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. I think I’m deeply committed to the “Why” hook. I like opening in the middle of action, trying to get the reader to ask what is going on, and then having the answer ask more questions:

    Run from the Stars:
    Lieutenant Jane Gould pressed the button firmly and the stars began to go out. They faded first from the aft edge of the flight deck window, reddening and dwindling away as the field took hold. Then the orthodynamic drive lifted the ship right out of real space and she was looking at the other universe behind the darkness.

    Turn to the Stars:
    As Lieutenant Jane Gould settled the eighty-footer into the long approach to New California’s only spaceport her piercing blue eyes scanned the chronometer for the twentieth time.
    Thirty miles to run to the runway threshold. Ten minutes until the spaceship’s wheels touched down, then another twenty to a complete disaster. By the time she’d landed, parked, sprinted back to the terminal, and crossed the sprawl of Sacramento the one man who had the power to destroy the planet would be free.

    Seek for the Stars:
    Lieutenant Jane Gould brought the spaceship still lower, running almost due east along the line of the broad, sandy beach. Her diamond-blue eyes scanned the vast, empty space, the paradise that had become an interstellar killing ground.

    Star Knight:
    Regina Catesby, having run out of options, pointed the nose of the shuttle at the exact centre of the interstellar liner’s aft airlock and fired the main engines. The shuttle lurched forwards and smashed through the tough alloy outer door, crumpling it like tinfoil. Most of the instrument panel went blank as the shuttle ground to a halt, one quarter of its length embedded in the liner. Behind her there was an ominous chuff and a draft – the shuttle was losing cabin pressure. She grabbed her helmet and, as she slammed it on to the neck ring of her pressure suit, she began to hear the ship-to-ship channel in its internal speaker.

    Tom Twine:
    Go in the boys’ toilets at Church Road primary school, the downstairs ones, next to the art room, and count the cubicles. Are there five or six? And if there are six is the one at the left hand end, by the window, ever working? Or (when there are six) does it always have an “Out Of Order” sign taped on the door, and the lock nobbled so that you can’t get in?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The “why” hook is probably my favorite too. Very versatile.

    • “When there are six” is most intriguing!

      But then “ever” and “always” imply several observations, which conflicts with “go in” which implies a single observation.

      • >> But then “ever” and “always” imply several observations, which conflicts with “go in” which implies a single observation. <<

        Well spotted! When I read this passage, I felt something was not quite right, but didn't realize what it was. That's exactly it. (Unless it was written this way on purpose – including an apparent mistake – e.g. because it hints at the person who came up with this strange demand. Although I don't think that's what it is.)

  2. I sometimes just write first sentences as a break from story writing. The hook below just became a novel!

    Pushed by the unseen hand of the Gulf currents that determine where the sea deposits its refuse, the body of a young girl drifted over a reef where I was diving. Had it not been for the shadow cast by her body, I might not have looked up.

    This seems to be a why+location hook. The paragraphs that follow explain why the protagonist is diving, how the shadow interrupted him and his reaction to seeing the dead girl.

    As she continued her trek eastward, she drifted past me and the sun returned. I didn’t want to go to her, to see what I knew was the tortured remains of a once living human being. I had seen ravaged bodies up close and dreaded the idea of seeing hers. But in a few minutes, she would be out of my sight, a tiny speck in the vast ocean that surrounded us. A voice whispered to let her go, but I couldn’t leave her to the whim of the wind and tide. She deserved better.

    Lots of whys …

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If the hook has the author asking “why?” that’s always the first step anyway. 😀

    • “Pushed by…a reef” put me into sort of an objective POV, and then I had to struggle to figure out that you were underwater, and change the movie in my head. It wasn’t until “looked up” that I really got the correct picture.
      What if you establish your POV and location (underwater, in diving gear) first?

      • I found it confusing as well. I first picture the person (more like a blob of a person as reader has no idea if it’s a man or woman) standing on a pier looking down into the water before he/she dove in. Then suddenly he/she was under water which of course pulled me out of the story making it all seem distant and no longer immersive.

    • Lindsey Russell says

      Strange some people read without registering what the words say. I established the scene was set in the sea and under water straight off.

      • To begin with: I like your opening scene, very refreshing and intriguing! Please forgive me for saying this, but “people read without registering what the words say” sounds a bit defensive, though, especially when followed up by “I established the scene was set in the sea and under water straight off”. 😉

        It’s often hard to see our own texts form the perspective of readers, because we have such a clear picture of the scene in our head, when we write it. In the end, it’s what the reader ‘sees’, though, that counts. I experienced the same quick change of perspective, when reading your opening. It was very quick. It happened within a single sentence, but it briefly got me confused as well, and it was the first sentence, so I might have put the book down at that point. That’s an unnecessary risk to take.

        I do understand that you like the first part of your sentence: “pushed by the unseen hand of the Gulf currents that determine where the sea deposits its refuse”, is beautifully written. I keep forgetting who said ‘kill your darlings’, but sometimes we have to: clarity is more important than beautiful words, especially in the first few sentences.

        If you would choose a simple opening, right away establishing that your protagonist is diving, your hook might work even better:

        “A couple of meters above me, the body of a young girl drifted over the reef where I was diving. Had it not been for the shadow cast by her body, I might not have looked up.”

        That is all the mystery I would need as a reader. 🙂 It’s a very intriguing scene, it doesn’t need beautifully crafted words to pull me in.

  3. For my autobiography I opened with a confession.

    From a palette of smog, the last rays of the dying day painted the sky drab and added a layer of murkiness to the room. On a plain wooden table, a half empty bottle of Rum stood guard over a death certificate.
    In the distance, a church bell rang. Its evangelistic zeal resonated in my mind like hammer blows of divine condemnation. ‘Yes, yes!’ I shouted at the steeple. ‘I killed him. It was me. I killed him. There was no alternative.’ The confession escaped on a cloud of alcoholic vapour and died in the empty room. Saying it aloud brought home the finality and the irreversibility of what I had done. And it felt good.
    The sound of the bell grew louder, more incessant.

    ‘Yes, I killed him.’ I slumped into a fake leather chair and let the words linger like a passionate kiss. ‘God knows, there was no other way.’
    I picked up my glass and contemplated my pathetic unshaven reflection captured in its crystal jail. For forty years I fought to escape his tortured mind, but now it’s done. He’s dead. There was nothing else I could do. My revelation must have appeased the church because that cursed ringing died.
    I got up and stared out of the window at the city, now only a dark silhouette against the evening sky. Marc was dead, yet he was here in this room, his presence palpable and mocking. He was dead, but I wasn’t rid of him. Frustration burned away my euphoria.
    I drank another mouthful and pointed at the cold white document on the table. ‘I shared that desolate hell that was your life, your moments of terror and your pathetic struggle to escape your destiny.’ The spirit released the anger that had long fermented in my mind. I threw back the last of the liquid and refilled my glass. ‘I cannot grieve your death because I hate you.’
    Then I turned and looked at the monotonous symmetry of the dimly lit windows of the buildings outside, and at the oppressive darkness that surrounded them. The alcohol blurred my thoughts, but that scene somehow reminded me of Marc’s struggle. Images of his turbulent life skipped through the fog of my nostalgia. He may be dead, but I was not rid of him.
    I looked down at the street below. ‘What guided his unfortunate destiny? How did he survive the complex tangle of psychological malaises that beset him?’ I asked the nameless passers-by walking toward their destiny.
    Compassion and guilt gnawed at my soul like a starving rat. I turned away from the window and the world outside. ‘I must tell his story. Maybe then they will understand why I had to kill him.’

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! I love learning about and playing with hooks. I view it as a puzzle with the end goal of getting the reader interested without misrepresenting the story.

    And I just saw the Patron button! Is that new? I’ll definitely become patron of yours. You give a ton of good writing advice!

  5. Thanks! Although not writing a book at this time, I will be sure to pass these on to my students in my Digital Storytelling class.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks! Appreciate the share. 🙂

      • Pepper Hume says

        Super! This is the clearest discussion I’ve ever seen of what constitutes a hook and how they function.

        I can see that I used five hooks in the first seven pages of Arbuckle:
        1. setting – a ferry crossing a springtime flooded river
        2. characters – Wolf & his horse Dante.
        3. goal – Wolf seeks refuge to rest
        4. why – why doesn’t Wolf have a specific destination, why did he leave those other towns?
        5. catastrophe – child falls overboard
        2a. characteristic moment – Wolf’s instant reaction to rescue her

        This early catastrophe has nothing to do with the rest of the story except to showcase his personality. HOWEVER! Wolf would never have heard of Arbuckle (and how to get there) if a fellow traveler had not approached him to congratulate him on the rescue, which wouldn’t have been needed if the kid hadn’t gone into the river because the ferry bucked just when it did, which was caused by its towline tangling with a huge branch on the flooded river. Almost makes an April flood the inciting incident!

        Which it isn’t really. The inciting incident happened in the town he just left, which is why he came to be on that ferry, but we won’t learn what exactly that was until page 177.

        In the balance of Chapter One, we meet five more principal characters and the town itself which will become somewhat a love interest character.

        Thank you! Although I always smile at your posts, always amazed at how that sweet-faced CHILD could teach us old dogs so much!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I will say I’ve gathered quite a few gray hairs since those pictures were taken seven years ago. :p

  6. Michael Grasso says

    Hi, thank you very much for this post. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say. I’m new to novel writing. I’m a film director and have written many screenplays but novels are another beast entirely. This quote is the first paragraph of The Spider on the Ceiling which I just recently published on Kindle. The chapter ends with a grisly murder inflicted by a teenaged girl on her supposed rapist.

    “The quaint delivery van pulls to a stop at the curb. Unlike utility vehicles that strive for anonymity, this one is designed to attract attention; a nostalgic tip of the hat to an earlier age before television, the internet, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great title!

    • Hi Michael,

      I really like your opening, but it also got me wondering: is it true? Do utility vans generally strive for anonymity these days? The ones I tend to see do not. They are still designed to attract attention. That made me wonder whether your story is set in the future, when this might not be true any more (but it feels more like a contemporary story)? I even started to wonder how delivery vans looked like before the invention of television and found it hard to imagine those old-timers were decorated in a more attention grabbing way than vans in modern times.

      So your opening made me ask a lot of questions, just possibly not the questions you intended your reader to ask?

      PS: of course, this might just be me!

  7. writerjackm says

    For Chapter One of my novel Healer’s Awakening, I chose characters and events, filtered through my main character’s eyes. I would appreciate any feedback.

    The woman asked Saint Jehan, “Why do you allow your faithful to suffer so? Why do you not send someone to help?”
    Saint Jehan answered, “I did send someone to help. I sent you.”
    —Ancient proverb

    The fly had been tormenting her since their stop at the fruit vendor’s stand. Valeriya slapped it away. Tomorrow night would be the first night of K’oina, the Raheshi celebration of their victory over Auriga. She and Mira had gone to buy provisions for Magister Nejemiya’s feast. The flies were an unrelenting problem, thanks to the marshy ground on which the city had been built, combined with the inferior drainage system that had plagued the Raheshis from earliest times. The Raheshi priests claimed that the god Sentet had commanded his Liberator Llud to build here. To Valeriya, flies, garbage and stink were a fitting legacy.
    The press of too many bodies in too small a space did not help. Valeriya knew the planners had designed the city to hold no more than fifty thousand, but the Holy Days swelled the population to at least twice that. Smells of sweat, dirt and dung rose from the mob of people, animals and slaves on all sides. Carts and wagons full of foodstuffs and livestock, silks and leather goods creaked past, pushing the foot traffic to the edges of the pavement. A brace of men in turbans and striped djellabas had gathered around one cart to examine the tomatoes and melons the vendor was proudly displaying.
    She went a little ahead of Mira as they plunged into the throng, trying to clear a path for her. “Be careful, dear,” she directed, taking the girl’s hand. She did not usually risk even so much as touching Mira, but in this crowd she hoped it would not be noticed.
    “I’m with you, Valeriya,” Mira assured her. “This isn’t any worse than market-day when I was back home. And I was littler then.” The girl had grown since Valeriya had intervened on her behalf, yet she was thinner and paler than a girl of twelve should be. The ragged slave garment hung like a sack from her narrow shoulders.
    Her red hair reminded Valeriya of Anneke, the sister Valeriya had killed at Khazandar. She had some of Anneke’s impulsive nature, as well, the woman thought, perhaps too much. It took considerable doing on Valeriya’s part to keep Mira from getting herself noticed by Magister Nejemiya.
    “Just you keep a tight grip on my hand,” Valeriya answered. “And remember what I told you to call me.”
    “All right, Most Favored,” the girl said, with a sarcastic emphasis. Valeriya halted to look at her. Mira’s mouth twisted, in a haunting echo of Anneke.
    “Don’t be fresh,” the woman said. “You know why.”
    The girl nodded, saying nothing, but her look spoke more than words. Valeriya sighed, shook her head, and kept on.
    Slaves hurried to be off the streets before curfew, their arms laden with boxes and wrapped packages of meat, fish and vegetables. More than once, Valeriya caught the glare of hateful eyes as the women noticed her blue shift. She told herself to ignore the ugly looks, that only Saint Jehan could know what was in her heart, but she could almost hear the unspoken accusations. Traitor. Blasphemer.
    Yet the blue shift that set her apart also covered the evidence of Nejemiya’s tender mercies. Life as a slave had left her body a pattern of welts and bruises, carved deep hollows in her cheeks, and traced shadows around her brown eyes. The slaves who accused her did not see those details.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would suggest opening with a paragraph that focuses on something other than the flies. It’s a good descriptive detail, but not a hook.

      • Hi Katie! Thank you for not telling me what I wanted to hear! But it’s what I needed to hear, if I want to improve my writing! Sorry it took me so long to thank you. I appreciate your always sensible and useful advice.

    • writerjackm, Six names introduced in one paragraph were too much for me. I got overwhelmed and at about the word “city” stopped reading and started skimming. It’s kind of info-dumpy.

      Sorry.

      What’s going on with this character other than that she doesn’t like flies, crowds and dung smells?

      • I quite agree with Rod: info overload, diffcult to absorb straightaway. Also, wouldn’t it be better to include at least one visual image in the opening para? Curious as to what Valeria looks like, age, facial features, etc. before we get into her POV.

  8. I was so excited when I saw the title of this week’s post! I’ve been thinking of the opening of a story I have – and not the one I’m currently working on – for days now. I know it’s still not quite right, and I’ve known that I have to move that chunk of beautifully written information elsewhere, but today is the day that I’m ready to let it go! Yay! Thank you for this well-timed and inspiring post!

  9. Carole Johnson says

    Well, I wrote the opening to my novel before I had any idea where the novel was headed. Novel completed now, I find myself rewriting the opening and anticipate a possible rewrite again after my editor weighs in. Or, maybe not. Carole Johnson pen name Kate Maxwell

  10. Andy Clark says

    Great article! Interesting to look at these types and think about different approaches to opening my novel. There are some genres which tend to be dominated by one style, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the alternatives.

    Solid insight on your feedback as well. An infodump monologue always makes for a difficult opening. There at least need to be some beats to show somebodies reaction, but a better approach would be to take a different path.

    Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, great point. It’s definitely important to know genre conventions–although they don’t always have to be observed.

  11. Starting right is difficult. I recently started to re-read Arthur Clark’s “Rendezvous with Rama” and was struck by just how much setting and telling there was before we got to the start of the story. If he was a neophyte author today with such a story, he wouldn’t get past first base.

    Personally, I like to start with the main character just before some action starts. A good start sentence hook to grab the reader and then a few paragraphs to get the action rolling. Telling the reader a lot about the characters is left to later (if ever) and description is kept to a minimum.

    Here are various examples from finished stories and WIP:
    ***
    “There is a certain charm in going on an adventure. But if I were honest, running off to explore unknown parts of the globe is really challenging. … ” (WIP on a “lost world” novel, “The Mountain in the Clouds”.)
    ***
    “My comlink buzzed. I was tempted to ignore it, but the chief would only dare to call me if Asteron was invading again. He was considerate like that. … ” (Science fiction short story: “The Fall in the House of Escher”)
    ****
    “Having crossed Westminster Bridge, Alexander headed for Parliament Square along Bridge Street. A loud bang caused him to turn around. … ” (Steampunk “Dragoumanos”)
    ***
    “Lafayette aimed and pulled the trigger. His shot hit the target clean in the chest.”

    Behind him, a voice bellowed, “Good shot!” … (Steampunk: Nexus Bokharis)
    ***
    “There was a knock at the door. Mary looked up from reading the paper in front of her. She was annoyed. Who dared intrude on her work? I had specifically asked not to be interrupted. ‘Come in.’ … ” (“The Metropolitans” Episode 1)
    ***
    “Procurator, it’s good to see Taranto’s returning to normal.”

    “Indeed, it is, Renaldo.”

    From their position at the mouth of a side street, Marl gazed out over the market square. It was much like he remembered it before the war. … ” (“The Rehydra”)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Literary novels can and do get away with a lot more scene-setting in the beginning than do most genre novels. Done well, they’re a great example of how a writer’s style can, in itself, be a hook. Done poorly, t just comes across as pretentious and probably boring.

  12. John Davis says

    Thank you for this post. Using a critique of a real-world example really clarified the points you made. I always find examples like this make things a lot easier to wrap my head around. Can’t wait for more posts like this. Will definitely go back and read the others.

  13. ingmarhek says

    Beginners are hard. I heard writers say the write (or more like rewrite) the beginning last.
    The beauty of the “why hook” is that it gives you a question to propel the story forward.
    Another great article, K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, especially if you begin the story without knowing exactly how it will end, you will almost always have to go back and tweak.

  14. Michael Dorosh says

    Is it useful to think that a hook combining two or more of the seven types listed here would be better than a hook utilizing only one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not necessarily. But because a novel is essentially one hook after another, you’ll probably need to use all of them sooner than later.

  15. How does this relate to genre? I’m writing a novel which is technically a Thriller under-the-hood. I rewrote my first chapter last year to include a murder as the Inciting Incident. Where does that fall in your seven opening hooks?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Murder can fit into several the categories, including the action and in medias res hooks, but fundamentally I see it as a “why” hook. Answering that “why” question is the essence of the genre.

  16. For my novel The Missing Madonna, I used the Character hook–1st POV, Susanna Shepherd who is in–second hook, Setting–Krakow, Poland on a Fulbright mission but–Problem–does not understand Polish, and is worried as she strides to the audio lab in the Polonia Instytut Castle.

  17. Casandra Merritt says

    Here’s my opening line:
    Storm clouds were no stranger to Ireland in spring; the fierce driving winds that brought ships to their sudden deaths on the southern coast and rains that turn streets to rivers of mud were expected by the people as yearly visitors.
    And then it zooms in on a certain port, and finally on the protagonist. But is it alright to start from a high vantage point and them zoom in? Would that be like head-hopping?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Personally, I prefer consistency throughout. However, this is a technique that we do see occasionally. It can be difficult to do well and requires a very thorough and consistent grasp of narrative voice to link the three techniques together seamlessly.

    • Casandra, my favorite example of zooming is Bulwer-Lytton’s paragraph that begins with the infamous line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

  18. M.L. Bull says

    I usually start with a “character hook” but I guess how I started my story “The Pact” is also kind of an “inherent hook” too.

  19. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks. This one here isn’t the finished version, just the general idea.

  20. Many thanks for the great podcast. (Big fan of your books as well! :-))

    I’ve been working on a thriller for what feels like forever and I keep writing new beginnings, still looking for a passable ‘hook’. This was my last attempt. Any ideas on whether it works or not – and why – would be highly appreciated. (English is not my mother tongue, this is a translation of my text. So if anything seems slightly ‘off’, it’s not intentional…)

    – – – – – – – –

    The deeds of truly evil men render them immortal. When good men die, we tend to forget about them in time. A murder suspect once said that to me. Mind that I use the expression ‘suspect’ purely out of political correctness, or what shall I call it? Anyways, wouldn’t be worth risking yet another defamation suit for that bastard. Which doesn’t change the fact that Guy Mallone was as guilty as a man could be.
    This is strictly confidential, isn’t it?
    Good.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think the conversational tone offers a potentially good hook. I found it a little confusing over all (i.e., is Guy Mallone the “suspect”?), but that could be the translation.

      • ‘A little confusing over all’ is not the best hook, I guess. 😉
        (Mallone was a murder suspect in an earlier case.) Encouraging to know, though, that the conversational tone has potential.

        I probably overdo the ‘in medias res’ approach. Have to give it another try, thank you!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Striking that perfect note between intriguing and grounding is the most difficult thing about openings.

          • Thank you, that is very helpful!

            A problem with all my openings and possibly my writing in general – I realize now – is grounding. ‘Intriguing’ I can do, and my strong suite is dialogue (in all its different forms), but I often have difficulty creating a sense of place, for example, which I guess, is a part of grounding.

            Thank you for seeing this so clearly.

            Maybe I’m asking too much, but do you happen to have a suggestion for working on the different aspects of grounding? Maybe a book or an exercise that you could recommend?

    • Jutta, I love your first line! Second line could be: “Good men are forgotten in time.”

      Fourth sentence could be: “I use the term ‘suspect’ ’cause I don’t want yet another defamation suit from that bastard.”

      (Did that bastard sue for defamation before? Or did others sue?)

      • Thank you, Rod, for your kind words about the my line and for your suggestion: “Good men are forgotten in time”, works beautifully.

        This particular bastard has not sued her yet, but she is a police officer who tends to ignore the rules, when a certain type of bastard is concerned. That is why she got sued before -and rightly so-, and that is also why she has to be extra careful now. Otherwise she risks losing her job again: she just had to quit her job and her promising career as a homicide detective in a big city (quitting to avoid getting fired) and has started as chief-deputy in a small sheriff’s department in the proverbial middle of nowhere. That is her last chance, so she really would have to behave from now on. Naturally, she won’t do that, though. 😉

  21. Curt Wellumson says

    Looks like a “why” hook for my work. Here it is from “Always a Winner”

    Rick Williams climbed the long stairs to his sisters front porch. Reaching the top he heard his four siblings laughing inside. He turned part way around thinking about an escape but, remembered his dad’s advice from long ago; “Never quit or give in when you know you’re right.” Sitting on a porch chair he allowed a few tears to well. The laughter continued and with each rise in volume brought him to realize; “Enough with this pity Dad. I do know I”m right but why don’t they see it? I will stop them.
    Taking an old photo from his shirt pocket, he held it with both hands and smiled at his parents images. “You deserve better, you raised them better. I’ll have to stop them for you.”

  22. The ‘Why’ hook is by far the one I use the most. I like starting with action. Thanks for all these other ways to hook people. I look forward to trying them.

  23. Getting the hook in the first chapter has been a challenge for me. This post gives some good information that I will try to use for my first chapter.

    However, you said the opening of the story where humanity watching the screens amounts to head-hopping. I disagree. This story does not jump from one person’s perspective to another without a break to let us know we are going from one to the other. This story merely goes from a macro view to the micro view of Charles and is closer to the definition of third person limited than to head-hopping. I felt that Sweet’s introduction from macro to micro view was an acceptable way to start a story. Not every form of third person point of view has to follow the deep point of view rules.

    Also, I noticed you that you didn’t explain what a character hook was. You told us a story should give us an idea of who the protagonist character is, but you didn’t tell us how to hook the reader with the character. Perhaps with character motivations, character goals, character conflicts, character quirks? Can you explain more on how to hook a reader with the character?

    Thanks! :0)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re correct that a move from a macro to a micro perspective isn’t necessarily a headhop. But it’s a tricky thing, and in this instance, I felt it lent itself to potential confusion.

      As for the character hook, the character should ideally be interesting enough to *be* the hook in and of himself. Readers read because they want to engage with a character; if the writer can immediately inspire that engagement (via any of the possibilities you mention, but also simply narrative voice), that’s usually the best hook of all.

    • I didn’t feel the “all of humanity” line was a head-hop, as it is within the character’s knowledge that a world-wide event was happening. I mean, when a big event happens, you just know that everybody else is finding out about it too.

  24. Here is my hook, from “The Babe with the Blade” (it starts with a dream, therefore according to Weiland it must begin twice) (note: the // indicates italics):

    “Is it wrong to make boys girlie?”

    The girl’s voice trembled with uncertainty. Great! Even when half-asleep, E. Nigel Wallace liked girls who were uncertain. He could help show them the way, and then they would be grateful, and they would admire him–and, someday, one of them would touch his banana.

    The voice tried again: “How far is it alright to go, when making boys girlie?”

    She must be talking about putting dresses on boys. And … makeup, too? Well … makeup would be okay, but only if the boy wanted it.

    E. Nigel opened his eyes and tried to form his answer.

    But who was asking? The late-afternoon sun shone into his eyes through one of the forward windows. Across the aisle, a flight attendant chatted in low tones with a passenger — wasn’t either of them. Next to him was a man, slightly rotund, middle-aged, of mixed Indian, Asian and European heritage. Wasn’t him. Had anyone spoken to him at all? Or was it an auditory dream—what had Professor Sprenger called it—a “hypnopompic hallucination”—perhaps the result of several hours of sitting in a cramped airplane seat?

    /Just let me get to Cam Ranh,/ E. Nigel thought, /my bride is waiting. Everything’s on schedule./

    A tinny speaker blared. “Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent to the Cranmer International Airport . . .”

    /Cranmer! Not Cam Ranh!/ “OH JEEZ!” E. Nigel rarely swore, but this was the day. “Oh, dang! Oh, gosh! Oh, heck! Oh, shoot! Aw, nuts!”

    The rotund man looked up from his magazine. “Some thing is wrong?” he inquired,
    with an odd accent.

    “That’s the wrong city!” cried E. Nigel. “I’m on the wrong flight! My wedding is tomorrow morning and I’m not going to be there!” He reached for his cellphone just as the tinny speaker warned him: “Please turn off all electronic devices until we are safely parked at the gate.”

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