Critique: 7 Possible Hooks for Your Opening Chapter

What are some good hooks for your opening chapter? This is a question every writer must ask at the beginning of a story. How can we introduce the story and the characters in a plot-pertinent way that also deeply interests readers?

A good hook sets your book apart. It promises readers you’re going to deliver something worth their time—whether it’s a familiar genre romp or something they’ve never quite seen before. It signals you know what you’re doing and you’re offering a story that will keep them intrigued on every page.

Although hooks for your opening chapter are often specialized (to the point writers sometimes spend far more time learning how to write a good first chapter than they do the rest of the book), mastering the opening-chapter hook will provide you with the skills to keep hooking readers over and over as the story progresses.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the eighth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Stuart Sweet for sharing from his space opera The Santa María. Let’s take a look! The bolded entries and subscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in the subsequent section.

The entirety of the human race gathered before screens of all dimensions.1 Almost no job was too urgent to postpone nor any person too apathetic to hear what was going to be said. The Captain by the name of Charles2 was to address the solar system with a short speech mere hours after revelations of doomsday predictions of an unlikely planet with an impossible threat.3 On the Santa María4, the captain looked up at the camera.

“Dear friends, comrades, colleagues and all assembled members of the human race, speaking to you now is Captain Charles Mendoza Davies of the NSC Santa María en route to the rogue planet known as Deucalion, astronomical designation NSIS 976704-154614, on its hazardous, and indeed precarious, multi-year voyage to ascertain the level of threat that exists, if any, to meet it head on, and to do so on behalf of the human species. As you are all no doubt, well aware by now, current projections place the rogue planet entering our solar system within a few degrees of our ecliptic and within several AU of the planet Earth, with certain models suggesting terrible consequences for the interactions that could follow. Turning now to the question of our chances of success, shared by every mind who listens, I am assured by every authority that the ingenuity and the imagination of the people who have worked so hard on this project are without peer. The novelty of their adopted methods and the passion displayed in exploring every outlandish concept and idea have proved to be an exercise in a bridleless passion to reach out to the space between the stars, beyond our own realm for the first time, and a love for the human race without comparison. I, myself, have the full confidence that the best arrangements have been made, that no precaution has been neglected and that we will fulfill our duties and prove ourselves with the utmost resolve once more, and for many additional years if required, until we have achieved that which we have set out to do. If necessary, we shall defend, to the death, the balance that we Homo Sapiens have established here on our home territory, wherever there is another gram of soil to nurture or another person to call one’s own and to cherish with all of the profound maturity that our species finally has within its grasp.”

Charles paused to take a deep breath and refocus his eyes on the tiny camera on the wall panel before continuing. Although exhausted5, the rest of the room sat enchanted and still, enjoying what they were sure was a sacred moment of history in the making.

“It is my hope that this mission will further inspire us all to put aside our differences and cast away our divisions6 in favour of a united and continued future of interstellar progress. The crew here and myself have all made serious choices and many sacrifices in order to embark on a mission without guarantees on the precipice of the unknown. Now that our collective will has been resolved and asserted, we shall continue on until the very end. We shall prevail, despite the coming storms of adversity for our small boat upon an open expanse of the endless abyss. We shall fight to make scientific discoveries, even if our ship should fly off course and the misfortunes of the oceans beyond the edge of the map prove to be too great.7 We shall fight at every stage of the journey against the challenges that befall us no matter what the personal cost may be. And if the terrible fate should transpire that the majority of this crew were to perish or starve, we shall struggle on until our rescue or until the very end of our existence, accepting that no matter what the outcome, we will have added to our corpus of scientific knowledge and to the great human experience, and that our burial at sea will allow the individual photons of trillions of stars to shine their brilliance upon us, reflecting back into the darkness until the edges of the known universe, forever travelling at the speed of light to places beyond our comprehension, taking our hopes with them, where only our dreams may dare to follow.”

Although these paragraphs hint at a lot of good information and interesting situations, their foundational problem is that the speech comes across as an info dump. This could be problematic anywhere in the book but is particularly hazardous as an opening. Stuart didn’t specify whether this was an excerpt from the first chapter or not. When I first read it, I assumed that it was, and for the purposes of this post I will be treating it as if it is comprises the opening hook. However, even if it is an excerpt pulled from later in the book, many of the same ideas could still be applied.

7 Types of Hooks for Your Opening Chapter (or Anywhere Else in Your Book)

We know a hook is something interesting. It gets readers to at least subconsciously ask an implicit question that piques their curiosity about your story. But beyond simply the idea of a hook as a question, let’s consider several specific types of hook you can use in your own opening chapter. You can use one or all of them, and you can keep using them throughout your book to pull readers’ attention ever deeper into the narrative.

The potential for each of these types of hook is already present in Stuart’s excerpt. By changing the format a little to avoid the info dump and instead focus more attention on dramatizing the characters and their conflict, the inherent promise of these hooks could be amplified to truly grab readers.

1. The “Why” Hook

This is the most basic and most important type of hook. This is the type of hook that immediately prompts readers to engage with the story by asking a question. Why is this happening?

The excerpt opens with a form of this hook: “The entirety of the human race gathered before screens of all dimensions.”

Immediately, readers are prompted to ask “why?” This is helped along by the incongruent specific “the entirety of the human race” (consider how different this hook would be were it simply about one person looking at a screen), which clues readers in on the fact that something is amiss.

2. The “Character” Hook

Your second best hook, which can be used alone but should always follow the “why” hook, is your characters—specifically your protagonist. Except in certain kinds of purposefully distant narratives, it’s best to begin with your protagonist as the first character mentioned and/or as the character whose innate viewpoint immediately reveals any prior information.

Our excerpt opens with what amounts to a head-hop, showing something outside the protagonist’s POV (humanity watching the screens), but it does promptly give readers a named character with whom to identify. It also gives us a Characteristic Moment that implies pertinent facts about this man—although the effect would be much stronger were these facts dramatized in a scene rather than info-dumped in a lengthy monologue.

3. The “Catastrophe” Hook

One of the most popular hooks for your opening chapter is that of the catastrophe. This is technically a “why” hook, but it is focused less on curious incongruities and more on shock and awe.

Usually when writers first learn about the concept of opening a story in medias res—or “in the middle” of things—they think it means opening with a catastrophe. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it can be extremely effective. However, as Stuart shows, the best approach is usually to open immediately after the catastrophe, so you can dramatize your characters’ reactions. In an opening chapter, when readers don’t yet have a reason to identify with characters, reactions are often better hooks than actions.

4. The “Setting” Hook

Setting, in itself, won’t always be a hook. But by its very specificity, naming a good setting at the outset can often provide readers with coveted details that will draw them into your story world. Sometimes the mention of an interesting setting (such as Stuart’s spaceship the Santa María) is enough to perk reader interest.

Often, readers develop specific predilections for certain kinds of settings, especially those related to genre. But you can also use setting details to hint at more of those curious incongruities—for example, a king in a cell or an orphaned waif at a coming-out ball.

5. The “Contradicting Emotions” Hook

Hinting at anything that seems contradictory is a great way to hook readers. The contradictions must be honest (i.e., not twisted through wordplay to suggest something is out of the ordinary when really it’s not), but used properly they are one of the single best setups for scene conflict.

You can offer these contradictions outright in the scene drama, but you can also choose the subtler but no less effective route of hinting at a character’s contradictory emotions. Stuart does this in the excerpt simply by introducing the word “although” in “although exhausted.” This, again, appears as a head-hop out of the captain’s narrative, but it hints at the interesting events that just happened and how the captain might still be processing them.

6. The “Inherent Problem” Hook

For my money, the single most interesting line in the excerpt is this one: “[I] hope this mission will further inspire us all to put aside our differences and cast away our divisions.”

This line hints at the inherent problems and potential conflict already sown within the fabric of the story. It immediately makes me want to know more about what’s afoot with the crew; it suggests inner conflict that will complicate the external catastrophe with which the characters must contend.

This is one of the best tricks for hooking readers in medias res. It doesn’t require fireworks or lots of action; it just points at relationships and dilemmas that are already in motion and therefore brimming with the promise of subtext.

7. The “Goal” Hook

Finally, one of the foundational principles for hooking readers (and avoiding info dumps) in your opening chapter is promptly establishing forward momentum. Even if you’re focusing on your characters’ reaction to events that have already happened, you should immediately look for ways to get them moving toward the problem’s initial solution and their next scene goal.

Characters sitting around are never as interesting as characters who are wanting, seeking, and doing. This goal doesn’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) be something monumental at this point, but it should be specific. If it is characterizing and curious as well, so much the better.

***

Hooks for your opening chapter are some of the hardest-working elements in your entire story. If you can master them, you’ll not only be able to pull readers into your first chapter, you’ll also be able to reuse the technique to great effect over and over throughout your story.

My thanks to Stuart for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What have you used as hooks for your opening chapter? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. First of all KM I owe u a great debt of gratitude. Your books and blog have catapulted me from a fumbling writer to a confident wordplayer.
    In my current WIP I have two protagonists. One is a modern day teen and one is a fantasy princess.
    The true MC is the modern day teen since she’s the one who’s catapulted to the fantasy world in order to learn certain lessons.
    So which character should the opening chapter feature? I would think the modern girl should start off because I want the readers to primarily identify with her. The thing is the fantasy world is that much more intriguing. I believe it will do a better job hooking the readers.
    What do u think?
    Also, how can I make my character more likable in the beginning?
    At the outset of the story she has inherent flaws that are necessary for the plot, but I don’t believe readers will want to stick around with a character who’s insecure and doubts her abilities.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would start with the protagonist, the modern girl. As for making her likable, really what’s more important is making her relatable and interesting. I would search for a strong characteristic moment that is fun to read about.

      • Can the characteristic moment be something not inherently connected to the plot?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It doesn’t have to be directly related to the main conflict, but it does need to be the first domino, in that its scene structure directly builds into the next scene’s and so on.

          • Thanks so much! That’s some food for thought.
            I’m getting very stuck on my opening scenes. I feel like they’re not interesting enough.

  2. This is really helpful, thank you! The opening chapter is my biggest challenge at the moment, so I am bookmarking this post for inspiration!

  3. Hi, if anybody feels like looking at one more opening 😉 I would be very grateful to hear whether this hook works. (The text is translated, so please let me apologize in advance for any translation errors I may have made. Genre: thriller.)

    Thank you!

    – – – – – – – – – – –

    First day on the job and then this assignment. Bad luck did not even begin to describe it.
    Samantha took her foot of the gas pedal. The Jeep Cherokee patrol car began to slow down as straight ahead, a lonely road sign emerged from the costal mist. The sign was almost brand new, she realized when she came closer. A fact betrayed not so much by the fresh colors or the lack of rust, but by the small number of bullet holes. ’You are entering the Sovereign Nation of the Quaitso Tribe’, the sign proclaimed. Most of the bullets – Samantha counted just five holes in total – had been aimed at the word ‘sovereign’.
    The slightly smaller sign underneath had not been so lucky. Samantha knew it had once read ‘toll charges may apply’, because the same sign had been here nineteen years ago. What was left of it now, resembled a frail tin frame with a large jagged hole in the middle – looking more like the result of a torpedo attack than individual bullets. Like the remains of a bitter war fought here just yesterday, Samantha thought. She knew that this was painfully close to the truth. Just like she knew that this would make what she had to do next, so much harder if not downright impossible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like it. The setting is evocative and raises questions.

    • Jutta, I would rearrange this to make it more immediate, more in her POV:

      A lonely road sign emerged from the coastal mist. Samantha took her foot off the gas pedal and the Jeep Cherokee patrol car began to slow down.

      The sign must be almost brand new, she realized, because it had so few bullet holes. ’You are entering the Sovereign Nation of the Quaitso Tribe’, it proclaimed. Most of the bullets – Samantha counted just five holes in total – had been aimed at the word ‘sovereign’.

      The slightly smaller sign underneath had not been so lucky. Samantha knew it had once read ‘toll charges may apply’, because the same sign had been here nineteen years ago. But now it was just a frail tin frame with a large jagged hole in the middle – like the result of a torpedo attack, the remains of a bitter war fought here just yesterday. She knew that this was painfully close to the truth. Just like she knew that this would make what she had to do next so much harder if not downright impossible. She sighed. First day on the job, and now this.

      • I think maybe: The slightly smaller sign underneath was not so young.

      • But was she surprised by the bullet holes? She should not be surprised. But then why were the bullet holes bad news or bad luck? Why would the bullet holes make her job “harder” ?

  4. Eliana the Writer says

    I have been reading Structuring Your Novel, and it has been really helpful for the novel I’m outlining, thanks! I have a question though. I was reading about scenes, and the two not-scenes—an incident and a happening. I think my novel begins with a happening, not an actual scene. My MC meets another girl, who fits in the “Chosen One” archetype, though my MC doesn’t know that. I’ll raise questions, but there aren’t any “disasters” until a little later. So my question is, is it ok to start a story with a “happening“? Thanks in advance!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      An opening like this often has the feel of (or is) a prologue. It’s intended to be an intriguing snapshot. And it *can* be effective, but it’s also tricky and relies mostly on the artistry of the prose and the scene-setting. These types of openings tend to utilize atmosphere more than momentum to pull readers in.

  5. Hi,
    Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into helping other writers.

    KSWhite

  6. Staci Ana says

    Great post!!! So helpful!!

    One quick question though. So, I’m writing a novel about a superhero and I’m not sure how to begin, since I decided to begin it with a prologue. I was thinking that since the antagonist begins the story basically, shouldn’t he be in the first scene? But then I decided to leave him unnamed and then turn it into a prologue.

    What do you think of prologues? Should I have named who he was? And more importantly, it begins after something had happened.

    Shattered glass littered the interior of the car. Blood dripped down the side of the driver’s window.

    So, it’s after the accident, immediately after and it goes on to explain how the young man was unconscious and several pedestrians helped him and his younger sister out. It lastly states:

    The young driver was going to be all right. The eight-year-old-girl was not.

    Is that too depressing and does it even have enough action in it? Should it be the prologue or should it be the first chapter??

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