Six tips for engaging readers within two seconds: The Hook in fiction and memoir

By Paula Berinstein

We all know that if we don’t capture reader attention within a few seconds, we might as well kiss the sale of our work goodbye. That’s why, unless you’re Terry Pratchett (Discworld) or Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), you need a real grabber to open your story.

The secret to writing great hooks is to infuse them with possibility and add a dash of spice. Here are six tips to help you engage readers in just one sentence.

Techniques for writing great hooks

  1. Foreshadow. Imply that a change is coming.
  2. Raise questions in the reader’s mind. Your first few sentences should cause us to ask questions. What is going on here? How did he get into that situation? Give us enough answers to keep us from getting lost, but keep us guessing.
  3. Start in medias res (in the middle of things). Jump right into the action. Do not start with back story. Assume we know who and what the viewpoint character or narrator is talking about.
  4. Add a hint of spice. Whet our appetites by adding something intriguing, like incongruity, oddity, danger, tension.
  5. Provide context. Hint at the setting and/or the situation so we know what we’re dealing with.
  6. Get the reader to identify with the character and her predicament ASAP. Give us an interesting character in a pickle, and make sure the stakes are high so we’ll feel her pain.

Examples
Hook 1. Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea.”

What this hook is doing:

  •  Foreshadowing. Something is going to go wrong or she wouldn’t have raised the idea of kissing Giovanni.
  • Questions. Who is Giovanni and why shouldn’t she kiss him?
  • In medias res. We meet the protagonist in the middle of a potential encounter with a lover.
  • Spice. There’s risk and danger if she proceeds, but she’ll probably do it anyway.
  • Reader identifies. We’ve all been tempted to sacrifice ourselves for short-term pleasure.

Hook 2. John LeCarré’s Absolute Friends: “On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria.”

What this hook is doing:

  • Foreshadowing. Ted’s destiny is going to catch up with him.
  • Questions. Who is this guy, and what is he doing in such a position? Where and why did his destiny disappear, what was it doing before it left, and why is it back?
  • In medias res. Ted is in the middle of something all right.
  • Spice. There’s tension here: will Ted fall or otherwise be harmed?
  • Context. The setting is the castle in Bavaria, and the situation involves a silly hat and balancing on a soapbox.

Hook 3. Charlaine Harris’s Dead as a Doornail: “I knew my brother would turn into a panther before he did.”

What this hook is doing:

  • Foreshadowing. Anyone whose brother turns into a panther has got to be headed for something weird and risky.
  • Questions. Who is talking and how can her brother possibly turn into a panther?
  • In medias res. No lead-in here. We’re right in the thick of it.
  • Spice. Turning into a panther? That’s pretty odd.
  • Reader identifies. If your brother were about to turn into a panther, wouldn’t you be engaged?

Hook 4. C. Hope Clark’s Lowcountry Bribe: “O-positive primer wasn’t quite the color I had in mind for the small office, but Lucas Sherwood hadn’t given the décor a second thought when he blew out the left side of his head with a .45.”

What this hook is doing:

  • Foreshadowing. There will be consequences to this suicide.
  • Questions. Why did Lucas Sherwood blow his brains out in the protagonist’s office?
  • In medias res. We arrive in the aftermath of a suicide.
  • Spice. The hook starts ordinarily enough but ends with a zinger: this seemingly innocuous office was the scene of a violent suicide.
  • Context. We’re in the protagonist’s office; it sounds like he or she is a private detective.
  • Reader identifies. If someone blew their brains out in your office, you’d care.

Hook 5. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

What this hook is doing:

  • Foreshadowing. We know perfectly well that these “perfectly normal,” smug Dursleys are anything but, and they’re in for some rude surprises.
  • Questions. Who are these Dursleys, and what trouble will they get into?
  • In medias res. No action yet, but it sure sounds like it’s imminent.
  • Spice. There’s a disconnect between the supposedly perfect life of the Dursleys and whatever is coming.
  • Context. The setting is a family residence at number four, Privet Drive.

Hook 6. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass: “Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”

What this hook is doing:

  • Foreshadowing. We just know that Lyra will be seen and something bad will happen to her.
  • Questions. Who is Lyra, what is a dæmon, what kitchen are we talking about, and what are these characters up to?
  • In medias res. We find ourselves creeping down a dark hallway trying not to attract attention.
  • Spice. What’s a dæmon? And Lyra and her dæmon wouldn’t be trying to stay out of sight if there weren’t some potential danger in being seen.
  • Context. We know we’re in a building with a hall and a kitchen and that someone in the kitchen poses danger.
  • Reader identifies. This is the stuff of our nightmares. Of course we care!

There’s no one way to write a great hook, but if you remember that the hook is a promise of things to come, you won’t go wrong.

Paula Berinstein (Paula B) is the author of seven geeky nonfiction books, including Making Space Happen and Business Statistics on the Web, and numerous magazine articles. She is also host of The Writing Show, a podcast series is designed to help you practice capturing readers’ attention. Inspired by literary agent Kristin Nelson’s two-page pitch sessions, Paula plays agent and comments on anonymous submissions on the show. 

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