You can write the best story in the world, but if you don’t draw in the reader, they’ll never read it. What you need is a hook to reel them in!
I’ve written content for blogs and magazines for more than fifteen years now, and I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty: unless your first sentence (maybe two) draws your reader in, they aren’t staying for the rest. This is true for newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, and even commercials, but also for narrative storytelling in books.
A hook is designed to grab your readers’ attention and don’t let go. There are different hooks for different “fish,” so to speak. The hook for an article or speech is going to be completely different than that of a piece of fiction writing, for example, but its goal is the same: to spark interest and tell the reader, “It’s okay to settle in for this, because it’s going to be worth your time.”
Research says you have about thirty seconds to hook a reader. That’s the average span of hyper focus people can muster when confronted with something new. After that, they either settle in or move on. Your “catch window” is thus very short, no matter what you’re writing. Make use of every second and every word.
“Research says you have about
thirty seconds to hook a reader.
After that, people either settle in
or move on.“
Before we discuss hooks, we must talk about narrative. Any piece of writing can be divide between narrative and non-narrative. Narrative writing always tells a story. The story could be fictional or nonfictional, but it includes characters and a story plot. Think of novels, short stories, plays, film scripts and poetry. Non-narrative writing is generally structured and formal. Business documents, research papers, statistical documents, speeches and legal papers are non-narrative, for example, but also advertisements, reviews, diary entries, magazine articles, and autobiographies.
These are the “official” distinctions. Personally, I feel that the line between narrative writing and non-narrative writing is blurry. Unless it’s an Excel numbers sheet without instructions, there is always going to be some form of writing involved that is aimed at helping the reader understand what they are reading and identify with it to some degree. It might even have characters. No matter what, there is always going to be a “red thread” that guides the reader along.
There’s no single, tried and true formula to writing good hook sentences. Their success or failure is in understanding its purpose to the reader.
“This difference [between
narrative and non-narrative writing]
is important when it comes
to writing hooks.“
Within narrative writing like a novel, the hook consists of the opening sentence and, perhaps, the opening paragraph. The thirty second rule applies, so you have a little longer to fully hook the reader (say one page), but no more and the opening sentence alone should be able to do the trick. This is why novelists slave away at a gripping opening sentence sometimes well into the second or third editing round.
At its core, the opening sentence should do two things: hint at trouble and raise a question. We shall see that this, in essence, is also true for non-narrative writing. When I say “trouble,” I don’t mean that you have to detail your main character’s issues, what I mean is to instill a sense of foreboding. For example:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
This is a very simple opening sentence, borrowed from “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, which does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Right away, you wonder who the “I” person is, who was supposed to be on the other side of the bed, why they left, if the main character is in trouble for oversleeping and, perhaps most importantly, why it matters to the main character that the other person is already up. Did they get up themselves? Were they taken away? Was it a lover, a child, a parent, or a sibling whom they were in bed with? Why? A sentence that causes the reader to ask themselves these types of questions is a good hook.
“At its core, the opening sentence
should do two things:
hint at trouble and raise a question.“
What about non-narrative writing? Well, the same applies: trouble should be implied and questions should arise. This is especially true for articles, advertisements, reviews, etc. In non-narrative writing, the hook often contains an anecdote, quote, or humor to make the reader curious. In addition, in non-narrative writing, the first sentence almost always includes the topic of the piece to follow:
- Did you know that there are seven writing mistakes that a spell checker won’t spot?
- To my embarrassment, I’ve learned I’ve been tying my shoelaces wrongly my whole life.
- The pentagon has twice as many bathrooms as are necessary.
- Mark Twain once wrote, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
There is a good chance all of these will make you curious about the topic they address. Which seven writing mistakes are they, and do I have any of those in my work in progress? There is a wrong and a right way to tie my shoelaces? Am I doing it wrong or right? Why are there twice as many bathrooms in the pentagon as are necessary? As soon as the article has its hooks in you, you’ll read on to find out.
“In non-narrative writing, the hook
often contains an anecdote, quote,
or humor to make the reader curious.”
Narrative fiction hooks are the hardest to write, in the opinion of many authors. Even the greats struggle with them, often saving them for the last revision. It’s always advisable to write your first draft and then go back to your opening line. Does it hint at what the story will bring? Is it in line with the tonality and “feel” of the story? If not, rewrite.
Because you have some handholds when it comes to writing the hook for a non-narrative piece, it’s often easier to formulate those. The best advice I’ve ever gotten was to cut the first paragraph altogether once you’ve finished the piece and see if the first line of your second paragraph isn’t a better opening line than your original. Chances are, it is. You might have to work some information back into the piece, but you’ll be well on your way.
Whatever you do, make sure that your book, article, or other written piece addresses all questions raised by the opening line, either in the opening page or anywhere else in the book. If the reader is left with questions that the hook raised, it may have been well-constructed, but it was ultimately incorrect for the piece.
Writing a good hook is as much an art as it is sheer dumb luck that inspiration struck at the right time and place. Don’t get hung up on them and always be open to killing your darlings if the line you chose ends up not doing the writing any favors in retrospect. There are many places in the writing and editing process to change the opening line and you will get it right, eventually.