Hook Readers on Your Book: 8 Tips with Examples
Learn eight different ways of delivering a strong hook that will get you reeling in your readers.
In this age of short attention spans, instant gratification, and a plethora of choices for readers, a catchy opening line is a key ingredient in encouraging readers to not only pick up your book but also to keep turning the pages. Those first few words hook an audience and showcase an author’s writing style.
Every piece of writing needs an opening. The key is to make it a gripping one. How to write a good hook may seem daunting at first, but there are some tried-and-true techniques to apply to those opening sentences to craft a great hook that can grab readers’ attention.
What is a hook?
A hook is the very first line or lines of a story with the specific purpose of grabbing a reader’s attention and enticing them to continue reading. It’s a literary device that generates curiosity about a unique character trait, an unusual situation, or an important question. These opening lines also define the genre, introduce the themes of the story or character traits, and help establish your writing style.
The term comes from a fisherman’s hook. To catch fish, they use a shiny hook and delicious bait to lure and capture their prey, snagging them so they can’t get free. You’ll want to use arresting details and purposeful words to suck in potential readers with your first line.
Why you need a good hook
People have an attention span of about 8 seconds. For the average reader, that’s around 17 words. If you don’t grab the reader’s attention in your first sentence, chances are they won’t pick up your story. Think about what drew you to this article. Were you searching for tips on writing a good hook, and the title drew you in? Or did the emotive words in the title cause you to click?
Consider a child playing with a ball. The ball rolls onto the street and the child, distracted, doesn’t see a car speeding down the road. Do you quietly say “Excuse me, you should get out of the street” or do you yell “Look out!”
You do what’s necessary to grab the child’s attention. The opening lines of your book need that same “pay attention to me” treatment.
How do you peak a reader’s interest? You turn on their curiosity.
What Kind of Hook is for you?
Writing hooks can be confusing, and there are different types of hooks depending on a few factors. The genre of your book is a good place to start, but don’t forget about your writing style. Below are the most popular types of hooks, along with some sample first sentences to showcase the type of hook’s qualities.
1. Start in the middle.
Technically called media res, one of the most common and impactful ways to create a great hook is to drop your readers right into the middle of the action. It’s an easy and clear way to create intrigue with very little setup.
This type of hook has two advantages:
1. By landing in the action, the scene’s own energy motivates the reader to keep going.
2. Readers do not have any context as to the nature of the story yet and as such, they will have questions. The only way to find out those answers is to keep reading. They want to know what creature is chasing the hero, who wrote the love poem, why the air is unbreathable, etc.
For some authors, this means literally in the midst of an action scene, but in general, the concept is to not start with the day the world was created. There will be plenty of opportunities to write in elements of your backstory. The core concept here is to start in the middle of something interesting happening.
George R. R. Martin drops us into the action in A Game of Thrones with an opening line where readers want to know, at the same time, where the characters have been and where they are going.
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.
In Enchanter’s End Game, David Eddings sets a scene where readers want to know why mule bells are mournful to the character.
There was, Garion decided, something definitely mournful about the sound of mule bells.
Pro-tip: A short-cut to this is a stolen prologue. This is essentially an eventful and key scene in your story that you steal, but placing a snippet of the scene as your prologue.
2. Life-changing moments
Speaking of action, why not use your inciting incident to kick off your story? By honing in on the life-changing moment for your character, you can catch readers’ interest by showing the pivot that is happening in that moment.
Potential reader’s curiosity is heightened because they are going through the same monumental change as the character and thus a close connection to the character can be cemented.
A great example of this is in Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
In Coraline by Neil Gaiman, you know that Coraline is going through that door. But what’s on the other side?
“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.”
3. Hit them where it counts.
Tapping into your readers’ sense of empathy is another poignant way to connect with potential readers. Kicking your story off with an intense emotional response in the first few lines lets your readers attach to your character. Developing a relationship with a character draws the reader into their world, making them interested in their story, their wound, their battle to overcome. If a reader is invested in the character, they are much more likely to keep reading to find out what happens.
Pay careful attention to the choice of words here. Focus on emotive language, words and phrases that create the reaction you want. If you are writing about a murder, there’s a difference between an innocent bystander and a defenceless victim, both of which draw a picture of the scene more than simply stating there is a dead person.
Pro-tip: Hooks matter in writing outside fiction too. Even in academic writing, essay writing, and academic papers, it helps to have an effective hook to draw readers in, and propelling them towards your thesis statement - the core argument of your piece. In those settings, consider hooking readers with a personal story. An emotional appeal can help readers understand why you wrote this book and ease them into the more dense or informative content to come.
L.E. Modesitt, Jr. creates a connection with the reader in his The Magic of Recluce by pointing out a complaint about childhood most fantasy readers can relate to.
“Growing up, I always wondered why everything in Wandernaught seemed so dull.”
In Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson writes a line connecting readers to a common fear.
“Sometimes, I worry that I’m not the hero everyone thinks I am...”
4. Surprise your readers
Billie Wilder famously said about beginnings, “Grab them by the throat and never let go.” Opening your book with an unexpected rhetorical question, or a controversial statement, will engage your audience as they are eager to continue reading to find out where you’re going with that opening.
This could take the form of a statement hook that shocks readers, or you take a common misconception and turn it on its head.
Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with a sentence that piques the reader’s curiosity without introducing a single character, setting or time frame.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
William Goldman launches The Princess Bride with a statement at odds with itself.
“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”
5. Make FOMO your friend
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a strong motivator to keep readers engaged. Hint at what is coming, but don’t give them all the details. Reader needs to solve the puzzle, figure out why the character is doing or saying that or where the action takes place. This will drive readers to continue.
Mark Twain not only mocks himself, but teases at more to the story in his opening line of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
In City of Glass by Douglas Coupland, readers want to know about all the wrong things in this opening line.
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of the night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
6. The question hook
This hook idea is a classic, one you might have heard in high school during a class on essay hooks for various types of essay, including the narrative essay, persuasive essay, argumentative essay, or a research paper.
Open with a question that is an attention grabber, one with no clear and obvious answer. Something readers will feel compelled to keep reading so they can discover the answer.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
–– E.B. White, Charlotte's Web.
Edgar Allan Poe delivered a perfect hook in his story, The Cask of Amontillado.
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”
This hook is brilliant on multiple levels. As a first person point of view statement, it gives the reader insight into the mental state of the main character. It could fit into several of the hook categories listed in this article. I included it here because, even though it is not a question itself, it immediately had me asking questions. What kind of injuries are we talking about here? What was the insult that was so bad revenge is needed? How will this person take their revenge?
The pace of your opening lines can help with a sense of urgency, setting the clock not only for your story but also setting your readers’ minds on alert. The structure of these opening lines should lend to the rushed or urgent aspect of your story.
In Freaky Deaky, Elmore Leonard displays urgency through his use of time, orientation and the short, crisp fragments he cuts his opening sentence up with:
“Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”
Lee Child’s staccato delivery of the opening lines of The Killing Floor introduces inner workings of the lead character. They are blunt, detail oriented and precise. Readers immediately want to know why, where and what is going on at this diner.
“I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At Twelve O’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch.”
8. Skip the description
World building in any story is essential, but don’t write an opening opus of the rules of magic, the planes of your planet or the physical description of your character’s features and wardrobe. Without any questions to create curiosity, this explanation may leave readers feeling they have to dredge through content to get to the good stuff. And what do readers do when they get bored? They put down your book and stop reading.
Focus on a few key details that help orientate the reader. You have plenty of time to fill in the details of your story in the following pages, even for a short story.
Ernest Hemingway sets the stage nicely in The Old Man and the Sea.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
In the opening line to Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling gives us location, character development and a hint at the core themes of the book.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
One more thing…
Before potential readers sink their teeth into your strong hook, they’ve already had a taster: the title of your book. Your title is a snapshot of your story, the essence drilled down to one, two, or three words. It is a mini hook that can pull in your target audience with emotionally impactful language that piques their curiosity.
Keep it up.
A great hook is the first step in creating interest in a reader, but use these techniques sparingly. You are telling a story and with that comes balancing the reader’s curiosity with answering the questions or explaining the hints you’ve dropped. Be sure to fill in some of those blanks early on, while holding the larger reveals for later. Readers want to know their hunches were correct or find out why they were wrong.
Pro-tip: Mystery authors, or those of you with a mystery in your books, can sustain the hook by using a Russian doll type method: as you open one doll or reveal the answer to one question, just like there is a smaller doll inside, propose another question to be puzzled out.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
A well-written hook will capture a reader’s interest and draw them into your story. It’s the first tasty morsel to sample the meal that is your book. Think about what draws you into reading a story and try out the different techniques above to create your own engaging hook.