Literary Hooks

* You’re in the bookstore, browsing the shelves for… something. You don’t know what, exactly, you’re looking for but you’ll recognize it when you see it. Picking a book at random you open to the first page and begin to read. Two hours later you’re home in bed with a mug of sweet tea, still reading.
Noah Felman and Matt,

Hooks are essential, regardless of whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or scripts. They lead off chapters and end chapters, enticing the reader to continue turning pages until the book is done. They are also required for your back cover content, agent query letters, and promotional literature. A good hook starts your story, intrigues the reader, and captures the interest of an agent. It is also consistent with the rest of your story…you don’t want a manuscript peppered with brilliant little hooks that have very little relevance to the body of the work.

Especially in short stories where the first half of the page has only the title, author’s name, word count, and contact information, the hook beginning the story must engage the editor’s attention immediately with that first paragraph.

A good book cover invites a potential reader to pick it up. But you’re not there yet. The most valuable real estate when the book is in someone’s hands is the dust jacket or back cover.

There are elements required on your back cover. Your ISBN, maybe a barcode which the bookstores will need to sell your book if you intend to market through that venue, the categories that your book would be shelved under in the upper left hand corner, and the price are components that are basically no-brainers. If the author wants to use a personal photo, it is often placed here because the cover is usually done with a color process, but anything within the book is black and white unless you want to pay extra for color inside.

You may place a short author biography on the back cover to support a longer About the Author piece inside the book. Beyond that, your back cover is all about marketing.

It needs to be attractive, professionally written and designed, and tell the reader the benefits of further exploring this particular book if it is non-fiction, or catch him or her into the intrigue of the story, biography, or non-fiction information. If the book has been recognized, say so. If it is part of a successful series, let the reader know. Your back cover needs to be thought of as a hook, drawing the reader deeper into your book, encouraging him or her to start reading the chapters.

If the author can entice the reader to open the book, it’s that first line, first paragraph, first page that will determine whether the reader continues.One of the first questions I ask when I start to write is whether I am following that “first line, first paragraph, first page” rule.

Am I raising enough questions in the readers’ minds to keep them reading?
Can I engage the reader immediately so he or she wants to keep turning the pages?
Even though the market for the mystery genre is limited, the components of mystery, the unanswered questions, are what drive any kind of writing.

In a bygone era when the individual was not provided the banquet of today’s television, videos, and movies, artistic renderings and reading were the only non-physical way to see other places and other lives. Books were rare and treasured, and often the only individuals who owned more than a few were the very rich. People had more time to read lengthy descriptive passages, to savor what little they had, or at least, were more willing to do so.

Today’s readers will not do that. If you do not bring them quickly into the action and engage them, you have lost them. This is the danger in starting your manuscript with long, descriptive passages. You may think it is needed because otherwise the reader will not understand the context of your piece. The truth is that he or she won’t wait around for you to give that background, but will move onto something more immediately satisfying. This is why an editor often suggests dropping the reader into the middle of the book to get to the action or the crisis.

Aside from your back copy, dust jacket, and story or article, where are hooks critical?

Here you are trying to grab an agent’s interest in a page, or at most (and rarely!) two. Quite often, a lengthy query will be seen as a lack of writing ability and professionalism. It is important to make your query letter powerful by crafting it as carefully as you do the book itself—but what the books on query letters seldom tell you is that the query letter is a perfect vehicle to again use the ‘hook element.’

* “The query letter is an elegantly concise piece of promotional writing. You have exactly one page to introduce yourself and your novel-just four or five clean, tight paragraphs, each with its own specific purpose.”
Lynn Flewelling,
The Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters,

Getting an agent is like dating—even though you meet a lot of people who look like they might be good matches, you are particular about who you actually spend a long period of time with, and you want someone who thinks you are as great as you think you are. As in dating, the last thing you want to do is come across as desperate.

Which gets around to paying to have your book published. Don’t. Even if you self publish, you shouldn’t be talking thousands of dollars. I had one reputedly honest publisher (after all, he showed up at a conference!) offer to get 1,000 of my books published for $10,000, which is $10 a book and didn’t even include shipping. I declined. I was not that desperate.What are the components of a strong query letter?

Make sure you are addressing the right person, with the right gender, who represents the kind of piece you have written. Do your research. Agents move around a lot and agencies come and go. Don’t submit your material to agencies that don’t handle that kind of work. If they are used to marketing children’s and juvenile literature, they are not going to make an exception for your erotica. They just don’t know the right publishers to put it in front of, and like any professional, they have selected what they want to represent because that is where they know they will be effective.

Don’t insult them by saying, in effect, that you know better than they do. Submit e-mail queries if requested. Otherwise, use white, buff, ivory, or light gray paper and black ink in Arial or Times New Roman font with a simple, business-like letterhead. Avoid scented paper, cute borders, and dot matrix printing. Proofread and ensure that what you are sending looks professional.

1. Paragraph 1: Identify what you are selling, length and that it is complete. Give exactly what an agent requests…no more, no less. This shows that you are professional. State the purpose up front in the first paragraph and include a brief description of the book, the market, and the author. If you have other related pieces, mention them. If your other work isn’t something the agent represents, don’t mention it. This is also where you use a hook. Ask a question your book answers. Entice the agent.
2. Paragraph 2: Communicate a simple, direct, and sincere reason why you wrote the piece.
3. Paragraph 3: Present a little bit of the contents, introduce the protagonist, and demonstrate your writing skills. This is your book’s audition. If well written, it will get you rejected for all the right reasons…and get you an agent enthusiastic about your book and your writing. If this section is well written, the ratio of rejections to acceptances is about 12:1, although the market continues to become more challenging.
4. Paragraph 4: Mention any experience, background, and publishing credits you have related to your book.
5. Paragraph 5: A standard, polite closing. No ultimatums, no demands for responses. Trust that they will be professional in handling your query. If a month goes by after their estimated turnaround time without a response, you may place a polite phone inquiry.

Appeal to the emotions
In setting up an emotional argument, the first task is to create an emotional tie and investment for the reader, to make him or her care. This is often used in non-fiction pieces, which may begin with a story narrative as example, a direct question to the reader, or an interesting statement of fact that the reader may or may not agree with, but which entices him or her to read further. If the statement is too different from the philosophy of the reader, the audience is often lost: most people read things that may teach them something new but are not too different from their intrinsic beliefs. Because of this, environmental articles are not often seen in big business publications and vice versa. Be aware of your audience and target your work.

EXAMPLES (credit to Eugene Orlando):

* “Mr. Eubanks grabbed his daughter by the throat and slammed her up against the trailer wall.”
* “My mother’s tyranny ruined my life.”



Sense of shock/surprise
Tell the reader something they didn’t know and make them want the ‘rest of the story.’ Or say something in a way that surprises and intrigues the reader. My second novel, Kaleidoscope, starts with a quote by the temperamental conservatory floral designer, Elise, “His nookie finder must have given him a false positive.” My goal is to capture and shock the reader immediately, and raise questions about the character as well as the situation. Editors have told me that their family members look over their shoulders, read that first sentence, and can’t stop.

I will warn you that starting with dialog is a risky challenge because the requisite background is not in place. On the other hand, it usually has the advantage of being in the middle of some type of action. Run it by others to see if it works.



Desire for revenge or justice
Desire for revenge or justice is a subset of appealing to the emotions. In this case, the reader is immediately engaged in something they want to see set right. Through your story, you develop the plot twists and turns that enable the protagonist to effect that change.


* “I learned two things from my job at IBM: don’t have multiple sclerosis and don’t get mercury poisoning.”

From Sandra Kischuk’s book in process: Bad Bosses in Corporate America.



Ask a question and delay answering it
If you read, “The sky had been green for twenty four years. Suddenly, it was blue,” from Philip Jose Farmer’s masterpiece, Behind the Walls of Terra, you see a technique often used in science fiction. The reader immediately wonders why it changed…and is drawn into the story to find out the answer.

Moby Dick starts out.

* “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

In two sentences, we learn that the narrator is about to undertake a nautical voyage, and engage the reader with questions—the questions that will lead them to read further.


* “Was it fair? Was it really fair? Jason shoved his fists in his jeans pockets and stared past the institutional concrete block walls, out the grimy reinforced glass window, to the dusty cyclone-fenced enclosure. Razor wire. Always that damned coiled razor wire.”

What questions do you have after hearing this?



Start the reader in the middle of the action
This technique is called in media res, and is frequently used in short stories. It dumps the reader into a crisis, engages him or her emotionally, and again starts the questioning process. Often a recommendation is to scrap what you initially started writing, remember it as backstory, and drop any essential elements in as the story moves forward to minimize the potential clumsiness of comprehensive flashbacks. The danger here is that your reader is not prepared for the story. You will find yourself challenged in integrating your backstory enough into the narrative so that you keep your reader ‘grounded,’ but not so much that it bogs your action down.


* “He pushed himself to his feet, shaking his bloody and matted gray curls, totally unprepared for the fist that slammed his ribs from behind. The second time, he didn’t get up.”



Unless you have a science fiction or historical piece that requires it, be careful using description because it tends to make your work stagnant. It is hard to keep from losing your reader unless the description has a hook built into it. Quite often this can be accomplished with a narrative that shows something is out of place or different from the way it usually is. If you can use the narrative to raise questions in the reader’s mind, you have created the hook.


* “The deserted room was dusty and badly lit, sheets covering what was probably furniture in the corner away from the door. Dust motes swirled in the late afternoon sunlight spilling through the tall mullioned windows. Lisa expected the room to smell musty, but someone had propped one of windows ajar with a broom handle. If hadn’t been open yesterday.”

QUESTION: If the room is deserted, who opened the window and why?



Slip in description and backstory as part of your narrative and dialog. When the reader does not have all the pieces, they are encouraged to keep reading to resolve what is going on. Avoid long descriptive paragraphs to keep the action moving. If you describe a character’s reaction to the setting, you provide information about the environment at the same time as you develop the character.


* “Sherry had seen wallpaper like that before, nightmarish, oversized Victorian roses. In the foyer corner, she could see where it had been ripped away exposing a patch of metallic foil with a black-flocked filigree beneath. Another garish excuse for poor taste. “It’s perfect,” she cooed.

What works as a hook depends on your audience. When you start out with a great hook, you need to maintain the same level of tension throughout your work. Hold back on your information, When you don’t tell everything, you create a sense of mystery. At the end of a chapter, plant questions in the reader’s mind so that they feel compelled to continue reading to find the answers. Hooks should not be stand-alone pieces divorced from the rest of your content.

A marvelous little book that has the most information I have found is Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. Other books you may find useful are:
Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain
Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell
Write Great Fiction: Description and Setting, Ron Rozelle

One Response to Literary Hooks

  1. Pingback: Captain Hook | A Novel Approach

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s