Writing Tips - Seven Hooks to Tease your Reader
Writing for Pleasure & Profit
We write because we want to. We write because we have this mad passion to share our ideas, our stories, and our information with those whom we want to take the time and read our work.
We are asking the reader to invest their precious time. This is a big ask. Investors ask for promises, they want to see returns on their investment. They want to be entertained, informed, gripped, emotionally engaged and taken on a roller coaster ride of ideas.
They need to see what’s in store. They need a preview, a sample, a tease.
This is especially important in a novel or a short story. Readers can lose their interest very quickly. They know that the back cover blurbs, like film trailers, can paint a different picture to what they are actually about to read. So they turn the front pages, sneak a peek into the first chapter or the first paragraph. They want to know what you are about to say. They want to know whether you can deliver on a promise, whether you can say enough to sustain their interest.
This is a big responsibility. We have a big story to tell, bursting with ideas. We have so much to offer. But we run the risk of losing our very readership by a shoddy first few paragraphs.
Necessity Is the Mother of...
I was forced to rethink my first paragraphs when I entered a competition for BBC radio 4 to write a short story of 1500 words. The competition asked authors to only submit the first 200 words initially and on the strength of it they would pick 50 and ask them to complete the story. Out of this 50 they would pick 5 winners to be broadcast every afternoon, Monday to Friday.
You can imagine my panic. However, it was perhaps the best experience in editing my own work that I ever had. I pruned, trimmed, discarded and mercilessly ripped bloated passages to shreds. I was like a chef trimming all the excess fat to produce a lean meat.
In the end I produced 200 words of sheer concentration that had to grip, hook and impale my judges to such an extent that they should want to read more. They did. I was lucky to be one of the winners much to my surprise and joy. More importantly, my opening strategy had worked. When I got the judges feedback, they commented on various qualities of the writing, the imagery, the visual story telling but most of all they said, the first paragraph made them want to read more.
My Opening Gambit
- Short Story: The Stone Mermaid
I was fifteen that summer I fell in love with a dead woman. It all started innocently enough, on a bright day at the seaside under a clear sky. It ended in a damp cave with shadows and strange...
Hook, Line, and Sinker!
All through history, great writers have teased their readers by gripping first paragraphs. I have tried to illustrate some examples of the ‘hook’ to give you an idea of what your readership may expect and find engaging. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. But, as novice writers wanting to make a mark, we all know that every little helps!
1. The Puzzle Hook
This opening leaves the readers with more questions than answers. These questions are their own. Their curiosity is stoked. They want to know what, why, when, where and how.
There are many masters of writing who use this hook. These writers tease with the sharpest hook: the puzzle, information or an incident that grips and sets your brain into overdrive.. They give you a brief glimpse of what’s to come, a tease of such alluring quality, it leaves the reader wanting more.
There are many examples of the quizzical hook:
In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides teases thus:
‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960,and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Peroskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
The Master of the hook was Charles Dickens, who of course serialized his novels in monthly or weekly periodicals, he specialised in hooks and cliff hangers, he pretty much invented the art of the tease. Consider how he starts, ‘A Christmas Carol’:
‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail .’
Consider also the fact that this first chapter also carries the title, ‘Marley’s ghost’. Was there ever any doubt that the reader wasn’t going anywhere’
Consider also the quaint but quizzical opening from Peter Pan, by JM Barrie:
‘All children, except one, grow.’ Awww.
2. The Action Hook
Some authors prefer to plonk the reader right in the middle of the action. There is no preamble, no scene setting, and no long descriptions of whom or what. You need to catch up as you go along. What you get is that the story kick-starts from the word go. Before you know it you are along for the ride.
If you have a story that starts slap bang in the middle of an action packed scene, get right to it. Scottish writer Alistair MacLean was a master of action thrillers, many of his books have been made into gripping films. Here’s his opening paragraph for his best seller, Where Eagles Dare:
‘The vibrating clangour of the four great piston engines set teeth on edge and made an intolerable assault on the cringing ear drums. The decibel level, Smith calculated, must have been about that found in a boiler factory, and one, moreover, that was working on overtime rates. The shaking cold in that cramped, instrument-crowded flight deck was positively Siberian. On balance, he reflected, he would have a Siberian boiler factory any time because, whatever its drawbacks, it wasn’t liable to fall out of the sky or crash into the mountain side .’
In his worldwide best seller The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, gets the ball rolling from the first paragraph:
‘Reknowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six year old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Sauniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
3. The Character Hook
This could simply be a description of the character, what they are up to, who they are and in general familiarise the readership with some of the cast. Try to imagine the cast of your story, who is important enough to come at the beginning. IS it the main protagonist? Is it the key but small character that sets the story in motion?
This could also be the simple beginnings like those of a fairy tale, ‘Once there were three sisters...’ etc.
CS Lewis begins his classic series of Narnia:
‘Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.’
John Irving starts his Hotel New Hampshire with a classic paragraph:
‘The summer my father bought the bear, none of us was born - we weren't even conceived: not Frank, the oldest; not Franny, the loudest; not me, the next; and not the youngest of us, Lilly and Egg. ’
Or you could get more specific and describe the character like Joseph Conrad does in his classic Lord Jim:
‘ He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull’
4. The Scenic Hook
This usually begins with a setting. The author gives a description of a place; a location where the action is about to commence. This usually tests our descriptive strategies as we try to be original. We can capture the colour, the smells, the noises and the feel of the place. It is always better to use spare but distinct descriptions that cater to our five senses. Just try and imagine the place in your head, with your eyes closed, what do you see, what do you smell and taste, how hot, cold or warm does the place feel?
There are only so many ways of describing the sky.
Trust William Gibson, in his seminal sci-fi blockbuster Neuromancer, to come up with:
‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel’
Barbara Kingsolver, in her book The Lacuna, sets the scene in Isla Pixal, Mexico, 1929:
‘In the beginning there were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade...’
Or consider the colourful, sensory explosion in the opening lines of Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things:
‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dust green trees. Red bananas ripen, Jack fruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they sun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun’
5. The Philosophical Hook
This could a meditation of ideas, thoughts and opinions. This usually invites the reader to share your vision and version. It may be a gripe of the state of affairs, a quibble about the past or even a hopeful dream about the future.
Who better to go back to, but our old curmudgeon, Mr Charles Dickens. He sets the scene so wonderfully in his Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom, it was an age of foolishness, it was an epoch of belief, it was an epoch of incredulity, it was a season of Light, it was a season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."
Here’s Mark Twain succinctly underlining that the line that divides the poor and the privileged has not changed from the 16th century, in his The Prince and the Pauper:
‘ In the ancient city of London, on a certain Autumn day in the second quarter of the 16th century, a boy was born to a poor family by the name of Canty, who did not want him. On the same day another English child was born to a rich family by the name of Tudor, who did want him. All England wanted him too.’
Or consider the simple truth of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
6. The Object Hook
This is something I have come across a few times. The author painstakingly describes an object and shows depth of research and understanding. He or she goes through intricate details about the object only to reveal how this is connected to the tale.
We go back to Alistair Maclean, for his wonderful start to his novel, When Eight Bells Toll, where he goes into great detail about the classic gun.
‘The Peacemaker Colt has now been in production, without change in design, for a century. Buy one today and it would be indistinguishable from the one Wyatt Earp wore when he was the Master of Dodge City. It is the oldest handgun in the world, without question the most famous and, if efficiency in its designed task of maiming and killing be taken as criterion of its worth, then it’s also probably the best hand-gun ever made.... When a Peacemaker Bullet hits your leg you fall to the ground unconscious, and if it hits your thigh bone and you are lucky to survive the torn arteries and the shock, then you will never walk again without crutches.. And so I stood motionless, not breathing, for the Peacemaker colt that started this unpleasant train of thought was pointed directly at me...’
Stephen King’s emotional classic, The Green Mile ( which was originally serialised in 6 parts) starts with a note on the ‘old sparky’:
‘This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain. And the electric chair was there too, of course. The inmates made jokes about the chair, the way people always make jokes about things that frighten them but can’t be gotten away from. They called it Old Sparky, or the Big Juicy. They made cracks about the power bill, and how Warden Moore could cook his Thanksgiving dinner that fall, with this wife Melinda, too sick to cook.’
7. The Dialogue Hook
This is the Quentin Tarantino style banter. The story kick starts with sparkling dialogue that is razor sharp and gets the story going.
Dialogue is always tricky to write, more so when you want to make first impressions. There are some stellar dialogue writers, especially like the 87th precinct police procedurals author, Ed McBain. Here he combines tension and razor sharp dialogue for the opening scene of Hark:
Gloria knew there was someone in her apartment the moment she unlocked and entered. She was reaching into her tote bag when a man’s voice said, “No, don’t”. Her fingers were an inch apart from the steel but of a .380 caliber Browning. “Really,” the voice said, “I wouldn’t”....
The Last Dance:
“ He had heart trouble,” the woman was telling Carella., “ Told me he hadn’t been feeling good the past few days. I kept telling him to go see the Doctor. Yeah, I’ll go, I’ll go, don’t worry, like that you know? So I stopped by this morning to see how he was. Found him just the way. In bed. Dead.”
There are other hooks, other fresh ways of alluring the reader. Like a spider spinning a web and inviting the fly to come into the parlour. Like the Sirens singing to the hapless sea men.
Obviously, the opener is not everything, it is the story that follows and the quality of writing that gets our reader hooked and wanting to come back for more. However, when we are starting out and trying to impress readers and publishers, the opener can be a useful ammunition.
We need to find new ways of fresh bait to get our readers hook, line and sinker.
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