Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Crafting Hook Lines that Draw Readers in

By Janice Hardy, @Janie_Hardy

There's more than one way to hook a reader. Which is fortunate since we want to hook them on every page.

I've been writing most of my life, and I can still remember when I learned certain aspects of writing. Some lessons just stick with you, and what a "hook line" was is one of those lessons.

Around twelve years ago, I was at the Surrey International Writers' Conference (SiWC) and my "Blue Pencil CafĂ©" appointment--which is where an author or editor reads and critiques the first two pages of your manuscript. It was an enlightening experience.

I was meeting with author Carol Berg (a delightful woman), and as she read my pages, she put check marks on quite a few lines and said:

HER: You have some great hook lines here.
ME: Thanks! (Made mental note to look up what a “hook line” was)

Back then I didn't know what she was talking about, but she explained what she liked about those lines, so it became obvious what she meant. I was instinctively doing something right.

When I got home, I did some research on the whole "hook line thing." I wanted to know what it was, why it mattered, and most of all, how to do it again, because clearly this was something important I needed to keep doing.

So, what are hook lines?

Hook lines are those great one-line zingers that make you think, "Cool line". They evoke an emotional response from the reader, because they pack a lot of emotional punch. Maybe they're deep, or funny, or foreboding, or just perfectly capture what the scene or story theme is about.

They're probably also the lines that get the most positive feedback from your critique group, because they do what the name implies.

They hook you.

Often these lines stand alone in the text, because you’re trying to emphasize that thought. The visual importance and poignancy is what makes them hook. If they’re not on their own line, they’re almost always the last line in a paragraph. as the last line of a paragraph carries the most impact.

(Here’s more on Wait For It: Hook Lines and the Dramatic Pause) 

How do you find hook lines in your manuscript?

Odds are yes, even if they're hidden in the middle of a paragraph and just need to be brought out.

Grab a page from your manuscript. Any page. Read through and highlight every line that makes you think, “Ooo that’s good.”

If you have a page with a scene or chapter end, the last line is likely a hook line. (If not, it really ought to be). If it’s a scene or chapter opener, the hook will be in 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 readers that this is a dangerous thing for Nya (the protagonist) to be doing. Something could go wrong. But it also shows Nya’s humor, and hopeful elicits a chuckle from readers.
At least I didn’t mumble.
This line also has the humor, and shows 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 a sad statement that says a lot about 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 readers curious 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 characters often cover a strong emotion under a joke or quip. There’s a hint of something happening in a good hook line, either a goal stated outright, or a subtle sense of danger or failure (as in the mumble line).

(Here’s more on What Writers Need to Know About Hooks) 

How do you write a great hook 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 do one or more of the following:

1. They're funny. 

Humor is a great hook. Make us laugh and we’ll stay with you. Is there an idea or funny quip you can punch up and pull out? Can you use humor to make a point? Does your character have a dry wit or comedic take on the situation?

2. They're full of emotion. 

Doesn’t matter what the emotion is, but you touch the reader in some way. What's the dominating emotion the scene? Find lines that support that, or will draw a reader's attention to it.

3. They suggest something more is going on. 

That hint of danger or what’s to come. Or maybe a hint that a secret is here somewhere. Hook lines often hint at or outright state the stakes of a scene. Can you foreshadow a little in a foreboding or intriguing way? Tease the reader a little about something they'll want to know more about.

4. They're personal to the character.

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 rarely make me want to read on. Pure descriptions are static, while hooks are active. Personal connections make them about something, which makes them draw you in and push you on.

5. They're at the end of a something.

Hooks tend to be the last thing you read. End of a scene, a paragraph, or all alone on a line. It’s frequently the punch right before a pause, so it stands out even more.

(Here's more on Double Jeopardy: Hooking the Reader's Brains and Heart)

How many hooks should you have per page? 

It varies. This isn’t a formula, where you plug in three hooks and you’re golden. If you have too many hooks, the manuscript can start to feel like a slew of one-liners, not a story. If you have too few, the scene can drag and feel text heavy.

My rule of thumb: I aim for 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 protagonist isn’t driving the scene there.

If you don’t have any hook lines on a page, look for spots where you can add one. Is there a place where your protagonist 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 force in a hook line just because the page doesn't have one. Hook lines 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 will likely fall flat. A joke that fits the scene and says something deeper about it will land the emotional punch.

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? 

*Originally published October 2011. Last updated January 2020.

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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  1. Great post! I love hooks, esp the funny ones. And, I had to chuckle that you made a mental note to look up the definition, did that myself recently. A CP commented I drew great paralell reactions btwn characters and I had to noodle on that for a bit! I was like, "I did? What is that?" ;)

  2. The only hooks I work at are the chapter/scene endings. But one of my crit partners points out other lines he likes, so my subconscious must include a few.

    One more thing to look at in edits.


    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. Great post Janice. I tend to think of hooks at the beginning and the end of chapters, but I love the thought of sprinkling them thorough out.

  4. I don't add hook lines by will, but sometimes (not often), when I read through stuff I've written, I find them >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  5. I only ever heard the phrase `hook lines' referring to a story's opening. I never thought to look for them elsewhere. I'll have to remember that.

  6. I use one-liner paragraphs (which usually comes from the narrator) that has a touch of sarcasm in them. I try limiting them to a couple per chapter though, since they stand out. But I do put hook lines in the narrative.

    About number five: I read a blog entry somewhere how a powerful sentence has the emphasized word at the end. For example: "Give me liberty, or give me death". "Death" is the emphasise of the sentence.

    I have been using this to give my writing a little punch. Or is it "I had been using this to give a little punch to my writing"? What do you think reads better?

  7. Great rule of thumb. I know I think of hooks for the end of a chapter but maybe not enough per page.

  8. Thanks all!

    I think most of us probably naturally put hook lines in our work. Good storytelling has that occasional punch to keep things moving. I know I did and never even thought about it until it was pointed out.

    Those are the little things I love to be aware of though. They work, and work for a reason, so why not consciously take advantage of them?

    CO, I'd go with "give my writing a little punch" myself. Feels stronger there at the end. The punch is the emphasis, not the writing.

  9. This is interesting - I'd always thought hooks were those dramatic points in thrillers that up the tension and add mystery to keep you reading the next chapter.

    Lines like, "As he set down the phone, the doorstep creaked."

    But I really like your expanded definition - how humor and emotion can pull us into a story just as much.

  10. For a recent short story that I published, the editor highlighted some lines that really stood out to her. I'm guessing those were hook lines.
    Note to self: go through current work-in-progress for this.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Sounds like hook line to me. And it also sounds like you're doing it naturally as well. :)