The Anatomy of a Good Hook
by Natalie C. Parker
If you’re writing a novel (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), there are a few key words and phrases you’re more than a little likely to be familiar with. But there’s one thing we stress over like no other because so much rests on its small and elusive shoulders, one thing that if we don’t get it right, renders the rest of our work irrelevant because it likely won’t get read: the hook.
In June of this year, I signed with my agent. This immediately transformed me from level-headed writer to the sort of crazy that thinks it’s a great idea to celebrate by making a public offer to read and critique the first 5k of any manuscript every written. Within a week, I had 59 submissions and a half dozen people singing, “I told you so.” I spent the next month reading and critiquing work from people I’d, for the most part, never met.
I received all types of writing, and for the purposes of this post, I’ve broken down the numbers by category:
YA, total: 42
- Paranormal/Romance: 15
- Fantasy: 12
- Urban Fantasy: 7
- Dystopia: 4
- Contemporary: 2
- Historical Fantasy: 1
- Science Fiction: 1
MG, total: 8
- Fantasy: 3
- Paranormal: 3
- Contemporary: 2
ADULT, total: 9
- Fantasy: 3
- Urban Fantasy: 3
- Memoir: 2
- Paranormal Romance: 1
(Looking at that still has a dizzying effect on me.)
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was a very small window into the life of the Literary Agent Extraordinaire, who easily receives this number of submissions in a single day. And even more than that, it was a microstudy on the anatomy of a good hook.
From that collection of 59 very different manuscripts, 7 hooked me so well I did one of two things in my response: offered a critique of the full manuscript or told the author I believed they would soon have an agent (it’s worth noting that at least one of these people recently received representation). If I were an agent, I might have requested fulls and partials from each of these 7. So the question is, what did their hooks have that the other 52 didn’t?
Three things which, taken all together, make up the anatomy of a well-drawn hook: a point, a barb, and an eye.
(If it isn’t already clear, we’ll be using actual hooks as the basis for this metaphor. Any kind will do – fish hooks, grappling hooks, pirate hooks, you name it, they all do what the beginning of your novel should….they hook. … Moving on.)
These manuscripts all had opening lines that made some sort of impression. They weren’t all amazing or heartachingly beautiful or so unique I couldn’t imagine ever reading anything like it again, but they all did something to pique my interest. They were the point of the needle against the skin, the first sensation that there was something there worth paying attention to.
We’ve all heard a lot of “rules” about what should and shouldn’t be found in your first line. I think that nothing is set in stone. Write the opening line that gives us the most intriguing entry into your story.
A first line isn’t necessarily good because it’s mind-blowing in its self-contained awesomeness, but because it’s so sharp the reader didn’t realize they moved past it eagerly.
As an example, I’ll use Beloved by Toni Morrison, which has one of the most plain yet captivating first lines I’ve ever read:
124 was spiteful.
It’s a small statement, full of voice, but it tells me very little about the story to follow. What it does do is raise my curiosity and invite me to ask what exactly is 124? And why is it so spiteful?
You’ve made your opening play and convinced the reader to keep going, but there’s a good chance that your first line has only bought you a short amount of time. This is the point where a reader goes, “Huh, this sounds intriguing, I wonder…” You’ve got to keep convincing them that there’s something worth reading here and your first line wasn’t just a happy accident.
The five or six lines that immediately follow your first are what I’ll call the barb in this metaphor – the small bit of story that gets under your skin, that tugs you forward with just the slightest hints of pressure. They must be tight, intriguing, and they must continue to deliver on the promises made in that first line. The barb is a good place for some hints of exposition, some small reveal of character and voice, some slight gesture of the plot on the horizon, and some sense of what is at stake.
Morrison’s barb is hard to miss. She gives us a sense of the deep meaning behind her opening line, revealing that it isn’t sarcastic or melodramatic, but a reality for the family that lives in the house at 124.
Full of baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the sign for Buglar); as soon as two tiny handprints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door-sill.
The last piece of the hook in this, perhaps crude metaphor is the eye, which performs the crucial act of connecting your painstakingly crafted hook to the rest of your story. This can come immediately following the barb or shortly thereafter, but certainly should exist within your first chapter.
In the case of Beloved, we get a little more exposition before the eye of the hook shows up a few paragraphs past the barb. But when it does, it cinches tightly around the work already accomplished by the previous pieces and makes additional promises to the reader of what’s to come – Sethe and Denver will confront the spirit in their home that has already done so much to tear their family apart. The eye is a moment of clarity in the story, your promise to the reader that change is coming.
It’s important to remember that your hook isn’t just the first line of a story, but a concert of parts acting together – the first line that pulls you in soundlessly or with a bang, the follow-up that adds depth and meaning to that first line making it as real as the Velveteen Rabbit, and the moment of clarity that connects the starting point to the rest of the novel.
It’s probably also important to remember that you will never write the perfect hook. Like everything else in writing, there’s no perfect formula and no way to ensure you’ve written one that will attract 100% of readers.
But why not give it a shot?