Before I begin, remember that for each of the items I’ll discuss from now on, you have four questions to ask:
- Did it happen?
- Exactly where did it happen?
- What exactly is the problem? Or what just worked really well?
- What can the author do to fix it, if something needs fixing?
OK, so what is a “hook” and how can it be weak or missing? Whatever you’re writing—fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose—you need to catch and hold your reader’s interest: you need to hook them. And you need to do it early. How early? Well, in a poem it has to happen right away, in the first few lines, since a poem is likely to be brief. But this is true even in a longer piece. In a book, you have a few pages, in a short story, no more than the first few paragraphs. In Hooked, his excellent book on openings, Les Edgerton says the hook needs to be planted within the first 30 pages. Personally, I think it’s within the first 10, and the earlier within those 10, the better.
The Hook’s Job
The hook has a lot of work to do. A weak or missing hook does not do that work, or does not do it well.
Edgerton says those first pages need to do four things:
- Introduce the protagonist and their normal world.
- Contain the “inciting incident” that throws the protagonist out of that normal world.
- Contain the “surface problem,” the problem they initially think they have to solve.
- Introduce the first hints of the “story-worthy problem,” which is what will drive the protagonist through the rest of the book.
To tell if a hook is present or absent, weak or strong, ask yourself questions like these:
- Do I know who the important characters are?
- If the answer is no or you’re not sure, why? Did two or more characters seem to have equal weight, for example? Did no one stand out?
- Are the characters people I immediately become interested in? Do I care about them right away, even in a negative way? Uninteresting characters are far worse than unsympathetic ones—ones the reader does not like. Writers want their readers to respond to their characters, even if they hate them. But if the reader’s response is “meh,” that’s a problem the author has to fix.
- Do I know what the protagonist’s problem is? As a reader, you may not know the full scope and extent of the story-worthy problem right away. Indeed, that may not be revealed until the very end, but the reader needs to know there’s a problem—and an important one in the protagonist’s mind—right from the beginning. That’s likely to be the surface problem, but it will begin the revelation of the story-worthy problem. If that is not happening, tell the author.
- Do I at least have some sense of how big and important this problem is to the characters?
- What’s at stake for them if they fail to solve it? What do they stand to lose?
- What’s at stake if they do solve it? What do they stand to gain?
- If you cannot positively answer at least some of these questions, then the author has not identified the stakes.
- Do I get bogged down in the character’s history? I’ll discuss backstory in a later article. New authors have a tendency to think they need to provide all sorts of background about the major characters at the beginning of the book. That’s not true, and it buries the hook. If this seems to be happening, be sure to let the writer know, especially if nothing grabs you.
A True Story
Here’s an example of what I mean. My friend Debrah Strait was working on her first book and took the latest draft of her first chapter to her writers’ group. They were, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. After the meeting, Debrah went to Safeway and while she was in the store, she met a friend and complained about what the group had said. Her friend asked to see the piece, which Debrah still had in her purse.
She read the first page. “I don’t care about that,” she said.
She read the second page. “I don’t care about that.”
When she finally got to page seven, where pirates began attacking a small settlement on a remote Caribbean island by blowing up a warehouse, she said, “Now I’m interested. Start here.”
Debrah said, “But but but….”
In the final version of The Sweet Trade, the warehouse blows up at the top of page two (and the rest of the village is destroyed and the residents are killed), and young Dirk and his friends, who were playing some distance away, are thrust into the world of piracy that will carry them through the rest of the story. On page one, Debrah introduced the protagonist and his normal world, and on page two, she blew that normal world up. That’s an effective hook.
Other Components of the Hook
A hook involves more than plot and characterization. The author’s “tone” or “voice”—how the piece sounds in the reader’s head—is also part of the hook. This might seem to be true primarily in poetry and so-called “literary” fiction, but it applies across genres and forms. Note that there is no “right” tone. Whining and sniveling, done well, can be as attention-catching and –holding as a slam-bang shoot-‘em-up opening scene. Note, too, that “done well” is not the same as what you personally prefer. The question is not whether you liked the opening but whether it grabbed and held your interest. Whether it did or it did not, again, you need to identify why.
Pace, or lack of it, can also make a hook strong or weak, but it’s not a matter of fast or slow. A scene that goes screaming by may not be a good opening. If it fails at some of the tasks I’ve already discussed, it may not hook the reader. Similarly, a slow scene won’t be boring if it succeeds at those tasks. Again, the questions are:
- Did it catch and hold my interest?
- Did it make me want to keep reading?
- If not, why not, and what can the author do to fix the problem?
- If so, what was it about the opening that pulled me in?
The hook also needs to introduce the piece’s setting and mood: when and where it takes place, what the physical, spiritual, and emotional environments are, etc. A weak hook does not establish these.
That’s a lot to demand of just a line, a sentence, a paragraph, or a few pages, but that’s how important the hook is. If the opening does not hook the reader, he or she will go on to something else, meaning a lost potential fan, or at least a lost sale. On the other hand, a strong hook will launch the reader into the piece. If they have to keep reading past the opening, the hook has done its job.
In your mind, what makes a hook strong or weak? Do you have any examples you’d like to share? Please put your thoughts or examples in the Comments box below.