Captivating your reader’s attention and submerging them deep inside the story world is one of the universal goals for writers. We want our readers to experience the heart hammering, gasping for breath, sitting at their seat’s edge wondering how in the midnight sky their beloved character is going to escape an impossible conundrum.
And to do that, we have to reel them. We need our hooks the same way fishermen need hooks. And of course, our readers will enjoy the experience infinitely better than the fish.
Hooks, also known as narrative hooks, are a literary technique used to grab the reader’s attention and draw them into the story. It’s a rather broad and simplistic definition for a crucial element that determines whether your reader continues to read or not. They are used to create interest, intrigue and/or suspense, along with story questions that will arise in your reader’s mind and they’ll have to flip pages to get answers.
Keep in mind, questions open the mind and answers close the mind, meaning you’ll want to sprinkle these hooks in and deny your reader a convenient spot to close your book. And, there’s a sweet spot where the reader is curious and wants to know more versus having him or her become frustrated because 1) story promises look like they won’t be kept or 2) the reader is confused.
Also, as one of Apex’s own, Day Leitao, said during her HOOK THEM OR LOSE THEM Strategy Zoom, “Having many things happen quickly is not going to make your book hookier. The reader needs to connect with the characters to care about the plot.”
Hooks are an important element in storytelling and Apexers recently were treated to WRITING ACTIVE HOOKS or How Many Hooks Are Enough with USA Today Bestseller Mary Buckham, author of Writing Active Hooks: The Complete How-to Guide. Besides going through what a hook is, Buckham went over the 10 most common (universal) hooks, why they’re so widely used, and where to place them for most effectively for your genre and your audience.
Some of these hooks she covered included: Action/Danger, Overpowering Emotions, Unique Character, and Questions Raised.
Master Storyteller David Farland also had things to say about hooks. In his Writing Enchanting Prose course, he said, “Every story [has] a basic theme, a plot, and some elements of what I call “treatment”—your own personal writing style and take. So your hooks are based around a few common elements.” His list of hook types includes Setting, Character, Thematic, Conflict, and more.
Deep-dive into Hook Types
First up, an action hook is NOT necessarily movement on the page. So, what is it? Or better yet, how do you know if you have a hook?
According to Buckham, a way to determine if you have a hook is to ask yourself whether an action happening in real life would it grab your attention. If it wouldn’t, it isn’t a hook.
And Action and Danger hooks can be one and the same, but not always.
I’ll give you some basic examples:
Walking along a sidewalk- not action and not danger.
Cartwheeling across an abandoned road – action not danger.
Running across a busy highway – action and danger.
Here’s another example and a bit tongue-in-cheek. If you pass by a bedroom and saw a family member clipping their toenails, it wouldn’t be interesting. However, family member or not clipping their toenails while sitting on the president’s desk during a news conference probably would be.
I’d assume we’d all agree that this task is also not inherently dangerous. The worse scenario is the toe-clipper cuts into the quick or a toenail pings off and hits someone. However, it absolutely could turn dangerous should this personal hygiene task result in secret service grabbing them.
Action/Danger hooks are great to use to advancing the plot plus these would work well with Farland’s conflict hooks, particularly if you’re working on making a conflict deeper (making it more personal for your POV character) or broader (making a greater impact across the board). Farland has talked about the concept of broadening and deepening conflict in various places, including his 318R course.
Because we experience story through the lens of our characters, it’s important to have our reader connect with them. Or as Leitao stated, “Your reader will only care about your story if they care about your character.” It’s our job to create sympathy and empathy for our characters. And if we do that right then the Overpowering Emotions hook will grab particularly well.
Your reader is going to want to know what’s happening to their storybook friends when they’re in trouble and experiencing the ‘big feels.’ The reader, probably, is feeling an echo of the same feelings because readers read for the experience.
Now, having a character bang an elbow and grumble won’t have the reader too emotionally invested but reading about a beloved character stoically gulping back tears when they’re saying goodbye in the hospice care facility…that will. This illustrates the basic concept behind Buckham’s statement, “a cry is an emotion; a scream is a much stronger emotion.”
Keep in mind, this hook can be golden especially during story opportunities when characters are traversing their character arc and overcoming their emotional wound — or in other words, moving from what they thought they were and becoming transformed into who they need to be in order to prevail. The Dark Night of the Soul (or All is Lost) pops up as an excellent opportunity to drop this hook in and it certainly isn’t the only place.
The Question Raised Hook, which overlaps Farland’s Plot hook, is the easiest of the hooks for most people to identify. It is the hook that draws us in with story question. ‘Who did it?’ ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Will she kill her husband?’ ‘When will he tell her?’ ‘Well, how would that work?’
Also important to know, this particular hook doesn’t carry a story question for chapters. These are smaller hooks that are meant to be answered later on the page, the scene, or even the chapter. But as Buckham says, as long as the reader has a story question then you as the writer have this hook. You are making your reader curious and turning pages to find answers.
This is another kind of hook that will pique our curiosity because these ‘marching-to-a different-drummer’ people are interesting. They make us wonder, ‘What will they do next?’ ‘Why are they that way?’
Let me you the example of a street cleaner. In her dirty work clothes, you probably wouldn’t give her a second glance. But, see her ditch her dirty coverall for a tuxedo underneath and walking into a patent office to file the paperwork for a flying car fueled by banana peels before zipping off to an art gallery would capture your attention.
These by far are not the only hooks. As I mentioned earlier, Buckham covered 10 common and universal hooks and Farland covers many as well and sometimes they overlap like Buckham’s Evocative hook and Farland’s treatment hook and setting hook.
According to Buckham, the evocative hook is the one of the hardest hooks to both write and identify. It often hinges on a specific setting; however, its more than that. It’s something that tugs at you, causes you to gape at the word painting with wonder or intrigue. Farland describes this as a treatment hook and his term is broader than Buckham’s. He said it can be “an interesting voice, a beautiful style or a desirable emotional tone.”
Last, both agree that you can combine hooks to do double, triple, duty or even more.
Placement of Hooks
Farland said in his Writing Enchanting Prose course, “Your hook is baited with just a taste of the story, an appealing hint of it, for the reader to at least nibble on and hopefully sink his teeth into.”
But where do you put these hooks? Can you do it wrong?
Most know that a story should start with a hook. It grabs the reader’s attention and pulls them into your story world. In fact, Farland, Buckham and Leitao all agree you should use hooks at the opening of every chapter and scene AND at the close of every chapter and scene.
But this isn’t the only place. They should be sprinkled throughout the story, according to Farland. He also stated that it’s often better to use smaller hooks than bigger ones so the reader won’t realize they’re being lured to turn the page.“ A hook that promises too much from a story, he said, will annoy readers.
Be sure that your hooks are balanced throughout your story. If you use a bunch of hooks at the beginning and barely any as the story progresses, the reader will notice. They might put your book down for keeps because the story will become less interesting and it’ll feel like you’ve gotten lazy with your writing.
Keep in mind as well to pump up the hooks when you are approaching pivotal scenes in your plot such as the Crossing of the Threshold into Act 2, the Midpoint, and the Second Door of No Return into Act 3. You will want ramp up the tension and the pacing. Utilizing hooks is a great way to do this.
The end of Chapter 3 is important, according to Buckham, and if you’re writing series, you’ll want to include hooks close to the last few sentences. Of course, you want a satisfying conclusion but you also want questions that will drive your readers to get the next book.
Tips for Crafting Hooks
- Know your audience – Understanding your target audience can help you create a hook that will resonate with them and capture their attention.
- Keep it short and sweet – Your hook should be concise and to the point. Avoid lengthy descriptions or complex sentences. That will dilute what the hook is supposed to do.
- Use strong language – Choose words that are powerful and evoke emotion in the reader.
- Don’t give too much away – Your hook should hint at what’s to come without giving away the entire plot.
- Remember, context is important. Without it any implied emotional impact can fall flat and be misunderstood.
- Revise, revise, revise – Crafting the perfect hook takes time and effort. Don’t be afraid to revise and refine your hook until it’s just right. And remember, hooks can be dropped in later. They aren’t necessary in a first draft.
Hooks are an integral tool for enhancing the quality of your work, creating the atmosphere to your story world, and keeping your readers engaged—making it important to invest the time and attention to crafting them.