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Monday, July 16, 2018

5 Tricks that Help with Hooks

If you have been writing very long, you've probably heard the term "hook"--those sentences or tidbits of information that "hook" the reader and "reel" them into the story. It's important to have a hook in the opening, and years ago, I even did a whole post on coming up with a good first sentence. But today, I want to move beyond just opening lines. Because, really, to keep a reader, you should have more than an opening hook. Ideally, you should have hooks at ends and through middles--whether it's a scene, chapter, or a short story. Here are five things I've learned that can help with hooks, based off my own experience and off helping other writers as an editor. (As with everything in writing, there are exceptions, but here ya go.)

 Look Forward, Not Back

A surprisingly common trait with new writers, is they start a story and then look backwards, sometimes going directly into a flashback or even a summary of what happened before. Looking backwards is often a problem for a few reasons but the main one is that it takes immediacy and tension out of a story--because what's already happened has happened, and it's in the past and can't be changed.

In contrast, looking and thinking forward in a story can create more tension because it hasn't happened yet. Tension is the anticipation of what might happen. Therefore, it pulls the readers in and along and as such relates to crafting hooks. Looking forward is a particularly good hook for ending scenes or chapters--to entice the reader to start the next one.

Often (not always) hooks work by giving the audience something to dread or hope for. That doesn't need to be directly stated, but it can be. It might be straightforward, or it might be implied.

Here are some examples of using this to end a scene or chapter. Keep in mind that the context of what came before lends power behind it (we don't care about what could happen until we know what is happening), so they may not sound as riveting as one-liners here, but they illustrate the point.


To her dread, their alliance only made things worse.


Of course my odds have not been very dependable as of late.

Be More Specific, Not Vague

Tension and suspense comes from what could happen (which is looking forward), and thereby getting the audience to wonder and question the outcome. One way writers try to do this is by writing vaguely, which almost always has the opposite effect. They will think that by not telling what something is, what something can do, what could happen or could be, that they are getting the audience to wonder and question. But most of the time the opposite is true. If it's too vague, the audience has nothing concrete to grasp onto to wonder about. They can't anticipate because they don't know enough about what is going on.

Often the best hooks are more specific, not vague. Sure, they may not lay everything out on the page directly--I get that--but they at least suggest a possible outcome or problem, so that the audience has something, some line of thought or possibility to dread or hope for, for anticipation.

Sometimes I see this sort of problem happen when a POV character is unsure or indecisive about something, and then the writer tries to use that as a hook to get the reader to read on. It's okay to have your character be unsure or indecisive, but keep in mind that because there is no decision or knowledge, there is likely little anticipation. We can't predict what may happen, because we don't have a decision or the information to build off.

Instead, to write a great hook, you might want to have your character sound certain about something, even if the audience is not. In fact, sometimes it's even better that way, because that adds a new layer of tension--the audience is about to witness the character go confidently into uncertainty.

For hooks, it's better to have your character come to a wrong conclusion and look forward, then it is to have them be indecisive and therefore unable to look forward and create tension.

(Again, that's not to say you can't ever have indecisive characters, you can, but if you do, that means there needs to be something bigger and more prominent that is specific and decisive so you can build anticipation, and have their indecision make that bigger thing more dooming.)

I stood on the platform trying to decide whether to run for the water as Haymitch told me or take a chance and grab the bow and arrows near the cornucopia. 


There, resting on a mound of blanket rolls, is a silver sheath of arrows and a bow, already strung, waiting to engage. That's mine, I think. It's meant for me. I'm fast. . . . Haymitch has never seen me run.

The first example isn't wrong, but notice how having Katniss decisive over a wrong decision creates much greater anticipation.

Ambiguity > Vague

Related to the last section, but different. Ambiguity is not the same as vague. In ambiguity there is enough specificity, context, and knowledge that multiple outcomes fit the same setup. Vagueness is when there isn't enough specificity, context, or knowledge to confidently argue a specific outcome. I did a whole post on the difference and when to use each here, so I won't repeat all of it. Ambiguity works because it gives us enough to build off to anticipate outcomes. Readers read to find out which outcome takes place, not because they don't have enough info to predict any outcome.

In Catching Fire, the tributes hear twelve gongs in the arena. One character says, "Twelve, for midnight." Another says, "Or twelve districts." At that point in the story, the reader doesn't know which character (if either) is right, but each suggestion makes sense. The twelve gongs are ambiguous, and you have to keep reading to figure out which it is.

Use Promising Buzzwords

Tension isn't the only way a hook can work, but it's probably the most common, and you always need regular hooks of tension. But you can also add intrigue, or something intellectually stimulating, or make wonderful promises to the reader, or appeal to particular emotions more powerfully.

On a line-by-line basis (which is how hooks typically work), you can build or amplify those by using what I think of as "buzzwords." Sometimes what makes a good hook is the right word choice.

"Secret" is more powerful than "Unknown" for example. "Secret" has an extra buzz to it. We naturally want to know more.

If you think about what your audience picked up your book for, you can use related buzzwords to promise them that. If they picked up your book because it's about vampires, use that word in one of your early hooks. If they're hoping for romance, use words that appeal to a possible romance. If you are writing fantasy, use a hook that has words that foreshadow a sense of wonder.

The problem was, strange things often happened around Harry.

Less is More

Stylistically, hooks are one or a few lines. Brevity often creates more of a punch. You want to leave the audience wanting more. After all, that's the whole point. You want the audience to continue anticipating, thinking, planning, and predicting, not necessarily the character. This means allowing the audience room to ponder and do some of the intellectual work on their own--don't do all the work for them on the page through the POV character. Leave enough room for subtext.

Does this sound contradictory when just a few paragraphs ago I talked about how you need to be specific and not vague?

You need to be more specific and less vague in order to give the audience enough to anticipate what could happen, but in crafting the hook itself, you don't need to spell out every detail on the page directly.

It's like I talked about in this article.

When structuring and actually writing the hook, you don't need to show us the entire cat in the bag all at once, you need to suggest that there is a cat in the bag (see how this relates to anticipation again?). Give the audience enough specificity and info to start down a conclusion on their own, by suggesting a paw or whisker (see how these are specific things?). There isn't tension in the inevitable. There is anticipation in suggestion.

Don't write us a big lengthy hook that gives us all the details and ramifications in 1 - 5 paragraphs. That's not going to feel like a hook. Instead simply say, "The timer began the countdown"--and through what you built up prior, the audience will naturally anticipate the ramifications (the work is happening inside them), and they'll want to continue.

Save length for dramatic moments--which should generally happen at climaxes of one sort or another, not rising actions and build-ups (when you need hooks most). (I talked about dramatic moments when I talked about structural pacing and purple prose.)

I almost fall out of the tree. The voice belongs to Peeta.

All rules and guidelines have exceptions, but these are five things that I've found to be helpful when crafting hooks. I hope they help you with yours. I'll probably talk about hooks some more in the future.

* Some examples came from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, and a few I made up.

Tone Example

At Storymakers I taught a class on tone. And last night I found a good example of how tone can affect everything and how you can control it by choosing the right emotional beats.

You can read an article I did all about tone here.

Here is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone edited into movie trailers that illustrate seven different movie genres.


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