The Hard and Fast Rules of Hook Writing
By Amy Groening
I’ve slogged through some particularly awful books because I loved the first few lines, and I’ve put down some notably wonderful books because the first page bored me to tears (luckily, I have friends and colleagues with good taste who have made me pick them back up again). The more well-known an author is, the easier it is to get away with a boring opening line—readers who recognize the name may keep reading anyway, because they trust the book will get better.
I’m not saying that a good hook can make or break a new writer’s career—the rest of the book must follow after, of course, and is equally important. However, there is nothing more delightful than a deliciously intriguing opening line. If I open a book and within three sentences, I’m ready to cancel my plans for the day, settle down, and dig in, I personally may be in trouble (even in the publishing world, “Sorry, I’m reading a really amazing book” doesn’t constitute a sick day), but this author has just made a sale—and possibly a new fan.
Now, there are blog posts, articles, essays, and entire books out there on how to come up with an amazing hook, and after reading quite a few of them, I have established that the masters say a hook should:
- Create mystery
- Be a micro story in and of itself
- Be puzzling
- Be enlightening
- Give nothing away
- Give the ending away
- Carry action
- Avoid action
- Gently lead your reader into the beginning of the story
- Relentlessly shove the reader into the middle of the story and let them sort it out.
Clearly there isn’t a hard and fast rule to creating a good hook; in fact, most hard and fast rules on hook-writing contradict each other. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the style, specifically, that makes a good hook. It’s the essence that those first few lines contain.
Explosive, intriguing, or artfully informative, the hook gives readers an expectation of the quality of what comes next. A good hook makes me feel like I’m beginning an adventure, or meeting a new friend—or arch nemesis—for the first time, or makes me feel like my life, itself, could become an adventure, just from reading this book. A good hook has the satisfying sizzle of the start of something new and electrifying, whether that story is full of pain, hope, humour, or dangerous new ideas. Unsurprisingly, this effect is rather difficult to achieve, and while reading piles of literature on what to do and not do can help your hook, I have found that, in the end, nothing gets me in the mood to write like reading the brilliant hooks from other books.
I’m sure you’ve stumbled across one of the many 100 Best Lines lists from well-known literary organizations (if not, stumble across this one now). These lists do have some excellent examples, and may provide fodder for your reading list as well.
However, if you’re stuck and looking for a good hook, the most effective exercise can be to pull down some of the most-loved books from your own bookshelf and take a peek at the first few pages. They don’t have to be lauded literary greats, the seminal texts, or on any top 100 list from anywhere; they just have to be books that you love, whatever the reason. Read the first few lines. Ruminate over what makes you like them so much. Make your own list of favourite lines, straight from your book shelf. Every time you come across a new one, add it!
This morning I compiled my own list. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favourites. What are yours?
“When the cancer that had spread throughout most of his brain finally took the best of him, Schlomo Lerner had, at the age of 89, been in love 274 times.”
Daytripper, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
“What about a teakettle?”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.”
Hogfather, Terry Pratchett.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Bendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“There were five of us—Carutthers and the new recruit and myself, Mr. Spivens and the verger.”
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
Feed, M.T. Anderson
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Note: You may also have heard some of the awful zingers from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest’s list of worst opening lines, updated annually, which holds some excellent examples of what not to do. If you’re looking for a laugh, or want to try rattling off a few of your own, admire them here…
About this Contributor:
Amy Groening is a passionate storyteller with experience in blogging, newspaper reportage, and creative writing. She has an Honours degree in English Literature and is happy to be working in an industry where she can see other writers’ dreams come to life. She has a hand in many creative pursuits, including sewing, sculpture and painting, and spends an embarrassingly large amount of time at home taking photos of her cats committing random acts of feline crime.