Monday, August 13, 2018

Wait For It: Hook Lines and the Dramatic Pause

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

All novels need those "Dum--Dum--DUM!" moments to keep readers hooked and turning the pages.  

There are a lot of ways to control the pacing on your stories, and one of my favorites is the dramatic pause. Not only does it draw attention to what’s usually a great line, it gives readers a moment to fully appreciate whatever it is you just said. They’re the lines that give readers goosebumps and think, “man, this is gonna be good.”

The dramatic pause is frequently found in hook lines--those one-line phrases that add punch to a scene. Their job is to hook you and keep you reading. What makes them work so well is that they’re often (though not always) set apart in their own paragraph, a moment of silence that catches the eye and makes you pay a little more attention to them. They carry meaning, hint at what’s to come, and often pinpoint some critical aspect of the story in some way.

Let’s look at a snippet from my third novel Darkfall. There are several potential hook lines in this section, and I could have gone with any of them.
“I know it’s risky,” Ipstan said, “but we’ll need every advantage we can get.”

Just like they’d need every weapon they could get. But I didn’t want to be that girl, or that weapon. If he was willing to do this, what else was he willing to do to win? Was he also after the girl who shattered the League, crumbled the palace, broke the Undying? Was that what he really wanted from me?
What do you take away from this? There’s a good chance what you remember most is the last line. Last lines are typically where the important stuff appears. Here, it’s wondering what this guy really wants from her. But is that enough of a hook to make you read on? Maybe, since it’s a question, and Nya worries about it, but it can be a lot stronger just by making it a hook line.
“I know it’s risky,” Ipstan said, “but we’ll need every advantage we can get.”

Just like they’d need every weapon they could get. But I didn’t want to be that girl, or that weapon. If he was willing to do this, what else was he willing to do to win? Was he also after the girl who shattered the League, crumbled the palace, broke the Undying?

Was that what he really wanted from me?
It stands out more now, doesn’t it? It draws attention to this question. However, knowing what he really wants isn’t the strongest thing in this paragraph (Can you spot the better ones?). Nya wonders it, and the reader probably is wondering that as well, but knowing what he wants isn’t causing Nya to act or make any decisions yet. It hints at it, but it could still be stronger.

Here’s the final version, with the hook lines I eventually chose:
“I know it’s risky,” Ipstan said, “but we’ll need every advantage we can get.”

Just like they’d need every weapon they could get. If he was willing to do this, what else was he willing to do to win? Was he also after the girl who shattered the League, crumbled the palace, broke the Undying? Was that what he really wanted from me?

I didn’t want to be that girl.

Or that weapon.
See how the question of what he wants from Nya triggers the dramatic pause of the double hook lines? She wonders if he wants something from her she isn’t willing to give. She doesn’t want to be the girl who did all those terrible things. She also doesn’t wasn’t to be a weapon. But he very likely wants her to be both and she knows it, which adds to both the plot, and Nya's internal conflict and character arc.

By moving those hook lines down, I pose the “what does he really want” question, and then focus the reader’s attention on the very things he probably wants, but Nya doesn’t want to give. Conflict, both external and internal, because she knows they really do need every advantage they can get, and she’s the biggest one they have. But what she needs to do she doesn’t want to do, and I made sure the reader is very clear on that by making those lines stand out.

Does Nya become that girl or that weapon is a much more compelling question to wonder about than just what this guy really wants from her. Because that's fairly obvious in the scene.

Take a look at your own manuscript. Do you have a solid hook line every few pages? Can you create one on almost every page?  Can you create more than one?

(Here's more on crafting hook lines)

A dramatic pause with a strong hook line can grab your readers tight and make them dig into the story. Often you have the right line in the wrong place, and by moving things around, seeing how the flow works, you’ll create more tension and bring on the drama.

Do you use consider hook lines when you write, or do they happen naturally?  

Find out more about conflict and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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*Originally published March, 2011


  1. Great Post. I often employ the hook line in my own writing. For some reason, I have it a lot at the beginning of a chapter or at the end. Not so much in the middle of it though.

  2. I love seeing how such subtle alterations can change a passage so dramatically.

  3. Oooooh this is great!

    Lately in an effort to increase the tension and pacing in my book, I have been trying to time my hook lines well. I have several "big reveals" in my WIP and I wanted to make sure the event was given the proper impact so the knowledge could settle in properly.

    The only hitch I am having is when the reveal "Luke, I am your father" moment happens in the middle of the scene. On one hand, I could insert a scene break, but on the other hand I worry it will mess with the pacing if I break away in the middle of the scene, only for the next scene to start exactly where you left off.

    Thanks for the example. I am very proud of myself, in that I picked out the "Just like they’d need every weapon they could get." line as a hook.

    I also thought "If he was willing to do this, what else was he willing to do to win?" was a good hook as well, since you can make the reader wonder a) what worse things this guy will do and b) when Ipstan actually does something worse, it's excellent foreshadowing.

    I like your choice better though, and I can see how it's even stronger than Ipstan's willingness to do bad things.

  4. I'm putting this post in my save folder to go back to when I'm editing my WIP. It will be a good measuring tool while I'm re-evaluating my hooks. Thanks.

  5. Dawn: Thanks! I've found they're very useful for middles to keep the momentum going.

    Paul: Me too :) That's half the fun of writing these kins of posts.

    Elisabeth: There's nothing wrong with having a great hook line and continuing the scene. You don't have to break it if the scene needs to continue. It often feels like you ought to cause they make great enders, but they work just fine slipped in now and then.

    Linda: Most welcome!

  6. Great examples. They really show what you mean. I'll have to watch for that more in my own writing.

  7. I love using them at the end of a chapter to keep the reader turning pages. A favorite hook line from current WIP (chapters alternate 1st person female protagonist / third person)


    I stood at the end of the pier, bloody, wet and alone, buffeted by the gusts. The wind lashed the ocean into furious caps of green foam, angry at the world. I could sympathize. Except my world, right now, was one person.

    And if it killed me, he was going to pay.


    Loved you post, Janice. Great examples of which piece ti pull out for the hook.

  8. Natalie: Thanks! When you start looking for them, they usually start popping out.

    Tony: Cool stuff :) Hook lines for chapter enders are a must.

  9. This is great! I use lines like that all the time. I actually have to be careful not to overdo it. :) And this is a great look at how to make sure you use that powerful formatting technique to really add to the conflict.

  10. I have a love hate with those. Sometimes they leave me gasping for what's next. Sometimes I roll my eyes. I actually liked the question, separate paragraph style the best. Thanks for this topic.

  11. Jami: Maybe it's the designer in me, but how lines appear visually on the pages affects how I read them.

    Shannon: I agree with that. When they're clearly there for the "hook" in a CSI catch-phrase before the opening credits type way they're often pretty groan-worthy. Interesting that you liked the question one best. Just goes to show that different hooks can work in the same para for different readers :)

  12. Nicely said.

    I'm all about hook lines and dramatic pauses but I'd never really thought about how I use them. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  13. I used to do so many things without thinking why before I started this blog. Now I pay a lot of attention (cause I need topics)and I think it's made me a better writer. Understanding why we do something goes a long way to using it in the best way possible.

  14. A paragraph is a blade lying on its side: the middle gives it heft, but all its real work is done with the sharp lines along the top and bottom.

    And a small one becomes a bullet.

    1. What a lovely way of putting that :) And so true.

  15. This is great, Janice! Love the example. I've been told by my editor, as well as cautioned by my writing mentor, to be careful not to overuse end-of-chapter hooks, because they can lose their effectiveness. They are great for keeping the tension going, but readers need a break to take a breath (and maybe grab a snack, take the dog out, etc :) )

    1. That's good advice, and very true, especially when the hook doesn't have a strong enough payoff in the next chapter. It's easy to end with an "Oh no!" moment and then resolve it in the first paragraph of the next chapter (that's bad).

  16. Janice, now you have me wonder how many hook lines should be in a story. In the one I'm working on right now, I can think of three places where this technique could be used and there may be more. True, they'd have to be subtle but could there be more than one place to use this?

    1. They'll exist all through the story. There's no set rule for it, you just have to trust your instincts and look at the pacing. If there's something that re-hooks you and keeps you reading every time you feel like skimming ahead to "the good stuff" you probably have one.