Between the Lines: How to Write a Strong Story Hook
By David Griffin Brown
Diving into a story is an act of trust—a tacit contract between the writer and the reader. Whether you're aiming for indie or traditional publishing, there's a fundamental truth you can't evade: readers, much like literary agents, seek a promise, a reason to invest their time, emotions, and thoughts. That promise? The elusive hook.
It's tempting to envision the hook as a mere industry buzzword, propagated by literary agents seeking the next bestseller. But the hook is an essential part of storytelling. It's what piques curiosity, stirs emotions, and compels readers to venture farther into the narrative labyrinth. It's not just a tool for snagging agents; it’s the writer’s invitation to the reader.
Renowned literary agent Sarah Davies aptly sums it up, saying, "I’m always looking for the two 'C' words—concept and craft." Concept refers to a unique premise or an old tale with a fresh twist. Yet without craftsmanship—the intentionality of structure, character, and language—a strong concept is nothing more than a neat idea.
To craft a compelling hook is to understand a reader's heart—to tap into their innate hunger for stories that resonate, challenge, and enthrall. It's not just about making an agent's eyes linger on your manuscript; it's about making a connection with whoever reads that first line. Because in the end, whether you’re pitching to an agent or presenting your tale to the world, your mission is the same: to convince your reader to turn the page.
The Hook in the Query Letter Pitch
The query letter pitch is your abstract—the abbreviated portrayal of a complex narrative. But as any author knows, distilling complexity into simplicity isn't straightforward.
Again, think of a query letter hook as a promise. You need to convince agents that you have both a fresh concept and the craft savvy to pull it off.
What makes an effective query letter hook?
- Distinctiveness: As a developmental editor, I've encountered countless tales—some unique, some familiar. The trick is to find that sliver of distinctiveness even in familiar terrain. What sets your narrative apart from the numerous others in the genre? The world of literature thrives on novelty. Showcase yours.
- Relevance: Remember, you're writing for a contemporary audience. Your story might be timeless, but your pitch should have contemporary resonances—whether it's a new spin on a classic tale, a fresh trend, or a timeless theme with a contemporary hue.
- Clarity: Dive into the heart of your story. Strip away the redundant and the superfluous. Your hook should be devoid of jargon or overly complex ideas. Remember: you’re pitching the story, not the context. Your pitch should resonate, not obfuscate. Clarity is critical to convincing an agent of your skill with the written word.
- Structure: Agents receive many manuscripts with meandering or unfocused plots, so they want to see evidence in your pitch of intentional structure—because structure relates directly to emotional turns in your reader. Does the protagonist have a clear, specific, and relatable narrative goal? Are the stakes apparent and significant?
In a world saturated with stories, the importance of a stellar hook in your query letter pitch can't be overstated. It's your foot in the door, your first impression. Make it count.
The First Sentence Hook
The weight of an entire narrative often rests on the promise of the first sentence. It's the gateway through which readers step into the realm you've painstakingly crafted. But what makes one sentence so powerful, so captivating, that it propels the reader headfirst into your story?
The first sentence can be a declaration of intent, an invitation, or a challenge—sometimes all rolled into one. Consider that you are setting the tone for the entire narrative to come.
What makes an effective first-sentence hook?
- A distinct voice: From the get-go, your reader should perceive a unique and nuanced character behind the words. Consider the difference between an actor who convinces you fully that they are the character on the screen or stage and another who seems merely to be reading lines. When the narrator feels like a real person, readers are more easily convinced to follow them.
- A forecasting of the novel: The first sentence can be a microcosm of the entire tale. This doesn't mean revealing all but giving readers a hint about theme, character or conflict.
- Instant immersion: Transport your readers. Whether it's the hustle and bustle of a futuristic city or the gentle rustling of leaves in an ancient forest, they should be able to lose themselves in your world from the very first word.
- A font of curiosity: Dangle a question, a mystery, or an enigma. Let them feel the tug, the itch of curiosity, compelling them to delve deeper, seeking answers and revelations.
When done right, the first sentence isn't just a beginning; it's an art form, a testament to your skill as a writer. It's where immersion takes root, where the journey truly begins.
The First Page Hook
The hook's duty doesn't end with the first sentence. In fact, the subsequent sentences on that initial page are just as critical. While the opening line grabs the reader’s attention, the rest of the page should draw them in with such immersion that they forget they are reading. The first page is where the story's pace, tone, and atmosphere begin to coalesce.
What makes an effective first-page hook?
- Balanced exposition: There are no hard-and-fast rules about what “works” on the first page, but you don't want to drown readers in information. Showcase experience over explanations.
- Conflict or tension: Even if you are opening with stasis, introduce a ripple—a hint of the central challenge or dilemma your protagonist will face. This not only piques interest but also lays the groundwork for deeper emotional engagement.
- Character nuance: Characters are the beating heart of any narrative. Use this space to give readers a glimpse into your protagonist's soul, perhaps by revealing a quirk, a hope, or a fear.
The First Chapter Hook
If the first sentence ignites interest and the first page fans the flames, then the first chapter is where the fire truly blazes. The first chapter sets the tone and trajectory for the entire narrative. It's not about introduction; it's about immersion. Here, readers should be able to dive into the story world, connect with the protagonist, and begin to anticipate (and thus care about) what will happen next.
What makes an effective first-chapter hook?
- Plot progression: The gears of your story should already be turning. Avoid the quagmire of setup.
- Stakes: Stakes are the source of your reader’s engagement. Whether it's the fate of a universe or the future of a relationship, make it clear what's at risk. This isn't about laying all your cards on the table but showing just enough to make readers invest their emotions.
- Emotional connection: No amount of intricate plotting can replace genuine emotional resonance. Create character connection with nuance, flaws, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and most importantly, clear motivations.
A powerful narrative is one that offers readers a compelling and immersive experience. As a writer, you're not just spinning a tale; you're crafting an experience. The first chapter should double down on that promise, convincing readers that this journey is worth the investment of their time.
The essence of a hook is its position at the forefront of your narrative. It's that pitch, the opening line, the initial page, and the inaugural chapter that beckon readers—or agents—into the world you've created. Yet a powerful hook isn't simply a marketing tool or a superficial lure to make your manuscript appealing. It's a litmus test, a reflection of the strength and authenticity of your entire narrative.
When an agent is captivated by your hook, they're lending faith to your promise, the potential they feel lies within the subsequent pages. A compelling hook signifies more than just a good beginning; it’s indicative of a well-developed manuscript. It tells the agent, "I understand my story, its pulse, its essence, and I can deliver this consistently from the first page to the last."
So, while the hook may physically sit at the start, its roots run deep, drawing sustenance from the entirety of your crafted tale. A truly effective hook doesn't just make promises—it's also the initial evidence that those promises will be fulfilled.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.