In today’s tutorial, we’ll be examining:
- What makes a good hook and why it is important
- How to decide where to begin your story
- Why your endings are just as important as the beginnings
What is a ‘hook’?
The first thing a person usually does when they browse the bookshelves (or a kindle library) and spot a book they think looks interesting, is to pick it up and read the blurb or the first few lines. Unless they have purposefully and specifically set out to buy or borrow that particular title, they will normally decide within the first couple of sentences whether they are going to read the rest of the story. Not the first few pages – sentences.
Your opening lines are therefore of singular importance. You want and need those first impressions to be “I’m falling in love, all over again!” and not “I hate tombs!” if your readers are going to expend their precious time and energy reading all the way to the end.
This first impression is often called the hook because it literally ‘hooks’ the reader and draws them into turning the next page. The first thing most novice writers do when writing their stories is start off with something like:
“It was a beautiful sunny day, with clouds like wisps of cotton wool. Birdsong and the sound of running water from a nearby stream filled the air. All was still and peaceful. Lara felt happy and contented.”
From this example, our wannabe writer of Tomb Raider fan-fiction seems to have become confused and stared writing a yoga meditation exercise instead. While the actual words aren’t bad per say, as the introduction to a story they’re lulling us to sleep instead of hooking our attention! It’s pure description, with nothing actually happening and no questions being raised to pique our interest. A good hook is designed to grab your readers’ attention and make them interested enough to keep on reading. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s asking a lot of people to expect them to read through an entire story. The situation becomes nigh-on impossible if you begin your stories with too much tedious, dull description. The answer is to identify the story’s hook and put it right at the beginning. You can always fill in explanations later. It’s your job to grab your readers’ attention right from the start!
So what makes a good hook? Beginning your stories in the middle of death-defying action scenes certainly puts us right in the middle of the excitement. However, this approach can get very predictable and stale. A subtler and more effective way of creating a hook is to make the reader ask questions. For example, these are the opening sentences from my novelisation of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness:
“A creature dreamed fitfully, tossing and mumbling in its sleep. Perhaps it had slept since the world began, and the dreams were all that remained of its memories. Perhaps it died long ago. If asked, it would not be able to say. It would blink and stare and wail, gnashing its rotting teeth, cursing and snarling. It was man-shaped beneath its bindings, but no one in their right mind would class the creature as human. Not any more.”
The reader is instantly drawn into asking questions: What is this ‘creature’, and why is sleeping? Why is its sleep so disturbed? Why is it ‘bound’, and why is it unable or unwilling to speak? The ‘not any more’ and the remark about memories suggests that it has been in this state for a period of time – but how long? These sentences don’t just describe what the creature looks like, but what it is doing and would potentially do. Actions, not just a static description, give us a better sense that this creature is unstable and possibly dangerous. There is a sense of menace and of dark, disturbing mystery that instantly tells the reader what kind of story this is going to be (we can probably agree that it’s not going to feature fluffy bunny rabbits or twinkly unicorns).
Here are some more examples of story openings. Spot which ones make you ask questions, and which ones are purely descriptive:
- “It was a cold morning and Lara was at home at Croft Manor.”
- “The man leaned closer and whispered, “If you accept, we’ll make sure you’re paid double.””
- ”Lara was happy as she walked through the jungle, wearing her customary aqua tank top and brown shorts.”
- “The engines coughed, jolting Lara awake as the intercom buzzed, “Uh… Miss Croft? We have a… ah, slight problem…””
Choosing where to start – narrative versus plot
You might think that digging straight into the writing would be at the top of your ‘to-do’ list after you’ve finished outlining your plot. After all, you know what your story is about – don’t you? Unfortunately for anyone in a rush, there is still a lot of thinking and planning to complete before you can dive headlong into writing your prose.
As we mentioned in the last tutorial, your plot is just the summary of your story, written as a linear sequence of events linked by cause and effect. Your narrative, however, is the plan of how you will unfold and present the story to the reader from a narrator or narrators’ viewpoint. You need to spend some time planning your narrative after you’ve sketched out your basic plot. Your narrative is what will ultimately decide the beginning, middle, and end of your story.
Suppose we wanted to write a classic Tomb Raider story in which Lara sets out to find a lost artefact, is beset by obstacles and enemies, and finally returns home with her prize. The plot is fairly predictable, so you might choose to present your narrative with an opening like this:
“The silver-topped cane thumped every other step as Lara approached the cabinet, wincing only slightly. Her reflection in the golden talisman broke into a tight, satisfied smile.”
Clearly, this is taking place after Lara has retrieved an artefact (and by the sounds of it she’s gone through quite a lot of punishment to get it!). This opening shows Lara doing something, and invites the reader to ask questions about the situation – the two golden rules of story openings. However, it also shows that the narrative is going to have a retrospective style; it will show the reader what has happened, rather than what is happening, with the end result – a triumphant Lara admiring her prize – as the opening scene. It’s difficult to generate tension on Lara’s behalf with this approach (after all, we know in advance that Lara survives whatever ordeals get thrown at her!). But having a narrative that loops back on itself – and even pops back and forth from Lara telling the story to Lara living the story – can be fun to write and interesting to read. This is just one example of how the narrative can differ from the plot. It also shows us why it is important to plan your narrative before you even write the first line. It’s up to you to decide where and how to begin your story, but make sure your hook is right at the start and is juicy enough to whet your reader’s appetite for more.
Sometimes writers like to have a prologue ahead of the story’s opening chapter. A prologue is simply an introductory scene that comes before the first chapter. It can be a convenient way for your narrative to build tension, set the tone of the story before the action starts, or foreshadow future events. However, some writers find that these get in the way and spoil the story’s momentum. Simply put, it’s up to you and your story whether you include one or not.
Beginnings and endings
So far this tutorial has been concerning itself with identifying the hook and putting it in the opening sentences or paragraphs. But the endings of scenes, chapters, and complete stories are just as important. The ending of a scene or chapter needs to do two things: 1) it must, to some extent, resolve what has happened in that scene or chapter, and 2) it must make the reader want to continue reading to find out what happens next. There is also the option of having an epilogue, which can sometimes provide the closure that the actual climax of your story might not manage on its own.
Cliff-hangers are the classic example (or cliché) of how to hook the reader with an ending. Our hero finds themselves in a situation that seems impossible to resolve or escape. Cliff-hangers are commonly action-orientated, but they can also be subtle. Good ending hooks, like their opening counterparts, also make the reader ask questions. Compare the opening and closing lines from these two chapters (again taken from my novel Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness):
Opening line: “There were a hundred reasons why I didn’t want to come to Paris.”
- Who is the narrator?
- Why didn’t they want to come to Paris?
- They obviously are in Paris at this moment (hence the use of ’come’ instead of ‘go’), so what has driven them to overcome their inhibitions?
- Where was the narrator before, i.e. where have they travelled from to get to Paris?
Closing line: “ There was nothing I could do but run.”
- Where did the narrator run to?
- Will the narrator reach their destination?
Opening line: “The woman hurried, ten minutes late for her meeting.”
- Who is this woman?
- Where is this meeting taking place?
- Why is she late?
- Why is she hurrying?
Closing line: “She could only smile, and nod, and pray her secret remained hidden.”
- Why can she only smile and nod?
- What is her secret?
- Why is she praying that her secret stays hidden?
- Who is she keeping this secret from?
Your endings should always leave your characters with unfinished business. If Lara has managed to retrieve the Golden Sceptre of Quetzalcoatl in one scene, she should still have to face the dangerous escape in the next. Last-minute clues to salvation are juicy alternatives to cliff-hangers, but don’t be tempted to reveal too much at the ending; save the explanations and answers for the next chapter!
Key points for Hooking your Reader:
- You must hook your reader from the very first sentence.
- Effective hooks make the reader ask questions.
- The narrative will usually dictate where your story starts, rather than the plot
- Endings can often serve as hooks for the next chapter or scene.
Next time – Part 4: Developing Description
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 3: Hooking Your Reader by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.