Hooking the Reader

I place a lot of emphasis on having a good hook in a short story.  A hook is really just a sentence or two at the very beginning of story that piques the interest of the reader so that they will want to continue.

I think having a good hook is essential when writing short stories and it’s less important for novels, but some of the best novels I have read had hooks throughout.  Rather than just move from one plot point to the next, they pose an interesting dilemma or thought that isn’t fully explained at first, but then is fleshed out in the following paragraphs or chapter.  It’s sets the tone for the entire work to follow.  The hook is perhaps the most important sentence you will write, and if it’s done well, you’ll keep your reader engaged, even if the story falters along the way.

As a self-analysis, I’ve gone back through my own work to see what hooks I used and evaluated how effective they were (or weren’t), and why.  Here’s a few from stories I have written:

Imagine putting a plastic bag over your head and bind it closed around your neck. Then, punch a pinhole in the bag where your mouth is and try to breath.

This starts out really ominous and creepy.  No doubt, the reader is wondering what freakish reason someone might do such a thing.  I move on to explain that this is what the thin atmosphere is like on Everest.  This is one of my favorite hooks ever.

Karina killed another clown in her room today. Her aim is improving.

Yea, this one has WTF written all over it.  The story goes on and continues to get weirder before everything is explained, but I do love these opening lines.  12 words of power and influence.  Yay me.

My new car is an Infiniti, spelled with an ‘I’ at the end, not a ‘Y’.

What I was shooting for on this line was setting the tone that was to be one of the smarmiest bits of writing I have ever done.  I think this line could have been better, but it afforded the opportunity to make fun of clever advertising and so I like it.

Another meeting – another analysis of things that don’t really matter – another hour of life I won’t get back.

Another smarmy beginning.  In retrospect, I think this sets the tone of the piece that follows very well, but probably causes some readers to immediately cash out because it’s so negative.

Yosemite National Park in Northern California is my absolute favorite place to take a vacation. Everything is on a different scale while you are in the valley, surrounded by huge granite walls and towering trees.

Setting the locale immediately, I was trying to immerse the reader in what it is like to be in Yosemite and to be engaged with the natural, majestic beauty of the place.  I think this one is pretty weak, and if I were to rewrite it, I wouldn’t be so obvious.

It was just a bad day all the way around, and six o’clock was slow arriving. That’s when I get to unshackle myself from my desk and shuffle out the door.

Smarmy.  Again, I probably alienate some potential readers with such a negative perception, but the whole piece went on like this, so it set the tone well, and if a reader doesn’t like that beginning, they probably wouldn’t enjoy the story either.  Incidentally, the story ends on a happy note.

“Back away from the beer!”

I like this one a lot.  The natural response in a reader’s mind would be “why?”  If you can get the reader to ask questions like this, you’ve already hooked them and they will likely read more.

“I hate saying goodbye.”

Already, the reader has a vibe for what this piece is going to be about.  This was actually one of the sadder pieces I have ever written, but I tried to do it with a style that implied a bitter-sweetness.  I think it works ok for what I was trying to do.

I took the card from him and shoved it in my pocket without looking at it. At an event like this, people handed out business cards like they were throwing confetti.

Smarmy and sharp.  Again, I might be alienating some potential readers with such a negative observation, but this was one of the most harsh and gruesome pieces I have ever written, so I think it’s good that reader gets to assess this early on.  I have had readers tell me that they bailed on this story later on due to the uncomfortable nature of the story.  Others did finish it but were very reserved in their opinions.  It was a really weird one, and actually worried me a little bit that I even thought it up.

We called the car ‘Battle Axe’.

I really did have a car that we called Battle Axe.  Hopefully, this sets the stage and piques the reader’s curiosity about the car.  Truth is, the story wasn’t about the car at all, though it was a character in the story, so this was a sleight-of-hand trick I was trying to do and I think it’s an egregiously flawed hook.

Flaghart took the plate. As he strode up, he pointed directly at the pitcher.

A baseball story.  I never finished it because I just didn’t like it that much, but this opening line clearly sets the stage for what is to follow, but doesn’t really hook the reader.

I am two hours into the flight and have two more to go. This is usually the time where I start to get real antsy; two hours in.

Again, just setting the place and overall vibe.  It’s not brilliant, but it’s functional and probably a situation most people can identify with easily.

I’ll stop here.  Some of these hooks were better than others, of that, there is no doubt.  Some of them even drove potential readers away, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  If they didn’t like that opening line, they probably wouldn’t like the rest of the piece.  You can’t please every one all the time, can you?


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