Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What Writers Need to Know About Hooks

hooks, hooking readers, getting readers to read on
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writers get a lot of advice on the value of hooks in a novel, but “hook” can mean different things depending on its usage.

At every stage of a novel, you have different hooks and different needs. In the idea stage, the hook is the cool thing that makes you want to write it, and will make readers want to read it. In the drafting stage, you want to hook readers with the scenes themselves to keep them reading. In the polishing stage, you want sharp hook lines and clever twists.

Every one of these situations involve hooks, but each one uses them in a different way. Not understanding the various types of hooks can lead a writer astray and cause them to struggle to fix something in their novel that might not actually be broken.

Someone might tell you, “There’s no hook,” and refer to reasons why a reader would want to see a scene unfold. But another might mean there’s no unique concept behind the plot. A third might say there’s no cool twist or clever premise behind the story.

Let’s look at things to remember when working with hooks in your novel:

The Hook of a Novel Captures Initial Attention

A novel’s hook is the “ooh, that’s cool” detail that catches attention and makes people want to read it. It might be an interesting situation, a clever idea, a compelling character, or even a unique twist. Odds are, it’s one of the things that made you want to write it in the first place.

(Here’s more on five ways to hook your reader)

The Hook of the Opening Scene Draws Readers into the Story

hooks, hooking readers, getting readers to read on
Grab readers from the get-go
Grabbing readers in the opening scene takes a slightly different approach, since you typically don’t reveal the entire book in the first few pages. But there’s something compelling going on in an opening scene that draws readers in and makes them want to see how this turns out.

But it doesn’t have to be a giant cliffhanger or people in dire straits—a great voice or clever puzzle is often a better hook than "exciting action" with no context. Readers usually need a chance to understand what’s going on and know the characters a little first before they care about the situation.

(Here’s more on hooks and the opening scene)

The Hook of a Scene Keeps Readers Invested in the Story

Every scene should have a reason readers keep reading, and this can be as simple as them wanting the answer to whatever story question you posed. Maybe it’s making them want to know how a situation will turn out, or how a plan will unfold. Maybe they want to see if two characters finally get together, or how one will react to another upon a first meeting. They might be curious about a secret or a mystery.

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions)

Hook Lines in the Text Work on a Smaller Scale to Keep Readers Engaged

Some hooks are just the hard-working lines in the text that catch a reader’s attention. Hook lines are like little rewards that remind readers why they’re reading this particular story. A funny line, a punchy phrase, a pithy or intriguing comment. They’re constant reminders why this book is so good, and encourage readers to stay with the story.

(Here’s more on crafting strong hook lines)

Emotional Hooks versus Intellectual Hooks Appeal to the Hearts and Minds of Readers

hooks, hooking readers, getting readers to read on
Grab a reader's heart and brain
There are also the hooks that work on a deeper level to catch readers’ attentions. Emotional hooks make readers care and want to see how things turn out on an emotional level. Romances excel at creating emotional hooks, since the entire point of the book is to get two characters together. Intellectual hooks appeal to the mind instead of the heart. They’re the puzzles or concepts of the story that readers want to discover the answers to. Mysteries and thrillers use strong intellectual hooks, as do many hard science fiction stories.

(Here’s more on emotional and intellectual hooks)

“Hooks” and “Hooking the Reader” Aren’t Always the Same Thing

You can have a scene that hooks a reader without having an actual hook. Making readers care about the outcome of a story “hooks” them (as in, piques their interest and makes them want to read on), even if there’s no “hook” in the traditional sense. Great writing, solid characters, strong voice, all wrapped up with an interesting plot can hook a reader simply by engaging them in the story.

(Here’s more on a surefire way to hook your readers)

hooks, hooking readers, getting readers to read on
Different hooks grab different readers
Different types of hooks will grab different types of readers, so what “hooks” varies from genre to genre as well. An emotional story requires a strong emotional hook, and readers might not be as interested in an intellectual puzzle. Hooks that continuously tug at the emotions will keep them reading.

Intellectually intrigued readers will be drawn in more by puzzles and story questions, more curious to see how a story unfolds or wanting to figure out the mystery before the protagonist does. Hooks that keep them guessing will keep them turning the pages.

And some readers want both—an emotionally compelling story with a clever plot and unpredictable story. Mixing and matching your hooks to hit both will satisfy both sides of the readers’ needs.

At the most basic level, hooks are all about convincing a reader to commit time to the story. Some work on the large scale to grab attention, others pick up that attention and hold it, and some work on a line-by-line basis to keep readers invested, but they all work together to hook and hold a reader. Ignore any of them, and the story can suffer. Use all of them, and readers won’t be able to put the book down.

What are your favorite types of hooks? What hooks you best in a story? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Dear Janice,

    It would really be helpful if the pieces you wrote were printer-friendly. You wrote about keeping readers hooked on November 11 that I really wanted so I printed it out.

    1. I don't think the blog format lets me do anything about that, but I'll check. You could copy the post itself and paste into something more printer friendly to get around that though.

  2. Hey, great advice. However, I can't figure out what this means. "a great voice or clever puzzle is often a better hook that action before readers knows what’s going on or care about the characters." Can you explain? Thank you.

    1. Sure. My skill at typos strikes again (grin). That should be "a better hook THAN action." I'll fix that sentence.

      What it means, is that starting with "exciting action" doesn't always make a good hook if readers haven't had enough time to get to know the characters enough to care about them yet.

      For example, a character in the middle of getting shot at, or rushing into a burning house, or anything that's relying on the danger of the action itself, not who is involved in that action.

      You're just describing a situation to readers, not showing them a character they will care about having a problem.

      Offering readers a funny/witty/interesting character, or something that piques their curiosity right from the start, can hook readers faster than blowing something up on page one.

      Hope that clears it up! If not, let me know. (Though odds are it was just about the typo, lol).