The All-Important “Wait! What was that?”

I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to revise my beginnings about ten times more than any other part of my stories. It is, in my opinion, the single most important part of a piece of fiction. It’s the handshake, the introduction, the ever important first impression. It’s the moment when the reader decides in a split second if they want to be friends with your characters and make a prolonged visit to your world.

The overriding wisdom where beginnings are concerned is that you should start late, in the middle of something, where some action is happening. This is all well and good, but how exactly does one put that into effect?

Thus enters the hook.

The best definition of the hook isn’t all that great, in my opinion. It’s something that catches the reader’s attention and makes them have to buy your book to find out what happens next. But I’m a girl who likes specifics. So, I had a look at the first paragraph of a bunch of books to see how the experts do it. What I’ve come up with is that a hook is something expressed that makes the reader stop and say to themselves, “Wait! What was that?”

What really catches the attention is when the author insidiously reaches out to a reader’s inner five-year-old and makes them want to ask, “Why?”

First, let’s start with the most obvious hook – the action hook. A good example of this is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first of the First Law Trilogy. The first paragraph of this character driven series has Logan, one of the main characters, almost killing himself in his haste to get down a hill. What on Earth is he running from in such a reckless hurry? Read on to find out.

Thomas Harris does this in a less obvious way with The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is running down stairs to reach the division that deals with serial killers, a part of Quantico that’s “half-buried in the earth” (foreshadowing anyone?). She’s disheveled from racing there from training. We ask why an FBI trainee is running to deal with a serial killer without cleaning herself up first. And thus, we are hooked.

Another obvious hook is the “I should have known” hook. In Glen Cook’s The Black Company, the first paragraph has the narrator stating, in his typical dry humor, that, according to the Company’s wizard, One-Eye, there were “prodigies and portents” that should have warned our heroes of what was coming. What happened to these guys that declares itself with “prodigies and portents?” Nothing good, I tell you.

But what about those less than obvious hooks?

How about the slightly off-kilter reality hook? Jack Linday introduces his serial killer hero in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by having Dexter wax rhapsodic over the Miami night. Unlike the action hook, it’s Dexter’s point of view that gets us. While it starts out innocuous, by the end of the first paragraph, Lindsay’s word choice turns the world into a dangerous place. The starlight has a “hollow wail” and the moon’s reflection on the water is a “teeth-grinding bellow.” Who is this guy and why does he see the world this way?

My favorite rendition of this type of hook comes from Clive Barker’s Galilee and is the only time I’ve ever bought a book from reading the first page. The first paragraph is just the narrator talking about the house he’s sitting in. Not all that exciting, but the devil is in the details. You see, the narrator’s step-mother hired Thomas Jefferson to build it in a North Caroline swamp facing her homeland of Africa.

Let me just state that this book is set in modern days, so we have at least one character who was alive in the late 1700’s, is from Africa, and built her house in a swamp in North Carolina. What the devil is going on here?

Then, there’s the “I’ve got a secret” hook. Jim Butcher uses this in the first book of the Alera Codex series, The Furies of Calderon. A woman is riding a bull, thinking about how the slave collar she’s wearing chafes and she should wear one more often to prepare herself for her next mission. Why is a woman wearing a slave collar when she doesn’t have to, and what’s this mission she’s on? She knows more than we do, and thus has a secret we want in on.

So, what did all these examples prove? Well, basically that it really doesn’t matter how you start your story, as long as that first paragraph makes your reader stop and ask, “Wait! What was that?”


8 responses on “The All-Important “Wait! What was that?”

  1. Evan

    Great article, Leigh. I really struggle with hooks — not that I don’t have them, but that I have a hard time communicating them in the first paragraph. My tendency is to build my prologue/first chapter to a cliffhanging hook moment, but for a lot of readers that just isn’t fast enough. Need to get more efficient!

  2. Ivory

    I agree in general with what you’re saying (especially about the best hooks making the reader ask who, what, and especially why), but my concern is if you aim to make your reader stop and ask “wait, what?” it’s a fine line between intriguing them and giving them a chance to put the book down.

    What really interested me was that reaction you’re describing each time (with the exception of The Black Company) was in response to something unexpected, something different, something surprising – even if it was just the language. From a practical point of view, that gives us two types of hooks to play with so far:

    I should have known (what is going to happen/has happened?)
    Something surprising (about the character, setting, history, language… possibly humourous)

    Both create mystery and foreshadow something. I suspect all the best hooks do. Can anyone think of any other types of hook? (Or other elements that a good hook contains?)

    What about danger? (why is this character in danger?)

  3. leigh Post author

    Thanks, guys.

    Ivory, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, there. The mystery is exactly what pulls people in, which is why starting late is always a great way to begin the story. And yes, the key is to start with something that piques the curiosity rather than brings on confusion. It’s a VERY thin line to walk because you want to reader to want to catch up with events without annoying them with vagueness. Starting with a great hook isn’t easy.

    But, of course, even the best hooks aren’t foolproof. I happen to think Brandon Sanderson is brilliant at it, but I also know people who don’t like reading his books.

  4. Brandon M Lindsay

    Great post, Leigh!

    I agree that hooks are absolutely critical, since nothing else matters if the reader isn’t hooked. It seems that in the examples that you gave, as well as other successful hooks that come to mind, there is a strong element of suspense.

    If the reader is asking questions, it’s usually a result of some tantalizing tidbit of information with withheld, or suspended (the bait of the hook, if you will). On the flipside of that, most books that I’ve put down after a few pages simply didn’t leave me asking any questions. Everything seemed pretty straightforward, and life seemed to be progressing as normal. There was no bait on the hook.

    One of the things Terry Goodkind does better than almost anyone else is open with an interesting hook. Usually the first sentence does the trick. From Blood of the Fold:

    “At the exact same instant, the six women suddenly awoke, the lingering sound of the screams echoing around the cramped officer’s cabin.”

    Who are these women? Why did they wake up at the same time? What made them all scream? Just this one sentence has more hooks than most books achieve in an entire first chapter. Lots of writers give TG flak, but I think there’s a lot to learn from his books, and writing a great hook is one of them.

  5. Colette

    Great discussion. I think there are as many types of hooks as there are types of people. Some people are sucked in by a certain element, while others are turned off. I think it depends on what the reader is looking for. So the hook needs to represent your story: the style, subject matter, type of mystery, etc. It’s the best, and most representative, of all those things put into a single sentence, paragraph, then page…and let the story unfold from there. And if the story premise sounds promising enough, I’ll give an author a couple of pages extra to hook me in.

  6. Frank Morin

    Excellent post, and great thoughts in the comments.

    I think the best hooks reflect the kind of story you’re getting into. If I’m reading a fast action military thriller, the best hook is something that makes me think I’d better hold on for a wild ride.

    If I’m reading an epic fantasy, it can be anything that gives a glimpse into the world (sense of wonder), danger, or other aspect the writer will explore.

    The worst thing you can do is open with a hook that sets the wrong tone for the rest of your story. No matter how good the rest of the novel, you’ll leave readers feeling disappointed or even betrayed that you haven’t fulfilled the promise the hook offered.

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