What is your story hook? That can be one of the most frustrating questions for any author—for two reasons. Either you have no idea what your hook is, or you have no idea how to describe it.
The good news is both of these scenarios are quite common.
The bad news is they’re both deep doo-doo if you’re hoping to:
a) Write a book worth reading.
b) Convince anyone to read it.
For many authors, the big trouble in finding or creating a story hook is that it’s sometimes tough to see the forest for the trees. The hook is the tiniest of entry points into your vast and fascinating story. When you’re the ringmaster at the center of the circus—the one on the inside looking out—it can be downright tricky to figure out the best way to lure people inside the tent to see your fabulous show.
However, if you can’t find the entry point to your story, it often signals a bigger problem than just marketing trouble. It’s first and foremost a sign you’re struggling to find an awareness of and control over your story.
Fortunately, we’re gonna fix that today.
The Two Different Functions of a Story Hook
When writers talk about “the hook,” they might be talking about either of two related but different things.
1. The Hook in the Premise
This is the unique aspect of your story premise. It’s what makes your story stand out from all the other “different but same” stories in your genre. If you’re lucky, it’s what lifts your idea into the rarefied air of the eagerly sought-after “high-concept premise” that makes agents, editors, and producers see green $$$ and start salivating.
This is what screenwriter William C. Martell is talking about in his book Your Idea Machine when he asks:
If a viewer had a list of 100 indie movie loglines in a TV guide or the onscreen cable guide—just a handful of words to describe each film—why would they select your film? What is the core element that makes your story idea different than the others?
Q. What makes Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn different from other epic fantasies?
A. A unique magic system.
Q. What makes John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars different from other YA romances?
A. The protagonists are both dying.
Q. What makes Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple different from other whodunits?
A. The detective is a sweet little old lady.
Q. What makes Charles Portis’s True Grit different from other westerns?
A. It’s about a teenage girl bringing outlaws to justice.
Q. What makes The Book Thief different from other World War II stories?
A. It’s narrated by Death.
And the list goes on and on. There are no new stories, but almost all the truly memorable incarnations feature some unique element—however small—that offers a new slant on the same ol’ tale. If you remove any of the unique elements from the stories above, what’s left? Not something most of us would care much about reading, huh?
2. The Hook in the First Chapter
The other manifestation of the story hook is as the all-important structural element in your first chapter. This is a carefully chosen scene that serves to introduce the premise hook, grab readers, and pull them into the story.
Authors often mistake the structural hook for the Inciting Event (which occurs halfway through the First Act at approximately the 12% mark and in which the protagonist has his first direct encounter with the main conflict via his Call to Adventure). The hook is not the event that incites the story’s main conflict. But it is the first domino in the line of events that create your story’s seamless narrative weave. In that sense, it is the moment that begins everything.
But it’s more than that too. Above all else, it is a representative of your premise hook. If you think of the premise as a promise, then the first chapter is where that promise will initially be either kept or broken.
Why You Must Know Your Story Hook
The hook in your premise will define your entire story. The sooner you can identify and solidify your story hook, the more control you will have over creating your story’s entire narrative. This is yet another reason I love outlines: before I ever begin my first draft, I know my premise and its possibilities inside out. But even if you prefer to discover your story in the narrative drafting stage, you still need to have a firm grasp of your premise in time to let it influence your revisions.
If you fail to understand your premise, you will also fail to understand your story.
Whaaa? You tellin’ me I don’t know my own story, girl?
Yep, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. If you can’t find and identify this tiny beating of your entire story, then chances are excellent your story doesn’t actually have a beating heart. Or, just as likely, it’s struggling along, like Frankestein’s homunculus, torn between multiple hearts, all fighting each other to be top dog.
The result is a mess—and a sure indication of an author who has no control over his creation.
On the other hand, when you have a firm grasp of your story’s premise, you automatically have a solid understanding of what your story is about. And when you know what your story is about, you will be able to direct its narrative with confidence in making the proper choices for its best interest at every step of the process.
Even better—when people (even agents!) ask you what your story is about (which is always code for: why should I care?), you’ll never have to struggle for an appropriate answer.
How to Use Your Story Hook to Create Your Opening Chapter
Your understanding of your story hook will influence every bit of your narrative. But the very first decision it will help you make is in your first chapter.
This always makes me happy. Why? Because the first chapter is arguably one of the most difficult chapters to write in the entire book. There is just so much an author must get right in order to properly introduce and set up the rest of the story. The most important of those first-chapter tasks is always, always, always entertaining readers.
If you did your job right in creating an interesting and unique story hook in your premise, then you’ve halfway hooking readers. So here they are looking at your first chapter. What are they going to find? Does it resonate with the expectations raised by the story premise? Even more importantly, does it fulfill those expectations?
Are you seeing the parallel here?
The hook in your story premise must create the structural hook in your story’s opening chapter. They’re linked. The premise says, “Here’s what this story’s about, and I promise you’re going to like it.” The opening chapter then says, “Here’s the story! It’s everything you wanted it to be, isn’t it?”
2 Ways to Introduce Your Premise in Your First Chapter
Sounds easy enough, right? But how do you do that? How do you leverage your premise to choose a gripping and fulfilling opening scene?
Start by asking yourself these two questions:
1. Is the Premise Present in the First Chapter?
The first and most obvious step is simply to make sure your premise is actually in your opening chapter. Whatever is interesting about your premise needs to either make an appearance or at least be teased right off the bat. There are two ways to do this.
1. Show the Premise in Action
In some stories, the premise will need to be developed over the course of many chapters in order to reach fruition (see #2, below), but in others, it can be shown in its full glory right from the start.
- In Fault in Our Stars, the promised premise is immediately available to readers: the protagonist has cancer, goes to a cancer support group, meets her love interest.
- Same deal in The Book Thief. Readers are immediately introduced to the narrator Death (and the promised book thieving).
- This is also an approach I was able to use in my historical/dieselpunk adventure Storming, which promised readers a woman falling out of the sky and gave them that in the very first lines.
Flying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war-surplus Curtiss JN-4D, meant being ready for anything. But in Hitch’s thirteen years of experience, this was the first time “anything” had meant bodies falling out of the night sky smack in front of his plane.
2. Introduce the First Piece That Kicks Off the Premise
Other premises will need to be developed more slowly. If you were to immediately plunge readers up to their necks in the premise’s action, nothing would make sense and the hook would ultimately fail for lack of context.
However, this doesn’t mean you still can’t open with a piece of the hook. Just as the opening chapter itself is the first domino in your plot’s line of events, the structural hook can also be the first domino in a careful buildup to the premise’s full promised power.
- True Grit offers a hook that is more situational than those previously mentioned. The protagonist Mattie Ross can’t go after the outlaws until she has a reason to: first, her father’s death, then the local law establishment’s refusal/inability to measure up to her ideals. But the first chapter still neatly introduces its premise hook in its opening line:
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood….
- Mistborn offers much the same with a prologue (one that actually works!) that sets up the political and social situation, along with an outside view of central character Kelsier, with hints at his exciting abilities and his fervor for the rising cause of revolution.
- This was the approach I used in my portal fantasy Dreamlander. Its premise promises the protagonist will enter a parallel fantasy world through the access point of his dreams, but this event doesn’t actually happen until the Inciting Event. Still, I was able to immediately pay off the premise in the first line:
Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you. But this was one was sure trying its best.
2. Can the premise be represented in microcosm in a cohesive opening episode?
Because the first chapter will introduce your protagonist in her Normal World before she has encountered the story’s main conflict, you will rarely want to open with that conflict in its full-blown state. Instead, you must create ways to introduce the character’s status quo, while still balancing the promise of the conflict to come.
An interesting way to approach this is to think of your first chapter as a mini-episode all its own. It presents a characterizing “story”—complete with beginning, middle, and end—that gives readers a glimpse of your main plot in the form of a symbolic microcosm.
This won’t work for all stories, but it is a common gambit in some movies.
- Peter Weir opens Master and Commander: Far Side of the World with an intense naval battle that immediately pays off his historical story’s premise.
- P.J. Hogan’s adaptation of Peter Pan opens with Wendy’s jovial if gruesome telling of her favorite pirate story—about the ruthless, blue-eyed Captain Hook—which both symbolizes and literally foreshadows what is to come.
- Ridley Scott’s Gladiator opens with what is a (strictly speaking) nonessential battle sequence that functions to introduce the characters and their Normal World—and, just as importantly, to pay off the premise and hook viewers.
- This is the approach I used in my medieval epic Behold the Dawn, which opens with a (strictly speaking) nonessential battle sequence that introduces the protagonist’s brutal Normal World and leads directly into the actual plot’s first domino.
2 Questions to Double Check You’ve Chosen the Right Opening
After you’ve chosen a gripping and promise-fulfilling opening, double check it against the following questions to make sure you’re balancing the needs of the hook against the cohesion of the rest of the story. The most challenging balancing act of the opening chapter is remembering it isn’t just about hooking readers, but also about setting up the story to come.
1. Is Your Opening Scene the First Domino in Your Plot?
The trickiest trick of the opening is finding a hook that perfectly symbolizes your premise, grabs readers’ attention—and is still the first domino in your story’s narrative. It cannot stand by itself. Even if it is clearly a “standalone” episode (as in Gladiator and my Behold the Dawn), it must still lead into the main plot.
- The opening battle scene in Gladiator immediately moves into Emperor Aurelius trying to pass his throne to protagonist Maximus—which leads to the Inciting Event when the emperor’s jealous son murders him.
- The opening battle scene in Behold the Dawn leads directly to the protagonist’s confrontation with the “heretic” monk known as the Baptist, who turns out to be an important face from his past, prompting the protagonist’s journey to the Crusade in the Holy Land.
2. Is Your Opening Scene Focused on the Setup of the Normal World?
Here’s another tricky balancing act of the first chapter: it must begin with the characters in motion, wanting something pertinent to the main story goal, and doing something that will eventually lead them to a meeting with the main story conflict—and yet, the first chapter isn’t about the main conflict. Not yet.
The first eighth of your story is your opportunity for setup. The characters will have goals and meet obstacles, but neither will fully solidify until the main story goal and main conflict arrive in the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act. This means you will rarely want to open your first chapter with the big guns of your main conflict. Instead, you must figure out how to set all that up, while still being as fascinating as possible.
Read or watch any one of the stories I’ve cited about. They all pull this balance off masterfully, opening their stories in interesting, sometimes even intense moments, but still leaving room to build up to the main conflict in the Second Act.
Do Your Two Hooks Match Up? One Final Test
So now you’ve got a great hook for your premise and a great hook for your opening chapter. But how do you know it’s the right hook?
Easy. They match. The hook in the first chapter is a direct reflection and/or setup of the hook promised in your premise.
And if it’s not, then one or the other is wrong and you need to reevaluate your choices. Either you’ve started with a faulty premise (your story is really about something else), or you’ve chosen the wrong starting place to represent that premise. As Martell went on to say:
…the hook doesn’t just make the story sound interesting in order to attract an audience. It really defines the story itself and creates strong dramatic and emotional scenes. A hook is not just a gimmick. It’s a lens that we view the story through.
If you can discover and strengthen your story hook at every step in the process, you will have created an incomparable foundation for both your storytelling and, eventually, your marketing.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you represented your premise’s hook in your opening chapter’s hook? Tell me in the comments!
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