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A checklist for your novel’s hook

Novelists today have to understand the culture our potential readers inhabit if we are to draw them into our fictional world. The average reader is being pulled in all directions by their smart phones, internet, Facebook, computer games, and numerous other distractions. That’s why it’s so important to be sure our novels begin with a compelling hook, preferably in the first page or two. Any later than that and we risk losing our over-stimulated audience.

Here are some characteristics of a good hook that I’ve gleaned from my research and tried to incorporate into my novel, Death in Trout Fork©.

A good hook arouses curiosity about who, what, where, when and how. The first sentence of Death in Trout Fork: “I should have known when I fished that Pink Floyd t-shirt out of the creek that it belonged to that waitress, the one who disappeared.” I think it meets the qualifications so far. Who? A waitress. What? A disappearance. Where? Somewhere near a creek. When? Recently. How? That’s the hook, isn’t it? Figuring out the how is what keeps the reader moving on to the next sentence.

An effective hook includes the problem, conflict, threat or change. The rest of the first paragraph in Death in Trout Fork reads as follows:

“It was the same shirt she was wearing in the picture Ashley showed me of the two of them in front of Alma’s café. As I jogged along the path by the creek that evening with Jack Kerouac, my orange tabby cat, there was no hint of the madness that would threaten my life, the insidious kind of madness that infects whole communities and sets them at each other’s throats, the kind that turns fathers against sons and mothers against daughters.”

Is there a problem or conflict in this paragraph? You bet. The protagonist identifies the threat — some kind of madness will threaten her life. What is it? And how does it relate to the disappeared waitress? That’s what the reader wants to know.

The hook plunges the reader into the middle of the situation without submerging him/her in backstory or description. The reader doesn’t yet know who “I” is, where she came from, where the creek is, who the waitress is, who Ashley is, or why the cat has a weird name. But there is enough here to make the reader want to know more. All the questions will be answered as the book goes along. It’s not necessary to tell the readers now. It’s only necessary to create story questions in their minds. That’s what keeps them reading.

The hook should set a tone consistent with the main character’s attitude. Without a word of back story, the reader knows something about the protagonist. She is out jogging, so she is probably fairly young and into fitness. This distinguishes her from thousands of other protagonists out there, hard-boiled detectives, old ladies with tea shops, bookstore owners, etc.

She owns a cat, and not just any cat, a cat that goes jogging with her. This not only identifies her as a cat lover, but also a quirky, out-of-the-ordinary person. If she were jogging with her dog, it would send a different message to the reader. She’s named the cat Jack Kerouac. Even if the reader doesn’t know Kerouac is a beat poet and travel writer, this tells the reader the protagonist is literate and somewhat offbeat. If the cat’s name was Boots or Fluffy, the reader would intuit a completely different kind of person.

These are just four characteristics of good openings that will draw readers into the world you have created. Imagine your opening as the hook at the end of a fishing line that you are casting into the waters inhabited by hungry readers. These characteristics are the bait on your hook. Make sure the bait is yummy!

©Death in Trout Fork, copyright 2017 by D.M. O’Byrne. All rights reserved.

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