The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook

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?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryBecause 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.

Takeaway value

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?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?

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

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve tried to throw a few ‘hooks’ in to the first paragraph, but after many tries not sure whether I have it. I’ve read many posts from different sites and it’s definitely not easy. Hope this gets it looking better:

    “Mark Bishop sighed deeply as he placed the urn next to the other three in his study, glanced at David’s boxes on the floor and slowly walked to the office.
    “So what’s been happening while I was at the funeral?” Mark asked as he slumped in the armchair opposite the one Bill Marsh, his farm manager was sitting.
    Bill told him the replacement tax advisor would be coming on Friday, “The new ‘un apparently has a farming background and is supposed t’know how to get grants an ‘all.”
    “Well, the last chap was bloody useless. If the idea of tax breaks or grants ever entered his mind it left at the speed of light. You’d have thought he worked for the damn Tax Man!” Mark complained.
    “If they’ve even been around a farm that’ll be an improvement right there.”
    “Yes. Any grants will be really handy as well,” Mark sighed.
    “If yer’d not spent so much adding all them extra rooms t’ farmhouse and all that expensive furniture yer’d a’ bin better off.”
    “Don’t remind me,” he grunted. “I thought it’d be a decent place to live, away from all the bullshit, where I could raise my own family.”
    “Yeah and we know what happened then!” As Mark’s jaw clenched at the reminder, Bill quickly continued, “Anyroad, there’s still quite a bit to do before we let the girls out t’ graze. There’s some fence posts need replacing, the last bit of hedge row to check and …”

  2. Dumar Lianres says:

    So nice! Any kind of example in children’s literature?

  3. I always love your articles like this. Very informative and helpful.
    My hooks are generally at the very beginning of the story. In my opinion, I would think it would help to capture the reader’s interest straight away.
    On the same note, do you think you could judge a few opening lines to my story?
    I’m still working on it, but here’s the main hook I have so far:
    ” Krystal hated the dark.
    Simple as that.
    Someone might say, “Well, that’s a pretty common fear,” and shrug it off, but she felt differently.
    It affected her.
    Badly.
    It affected her ever since she was a child. She couldn’t even remember a time where it didn’t.
    Maybe because she didn’t know what was in it.
    Maybe because there was something in it, and out to get her.
    Or maybe because she didn’t have a shadow herself. “

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a good hook! Immediately, makes me want to know *why* she’s so afraid of the dark.

  4. Henrietta says:

    So would you say that the hook must be closely related to the moral premise because if the moral premise is a universal truth then should the hook be a universal truth? Does that question make sense? Trying to get this clear in my mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes and no. You want to introduce the thematic/moral premise in at least some measure as soon as you can. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the Hook itself. It’s great when the Hook can pull double and triple duty like that, but in some stories, that’s just going to be asking too much.

      • Henrietta says:

        whew okay thanks that worried me LOL would be no easy task for sure. Thank you! You are such a good teacher! Love left brainers since I lean too far right! Thank you for all your insights. I am creating a template with all your components. I have all your writing books but love this site too.

  5. Is a hook on the third page (double-spaced) to far from the beginning. I have a couple minor hooks but I feel that the major hook is on the third page. I feel like the beginning is good enough to keep the reader interested until they reach the major hook of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That works as long as there is an immediate hook on the first page that pulls readers in and makes them ask a question. What’s piquing their curiosity up to the point when you get to the “real” hook?

  6. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    “Who was that,” Greg asked as he and Josie drove away from the dance, “singing, at the end? You know him?”

    His underlying jealousy colored his question.

    These are the first two sentences of my current novel-in-progress. By themselves, they establish conflict that is built upon later in the chapter. This first chapter has been revised from a less dynamic version with less tension. I had had an early first chapter that was more narrative and went into too much backstory – that material is elsewhere in the story. I know this version is much better, but it may yet need further development.

    The following 1300 words establish Greg and Josie as boyfriend-girlfriend and introduces the fact that Josie has second sight. Her odd clairvoyance figures largely in the story, for it connects her metaphysically with the unknown musician at the dance, whom she does not know but is about to meet.

  7. Hannah Killian says:

    Okay, so around 2 1/2 years ago, I got an idea inspired by Ice Age (I think). I think it’s inspired by Three Men and A Baby too.

    Anyways, I came across it again, and decided to give it a try. The trouble is, I can’t figure out if the trio finding the baby (who has been kidnapped from her real parents), is the Hook, the Inciting Event, or the Key Event.

    There’s also the leader’s slight reluctance to take the baby with them because they’re drifters and might be a little on the outlaw side for some reason I haven’t figured out yet. But of course, he does relent, so. . .maybe that’s the Key Event?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Take a look at the timing. If you’ve got a turning point placed at each appropriate place in the story, then there’s your answer. If there’s anything missing at any of the timed points, then you know where you need to start juggling.

      Hook: 1%
      Inciting Event: 12%
      Key Event/First Plot (may be the same thing): 20-25%

      • Hannah Killian says:

        How many pages does it take to get to the 12% mark?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Depends how many pages will be in the book. 🙂 If you’re planning an outline, you can get a rough estimate by figuring your number of scenes. When I start outlining, I usually have a number of scenes I’m shooting for based on my target word count (for example, 50 scenes in my WIP), then I divide that by eight to know how many scenes should be in each section of the story.

          • Hannah Killian says:

            Maybe I’ll just start writing the Inciting and Key Events, and come back to the Hook later?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            That’s often what I’ll do in the outline. No reason you can’t do it in the first draft too, if that’s how you prefer to work.

          • Hannah Killian says:

            Would the baby’s kidnapping be the Hook or would it be the Inciting Event?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Depends on what the main conflict is. Is the kidnapping the Call to Adventure for the protagonist–or just the first domino leading to that first real turning point into the main conflict?

          • Hannah Killian says:

            Umm. . .

            Back to the drawing board!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Have fun. 😉

  8. I know where it is in my first completed short story I’ve been trying to publish. The hook is ‘These days are always so boring. I miss being on the force. The excitement was always there and never slowed down.’ And then it takes you back to the past when you learn of his most interesting case while on the force. There’s more about the story on my blog. The post called ‘The Summary of My first Completed Short Story’.
    As for my first novel that I’ve struggling to write, I haven’t really put in consideration that I need to do this. Thanks for letting me know that do and I begin working on it along with the other techniques I need to practice as well.

  9. I am so confused. I thought I could resolve my confusion by reading every post about “the hook” but even after doing so I feel unsure what it is. Then I thought I’d use the story structure database but the data there does not list hooks.

    As of now, for one I keep thinking that the hook and the concept of a story are the same thing. And for another I keep thinking the word hook means at least two completely different things.

    At first I thought the hook was one or more sentences that raise a question in the reader which causes them to want to read further.

    But then I kept reading about hooks and the article seemed to define hook to mean kind of the same like story concept — some pitch you could use when talking to your agent.

    The last book I read was Fifty Shades of Grey. I feel clear about the concept: Inexperienced, young female falls for twisted, (broken) slightly older male who sexually needs things that go against her nature. Can she or does she even want to make him have the relationship she imagined?

    Now. Assuming I got the concept right. What is the hook in this book?

    Thanks for any help resolving my confusion. I do admit that although I did finish it I did feel slightly bored at times. So perhaps there is no hook?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re completely right that the term “hook” refers to two totally different things–the hooking concept within the premise and the first moment in the story structure which hooks readers and gets the plot started. If you missed this post, it explains the differences: How to Find Exactly the Right Story Hook.

      I haven’t read 50 Shades, but what you’ve described is its premise hook. The structural hook should be found in the first chapter.

  10. Sally Chetwynd says:

    Maybe thinking about the hook vs. the premise or plot is similar to comparing a battle tactic to a military strategy. The tactic is an immediate action, part of the overall strategy (one step of many), which moves the action forward in keeping with the overall strategy that you want to achieve over the course of the military engagement (campaign, war) – er – story.

  11. Brian Cummings says:

    My tentative plan for my current WIP is to begin with two POVs (two major protags) which will converge when one comes to the rescue of the other. Is it possible to have two hooks here, or am I better off picking one “primary” hook and making the other a secondary mini-hook instead?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you’ll need to open each separate POV with its own hook, and, of course, it’s best if you can start the book with whichever is strongest.

  12. Catherine says:

    The way I try to hook readers is that at the start of my book is a preface that has a clip related to the end of the story. The reader has to read on through the book to find out how the character gets into that situation and what the vague sentences in the preface turn out to mean.

  13. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Here are the first lines of my first chapter in my soon-to-see-print second novel. I think I’ve covered – or at least suggested – all the bases: character, setting, conflict.

    “Who was that,” Greg asked as he and Josie drove home from the folk dance, “the fiddler, singing, at the end? You know him?”

    Jealousy tainted his question.

    Josie huffed and faced the window. –Damn it, Greg. I don’t need you thinking I’ve fallen for a guy just because he can play a fiddle like nobody’s business. You know me better than that. It’s high time you cut yourself a healthy slab of self-esteem.–

    “I’ve never seen him before,” she said. She didn’t want to think about the fiddler, and she didn’t want Greg to think she was thinking about him.

Trackbacks

  1. […] HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors – Secrets of Story Structure Part 2 […]

  2. […] hook is “nothing more or less than a question.” (K.M. Weiland) It could be putting your MC in physical danger, or it could be asking an […]

  3. […] precious), we are sitting here wondering: what the heck is a hobbit? It’s a great hook; it poses a question that we, the readers, would really like answered. Tolkien gets to that by paragraph three, but he […]

  4. […] match. The first sentence of a story always has to hook the reader (you can learn more on this blog), and in this case, it’s done perfectly. It gives us some idea of what’s going on while […]

  5. […] The Secrets of Story Structure: The Hook by K.M. Weiland […]

  6. […] that start right off with character action or dialogue), but it still catches the interest, which, as K.M. Weiland writes, is required for a hook. Why? Well, I think the answer is in two things: genre and phrasing. Genre, […]

  7. […] this first episode, I’ve identified three Structural Points, the first of which is The Hook. The Hook is always going to come first. It’s the question in a story that urges the audience […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.