When faced with an empty page, finding the ideal place to begin your story may seem impossible. The task can become such a burden that you might avoid starting altogether.
In Story Genius, Lisa Cron summarizes the problem thus: “What, specifically, will happen to start the chain reaction that will cause everything to happen?” She’s describing what is often known as the hook. Because it’s the very first taste of your story, it can be the most difficult to determine. Readers want you to spark their interest so they’ll have a reason to continue. Some are patient, but most aren’t.
The hook can be the most powerful plot point in your entire story. A strong hook not only grabs readers’ attention, it makes them ask questions about the story and the protagonist. If you focus on three areas, you can create a scene that will reveal your story’s heartbeat and make it echo until readers reach the end.
1. Paint a Clear Picture of Who Your Protagonist Is
A breathtaking plot can only carry a story so far. But when a plot is married to a compelling character, your story will soar. The hook introduces readers to your protagonist and demonstrates why they should empathize with her.
In the wildly popular dystopian novel Red Rising, the audience is “hooked” as they watch Helldiver Darrow drill underneath Mars’ surface for Helium-3. Darrow risks whatever is necessary to help his caste, the Reds, achieve a better life. Our first impression is that he’s a determined underdog, willing to endanger his life for others, which encourages us to keep reading.
In his historical retelling of the famous Robin Hood, Stephen Lawhead hooks the audience with eight-year-old prince Bran’s hunt for a wild boar in the wild countryside of Wales. As he stalks this prize to honor his dying mother, we see his grit and unmerciful tenacity. His passion for his people and land impress us, making his transformation into the formidable Raven King believable and inevitable.
When shaping your hook, look at your protagonist and challenge yourself with tough questions. Why should anyone care about him? What will launch him on his journey? Why do the story’s events matter? And which details will leave readers craving more? A few well-timed actions can convince your audience that the protagonist is worth following through the story.
2. Establish the Story’s Tone
Besides building a connection to your protagonist, the hook sets the story’s mood. This is often accomplished in the first sentence, as in A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” The line hints at the kind of story that’s ahead—heartbreaking and hopeful.
Compare that to the opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” It’s light and whimsical but also sly, indicating more wit to come.
Don’t bait readers only to switch tones in the next scene. You’ll overturn their expectations and either confuse them, or worse, cause them to bail. Remember that you can’t please everyone, and that’s okay. Decide what tantalizing promise you want to make with the hook and then be certain to deliver.
3. Ask a Narrative Question that Piques Curiosity
As a writer, questions are your best friend. Part of a story’s magic is the uncertainty it raises in readers’ minds. Will the protagonist succeed at her goal? How will she react to a situation? What’s the meaning of sacrifice? If you keep readers wondering, they’ll keep searching for the answers within the pages of your book.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone immediately pulls readers in, not because of the Dursley’s and their boring existence, nor the funny little people running about London, but because the title of chapter one is startling. Who is “The Boy Who Lived”? Why was he supposed to die? Who tried to kill him? And how did he survive? Before we’ve read a single word of Rowling’s novel, we’re struck with four questions that not only drive Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone but also the entire seven-book series.
The answer to “Why did Harry survive?” is the point of Rowling’s novels. Getting readers to ask that question is her hook. When you evaluate your own story, try to identify the most important truth you need to communicate—then work backward. How can you trigger a question that will lead readers toward that conclusion?
Charles Dickens hooks readers in a similar fashion in his timeless novel, A Christmas Carol. The title of chapter one (“Marley’s Ghost”) combined with the opening line (“Marley was dead, to begin with.”) begs the question, Who is Marley? What happens now that he’s dead? And with his ghost’s appearance around the corner, who is this story about?
Dickens marvelously shows readers exactly where they’re going, because A Christmas Carol revolves around saving Ebenezer Scrooge’s soul. By prompting these questions about the deceased and who he visits post mortem, we’re captured from page one.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
The best way to learn is to study and imitate the masters. Avi hits all three key traits of a hook in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. The novel opens with Charlotte Doyle speaking candidly to her audience.
“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was just such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago.” She’s a determined and strong woman, and right away we understand this from her voice, character, and word choices as she recounts the incident of 1832. Her tone is serious, even ominous, and conveys the trial by fire that’s coming. How could any thirteen-year-old girl be charged with murder? What were the circumstances? And how did Charlotte manage to weather such a storm? Even the word “true” in the title suggests that we’re about to receive an unknown testimony.
Whether you capitalize on a title, a single sentence, or an entire scene, when you make readers care, nothing will hold them back. Character, tone, and curiosity work in tandem to form a moment that will launch your protagonist’s journey. Crafting a hook that hits all these criteria may seem impossible, but don’t despair. No matter how much time you take, once you find the perfect beginning, your story will be unstoppable.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.