Wednesday, October 5
Hook Lines and Stinkers: Crafting Hook Lines to Draw the Reader in
Quick shout out: Today I'm over at Lucienne Diver's Drivel talking about writing war without making it all about the fighting. When you're done here, pop on over and say hello! Back to today's post...
Years ago I was at Surrey (SiWC) attending their Blue Pencil Café, which is where an author or editor reads and crits the first two pages of your manuscript. I had author Carol Berg (a delightful woman) and as she read my trunk novel pages, she made check marks on quite a few lines.
HER: You have some great hook lines here.
ME: Thanks! (Made mental note to look up what “hook line” was)
Luckily she went on to talk about those lines so it was obvious what she meant. But I definitely did some searching on that when I got home. I was doing something right by instinct, but I wanted to know what, why, and most of all, how to do it again. I wanted to be sure I understood what a hook line was.
Hook lines are those great zingers. Those one liners that get all the great feedback from your crit group. The ones that make you want to read on because they do just what the name implies.
They hook you.
Often these lines stand alone, because you’re trying to emphasize that thought. The importance and poignancy is what makes them hook. If they’re not alone, they’re almost always the last line in a paragraph.
Grab a page from your manuscript. Any page. Read through and mark every line that makes you think “ooo that’s good.”
If you have a page with a scene or chapter ender, odds are the last line is a hook line. (and it ought to be if it’s not) If it’s a scene or chapter opener, it’ll be that first line.
I grabbed a random page from The Shifter. Let’s take a peek:
Powdered women with pearls braided through their black, piled hair glared at me as I headed for the gates. Baseeri soldiers stood watch at all four entrances and kept out the folks aristocrats didn’t like seeing—which pretty much meant everyone who wasn’t from Baseer. They weren’t supposed to by law, and sometimes you could talk your way in if you looked clean and sharp and didn’t mumble your request, but nobody went in carrying a clothes basket. Squatters were not allowed under any circumstances.
I’d been inside three times with Tali since the war ended. She’d picked a lousy place for a secret meeting.
I dipped a sock into the lake and washed best I could, then hid my basket under a leafy hibiscus bush not far from the eastern entrance. Clean? Somewhat. Sharp? Not at all. At least I didn’t mumble.
The soldier watched me walk up. I didn’t slow when I neared him, making it clear I planned to go inside and did it often.
“Pardon, miss.” He stepped forward and held his arm out across the walk, looking a lot like some of the trees that grew inside. Tall, wide, brown, with a mess of gold on top. Unusual to see a blond Baseeri. Maybe he looked more like a bird than a tree. Or a bird in a tree.
“Your business here?”
“I’m meeting my sister.”
He looked me over and reluctance flashed in his dark eyes. Kindness too, if I could make use of it.
The bold lines are what I’d consider the hook lines. There’s something about them that makes me want to keep reading and makes me curious about how this is going to turn out.
She’d picked a lousy place for a secret meeting.
This one reminds me that this is a dangerous thing for Nya (the protag) to be doing. Something could go wrong. But it also shows Nya’s humor, and makes me chuckle a little.
At least I didn’t mumble.
This line also has the humor, and Nya looking on the bright side. Yet there’s also a hint that maybe she will trip up and mumble, losing the one good thing she has going for her.
Kindness too, if I could make use of it.
This is just sad, and says a lot about both the girl and the situation she finds herself in. It also suggests that Nya has a plan to take advantage of that kindness, which makes me curios to see what she’ll do.
I’ve found that hook lines work best when they’re playing on an emotion. Joy, sadness, hope, fear, regret. Even sarcasm, as that often is covering for a strong emotion. There’s a hint of something happening in them, either a goal stated outright, or a subtle sense of danger or failure (as in the mumble line).
Look back at your page and the hook lines you marked. Why are they hooking you? What about them makes you notice them? Odds are they’re one or more of the following:
Humor is a great hook. Make us laugh and we’ll stay with you.
2. Full of Emotion
Doesn’t matter what the emotion is, but you touch the reader in some way.
3. Suggesting More
That hint of danger or what’s to come. Or maybe a hint that a secret is here somewhere.
Hook lines usually aren’t descriptions. A beautifully written line can make the reader pause, but even when I admire the author’s skill, those lines never make me want to read more. They’re static. Hooks are active. Personal connections make them about something, which makes them draw you in and push you on.
5. At the End
Hooks tend to be the last thing you read. End of a paragraph, all alone on a line. It’s the punch right before a pause, so it stands out even more.
How Many Hooks Should You Have Per Page?
I asked the same question after I left that Blue Pencil Café. But this isn’t a formula, where you plug in three hooks and you’re golden. Too many and the manuscript starts to feel like a slew of one-liners, like stand-up, not a story.
My rule of thumb: I have one to three hook lines most pages, unless it’s an action scene where the high stakes themselves are doing the hooking. If you don’t have at least one hook line per page, that could be a red flag that something is off. You might have too much description or backstory, or your protag isn’t driving the scene there.
If you don’t have a hook line, look for spots where you can add one. Is there a place where your protag can think or say something funny? Can you remind readers of the goal or the stakes in a subtle (or not-so-subtle) way? Hint at a secret?
Like all “rules,” don’t add a hook like just because there’s not one there. They work because they fit the scene and highlight some aspect of it that re-kindles the reader’s interest in the story. A joke for the sake of a joke probably won’t work. A joke that fits the scene and says something deeper about it will. Don’t force the hooks, bring out the hooks.
And keep those readers reading.
Do you consciously add hooks to your work or do they develop naturally? Do you notice hooks in other writers’ work? What lines hook you?