First impressions matter, and in writing and storytelling, a writer only has a few seconds to impress a reader. That’s why the hook is critical. The hook is the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, or the first part of a story or article that grabs—or hooks—the reader’s attention and keeps him or her glued to your story.
As I’ve helped aspiring writers compose their keepsake stories (www.ProjectKeepsake.com) in the last three years, I’ve compiled a list of tips to help others craft killer hooks. Here are a few of my suggestions.
- Learn from the Masters—Several years ago, a writing instructor urged me and other students to thumb through a Reader’s Digest and read the hooks of each story. I took this idea a step further and started studying how other writers started their own novels and stories. You can learn so much from this exercise. In fact, I’ve written a separate blog post (click here) that lists some of my favorite hooks from best selling authors Jeannette Walls, Alice Sebold, Olive Ann Burns, Rick Bragg, and others. Browse your book shelf. Open your favorite books and study the openings of the stories.
- Lights, Camera, Action—Use action to pull your reader immediately into your story. Here’s an example of a blah and boring beginning: My dad wore an old Atlanta Braves baseball cap. And here’s a better beginning (with action): With the winning run on third base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the fate of the season rested on the batter’s shoulders as he stepped up to the plate and started his routine of practice swings. The stadium rocked and roared as fans chanted the Atlanta Braves’ battle cry and made tomahawk chopping motions with their right arms in unison. I shifted nervously in the plastic bleacher seat then looked over at my dad—his pale blue eyes glued on the batter. He removed his faded Braves baseball cap and blotted summery beads of sweat from his brow and balding head with a white handkerchief he kept in his pocket.
- Sing to the Senses—Incorporating sensory detail in your first sentences or first paragraphs is another technique that will help hook your readers from the get-go. Paint vibrant visual images that activate the mind’s eye. Use words that appeal to the reader’s sense of hearing or smell. Describe a scene or situation using words that excite the reader’s sense of taste or touch. For example, you could write: The cabin was near the river. If I rewrite the sentence using sensory detail, I might compose something like: The old log cabin near the roaring, raging river smelled like fish, pine, and decaying leaves. The revised sentence appeals to the reader’s sense of hearing (roaring), smell (fish, pine, decaying leaves), and sight (old log cabin).
- Add a Dose of Dialogue—Sometimes, placing interesting or provocative dialogue at the beginning of a story grabs the reader’s attention. For example, most readers would keep reading if they were plunged into the middle of someone else’s drama. “Just get out! Get out! Jenna yanked up a dirty tee shirt and a pair of jeans from the shag carpet and flung the garments out the open door.“I never want to see your sorry ass again!” She lunged forward in a fit of hysteria, but Jamie caught her fists before she made contact with his bare chest. “Calm down,” he said gripping her hands and gritting his teeth. “Listen to me—I can explain.”
- Craft Questions—You can also use a question to hook a reader. Much like saying “Knock, knock,” triggers a “Who’s there?” reply, reading a question often provokes a response. The reader suddenly feels compelled to answer the question making him or her vested in the story, and that’s what you want—a connection between the reader and your story. For example, most people can’t read the following question without considering an answer: What would you do if you found out today that your spouse has a terminal illness and only has two weeks to live? What would you say to him or her?
Writing a clever or compelling hook has never been more important than it is today. People are reading less, and they have shorter attention spans than readers of the past. You’ve got to give the reader something that really piques his or her interest at the very beginning.