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Monday, March 3

5 Ways to Hook Your Readers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

"You need a strong hook" is advice you hear a lot of in writing, and it's good advice. A strong hook pulls readers in and makes them want to read more.

It “hooks” the reader, captures attention, and piques interest in the novel. The gotcha or twist that makes the novel compelling and fresh.

It’s the “ooooh” factor that probably got you excited about the idea in the first place. It might be a plot point, a character goal, or a conflict. It could even be the theme.

In harsh terms, the hook is why a reader (or agent) should care about your book and not pick up someone else’s. It’s also how readers choose the novels they read, because one book will stand out and be more appealing than another—one “hooks” more than the other.

However, it’s important to remember that a hook doesn’t mean an original or unique idea. It’s easy for writers to get caught up in thinking that they have to be unique to be published, and throw out great ideas for not being different enough. Just being different doesn’t mean you’ll have a good hook.

What makes a hook strong is the type of reaction it gets from a potential reader. A novel about sentient snails might be unique, but it probably doesn’t make you want to read it. The Wizard of Oz told from the Wicked Witch’s point of view gives you a new perspective on something you already love—and probably something you’ve always wanted to know yourself.

Strong hooks can be unique, but they can also be fresh takes on a much-loved idea. Look at how many times Romeo and Juliet has been done. Same story, new hook, by changing something and approaching it in a fresh way. So while hooks are important to a novel, don’t feel pressured into feeling you must be unique and compelling. That’s a lot to ask from a writer. When in doubt, go for the most compelling concept.

There’s no formula for a good hook, but it typically presents an unexpected combination of things or a surprising question or image.
  • What if a killer shark attacked a beach during a major holiday? (Jaws)
  • A world where everyone over thirty is killed (Logan’s Run)
  • A healer who can use other people’s pain as a weapon (The Shifter)

Hooks are most often found within the protagonist, the core conflict, the theme, the setting, or the concept, but they can be anything that piques interest and shows off the compelling aspect of your novel. They might be phrased as a question, or just a statement about a situation or a character.

The Protagonist Hook

There’s something different about the protagonist. She has a power, she’s someone unexpected, she has a compelling occupation. Often the protagonist has decided to do something unexpected with that ability or skill. The protagonist is what hooks readers to want to read more about this person.
  • A serial killer becomes a cop to put his homicidal urges to good use by killing only people who beat the legal system and get away with murder. (Dexter)
  • A boy who is a strategic genius helps the military win a battle against an alien foe. (Ender Wiggins)
  • A brilliant, yet abrasive, detective solves crimes no one else can. (Sherlock Holmes)

What the protagonist hook offers readers is a character they just can't walk away from. This person is larger than life in some way, and provides a look into a fascinating mind. Readers may or may not want to be this person, but they find them compelling all the same.

(More on crafting great protagonists here)

The Core Conflict Hook

The core conflict of the novel revolves around a special or unexpected event or situation. The problem itself draws readers in, and they want to see how this issue will unfold.
  • Children are chosen at random to fight to the death in a televised event. (The Hunger Games)
  • America falls into a civil war between the red and blue states. (Empire)
  • A town cuts itself off from the rest of the world during an epidemic. (The Last Town on Earth)

What the core conflict hook offers is a situation that has to be seen to completion. Readers need to know how this will turn out, what will happen, and what the results will be.

(More on building core conflicts here)

The Theme Hook

The theme explores an idea in a compelling way. Often these novels are more literary in nature, but a solid theme hook can also drive a more commercial novel. The hook poses a philosophical question the reader finds intriguing and then explores it.
  • Two guys with the same name have a chance encounter that profoundly changes both their lives. (Will Grayson, Will Grayson)
  • A girl who longs to run away from home discovers there’s no place like home after all. (The Wizard of Oz)
  • In a world where humanity is falling apart, what does it mean to be human? (The Road)

What the theme hook offers is a chance to look at a deeper concept, explore an idea, or be confronted with a philosophy you might not agree with. It makes you think or reflect in some way that lingers even after the book is done.

(More on developing your theme here)

The Setting Hook

A setting hook offers readers a world (in the most general terms) that intrigues them and makes them want to explore it. It’s unusual and a place readers might want to visit regardless of what kind of novel is set there. It usually triggers a sense of adventure or what kinds of adventures might occur there.
  • A wizard school hidden within the normal world (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • A boarding school for teen spies (I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You)
  • The moor surrounding a mysterious estate (Wuthering Heights)

What a setting hook offers is a world you don't want to leave, or one you want to explore. It's a cool place to be even if there was no plot or story going on.

(More on choosing a setting here)

The Concept Hook

The basic idea is unusual and poses a question that begs an answer. The concept is so intriguing readers want to see how the novel unfolds. These are often posed as “what if” questions.
  • What if Peter Pan grew up? (Hook)
  • What if Napoleon had had dragons? (His Majesty’s Dragon)
  • What if you could clone dinosaurs? (Jurassic Park)

What the concept hook offers is a question that demands an answer. It's something readers didn't even know they wanted an answer to until you asked the question.

(More on developing ideas here)

Wherever the hook comes from, it’s the thing that makes people’s eyes light up when you mention it.

What are some of your favorite hooks? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Wow just in time! I am about to go over my novel one last time before letting the editor at it again.... this hookey thing here does provide fresh perspective so badly needed by me right now :) Thanks again.

    1. Glad it found you at the right time! My gremlins did their jobs well.

  2. This gives me a lot to think about regarding my current MG WiP. Thank you.

  3. Excellent examples of excellent hooks. Thanks, Janice!

  4. Aww, I would read a book about sentient snails. (Provided the snails were interesting.) :) On a more serious note, this is a very nice breakdown of story elements that people don't always think about as being a hook. I know my mom really loved the Mitford books. In that case the hook is the setting and small town atmosphere. `Watership Down' would be an idea hook; a Greek or Roman style epic with a Cassandra-like prophecy at the beginning and a theft of the Sabine women to kick off the climax- and the heroes are all rabbits. And it is a genuinely Epic story.

    1. If it was a good book, and that's the trick. Thanks. There are so many ways to hook a reader, but the focus get puts on the big ones a lot. Some stories don't work with those kinds of hooks.

  5. Nice and systematic analysis.

    The opening of The Road is indeed a good one. I think Cormac McCarthy is my vorbild when it comes to mastering the English language.

    Cold As Heaven

    1. Thanks. I've actually never read him, but I know lots of folks enjoy his work a great deal.

  6. HI Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    I'm a big fan of superhero concept hooks - what if a teenager got bitten by a radioactive spider and gained a spider's powers?
    Another one I've seen recently, which is a musical rather than a book, but is 'what if the grand vizier in Aladdin is actually a mis-represented good guy' It's called Twisted and is fantastic.
    My personal fave, being a Joss Whedon geek, would have to be 'what if there's a ditzy blond school girl who also happens to be a vampire slayer?' :)

    1. Love the Buffy one. I also love when they flip it to see life on the antagonist's side.

  7. My condensed version: A hook is a question intriguing enough to make the reader want to spend hours reading to learn the answer.

  8. Love this! Thanks for sharing! :) And that last line... the thing that makes people's eyes light up -- great example!

  9. Technology that allows you to rewrite your identity and skills for particular jobs and then erase all memory of the incident. (Dollhouse, Joss Whedon show.)
    A seemingly-foppish British lord dedicated to smuggling French aristocrats out of Revolutionary France. (Scarlet Pimpernel.)

    Aaand based on this post, I *really* want to find His Majesty's Dragon!

    1. Good ones. There's a whole Dragon series, and I'm sure you can find it online easy enough.

  10. Thanks for another great post Janice.

  11. Eeps, wanted to say this is a keeper, and thanks for the great tips -- but my original note was gobbled up. Thanks, Janice. :)

    1. Bleh, hate when that happens. Glad you found the tips helpful.

  12. Thanks for the tip! Just in time, I was just looking for this hihi. I want to improve writing so that I can be a successful writer someday! :D