Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.