Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.
Our discussion of story structure very naturally begins at the beginning—and the beginning of any good story is its hook. Unless you hook readers into your story from the very first chapter, they won’t swim in deep enough to experience the rest of your rousing adventure, no matter excellent it is.
What is a hook?
The hook comes in many forms, but stripped down to its lowest common denominator, the hook is nothing more or less than a question. If we can pique our readers’ curiosity, we’ve got ‘em. Simple as that. The beginning of every story should present character, setting, and conflict. But, in themselves, none of these represent a hook. We’ve created a hook only when we’ve convinced readers to ask the general question, “What’s going to happen?” because we’ve also convinced them to ask a more specific question, such as “What scary reptilian monster killed the worker?” (Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton) or “How does a city hunt?” (Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve).
Where does the hook belong?
Because your ability to convince the reader to keep reading is dependent on your hook, it must be present as early as possible in your first scene. In fact, if you can get it into your first line, so much the better. However, the hook must be organic. Teasing readers with a killer opening line (“Mimi was dying again”) only to reveal all is not as seems (turns out Mimi is an actress performing her 187th death scene) not only negates the power of your hook, it also betrays readers’ trust. And readers don’t like to be betrayed. Not one little bit.
Examples from film and literature
Now that we’ve got a basic idea of what a hook is and where it belongs, let’s consider a few examples. I’ve selected two movies and two books (two classics and two recent), which we’ll use as examples throughout this series, so you can follow the story arc as presented in popular and successful media. Let’s take a look at how the professionals hook us so successfully we never realize we’ve swallowed the worm.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): Austen begins by masterfully hooking us with her famous opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The subtle irony gives us a sense of conflict from the very first and lets us know that neither the wife in search of the fortune nor the man in search of the wife will find their goals so easily. Austen deepens the pull of her hook in her opening paragraph by further highlighting the juxtaposition of her opening statement with the realities of her plot, and then deepens it still further in the entirety of the opening scene, which introduces readers to the Bennet family in such a way that we not only grow interested in the characters, but also realize both the thrust of the plot and the difficulties of the conflict.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): Capra opens with a successful framing device that hooks the reader with a sneak peek of the climax. The movie opens at the height of the main character’s troubles and immediately has us wondering why George Bailey is in such a fix that the whole town is praying for him. Next thing we know, we’re staring at an unlikely trio of angels, manifested as blinking constellations. The presentation not only fascinates us with its unexpectedness, it also succinctly expresses the coming conflict and stakes and engages the reader with a number of specific need-to-know questions.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): The opening line to Card’s acclaimed science-fiction novel is packed with hooking questions: “‘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.’” Just like that, Card’s got us wondering how the speaker is watching and listening through someone’s else’s mind, who is the one, what is the one supposed to do, and why are they settling for a “one” who is less than perfect? He then successfully builds his killer opening into a scene that introduces his unlikely hero, six-year-old Ender Wiggin, just as his life is about to change forever.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): As a brilliant adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Aubrey/Maturin series, this movie is unusual in a number of areas, not least in its non-formulaic tone and plot. Nevertheless, it follows the requirements of structure to a T, beginning with its stark opening, showing the morning ritual aboard the man of war HMS Surprise. Aside from arousing our natural curiosity about the unique setting, the hook doesn’t appear until a minute or so into the film when one of the sailors spots what might be an enemy ship. The film never slows to explain the situation to the reader. It carries them through a few tense moments of uncertainty and indecision, then, almost without warning, plunges them into the midst of a horrific sea battle. Viewers are hooked almost before they see the hook coming.
So what can we learn from these masterful hooks?
1. Hooks should be inherent to the plot.
2. Hooks don’t always involve action, but they always set it up.
3. Hooks never waste time.
4. Hooks almost always pull double or triple duty in introducing character, conflict, and plot—and even setting and theme.
Our hook is our first chance to impress readers, and like it or not, first impressions are usually make or break territory. Plan your hook carefully and wow readers so thoroughly they won’t ever forget the moment your story first grabbed them.
Stay tuned: Next week, we talk about the First Act.
Tell me your opinion: How early in your story is your hook found?
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