you believe this …’ “
Then we learn that a boy has met the vampire to record an interview in a world where vampires are thought to be myth. The hook makes you ask: How does the vampire convince the boy that he’s really a vampire? Is the boy in any danger? Why has the vampire chosen to tell his story?
Writing Your Hook
The hook is something you will probably need to write and rewrite before you get it right. You’ll need to know your novel inside and out to boil the mood, voice, and main conflict down to a first sentence, first paragraph, or first page. I advise writing your first draft as you normally would, then working your hook into your second draft. Spend time on it, because it can gain you readers, and if you send it to an agent, it can gain you an agent.