Tuesday, September 27, 2011

FISHING FOR READERS: It’s all about the Hook

By: Kathleen Pickering  http://www.kathleenpickering.com

Some hooks look like this: 

fishing tackle 

Other hooks look like this:

- I bared my balconet-supported breasts on the grocery line to see if they matched the bosoms the gossip magazine hanging on the rack featured as mine.

- Stella broke his arm with a thought; the sickening snap thrilling her like a deep, wet kiss.

- Leaning forward in their chairs for his next answer, the audience remained clueless to the fact that Rodger Heller no longer stood before them. (Future hooks by Kathleen Pickering)

Fishing tackle 2Not just for fishing any more, hooks are considered the number one lure for catching readers.

Your first line—your highly polished bait--attracts readers and gets them to bite again and again, turning pages and creating fans.

imagefishing tackle7

While ancient fishing tackle and cave paintings suited small communities and worked for plying waters close to shore, today's audiences are huge and are easily distracted by flashing media and super-speed technology. Today's hooks, although still the ultimate writer-tackle of choice, must be sharper than ever.

Hooks--so many types! Of the various suggested techniques, I've listed my five favorite hooks below.

1. Three-Pronged Hook. This is a wonderful approach using three sentences to pull the reader deeper into the story.

Here are three, expertly crafted Three-Pronged Hooks:

“I sleep with the dead. I don’t remember the first time I did it and try not to think about why. It’s just something I do.”  (In the Arms of Stone Angels, by Jordan Dane)



“Two Whom It May Concern: My name is Wilfred Leland James and this is my confession. In June of 1922 I murdered my wife, Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down an old well. My son, Henry Freeman James aided me in this crime, although at 14 he was not responsible; I cozened him into it, playing upon his fears and beating down his quite normal objections over a period of 2 months.” (Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King)



“The boy stood naked in the middle of the road. Sam Hall’s headlights caught him there, frozen in position, like a deer. He was covered in something slick and it dripped down his flesh.”  (The Evil Inside, by Heather Graham)


Makes you want to read more, yes? You'll also see that expertly composed hooks manage to combine techniques to create a masterful atmosphere. With hooks created by the guest authors I’ve featured here today, if readers were fish, they'd be jumping into the boat.

2. Startle Hooks. These hooks capture audiences quickly because the readers can't quite believe what they’ve just read (like those hooks above). Folks will keep reading to discover what is really going on. Another example, and shameless plug, is in Mythological Sam-The Call, where Sam Wilson starts the first chapter with a surreal visual:

"I steer around the bend and my breath catches in my throat. A hideous, mythological hydra suspends across the bay, clawing each shore with twin, snarling heads straining towards the sky." (Mythological Sam-The Call by Kathleen Pickering.


Couldn’t help but include myself here, especially in such good company, but  I hope you’ll agree that no normal dude driving along the road is going to see a snarling, mythological beast where a bridge is supposed to be. I'd like to think the startle factor will keep the audience reading to learn what's really happening.

3. Describe a personality and elicit emotion.  See how a master handles this one:

“Myron lay sprawled next to a knee-knockingly gorgeous brunette clad only in a Class-B-felony bikini, a tropical drink sans umbrella in one hand, the aqua clear Caribbean water lapping at his feet, the sand a dazzling white powder, the sky a pure blue that could only be God’s blank canvas, the sun as soothing and rich as a Swedish masseur with a snifter of cognac, and he was intensely miserable.” (The Final Detail, by Harlan Coben).


Superbly done. (Applauding from my chair!) This hook flashes Myron as a law enforcer of high caliber who knows danger, attracts sexy women, lives life like a hedonist and is bored out of his gourd, eliciting both envy and concern from the reader over a intriguing personality. All done in one sentence. Amazing.

4. Establish a Setting. Mr. Coben also combines setting into the above hook, so I will cite the same quote. While establishing a setting is a gentler hook, when professionally cast as Coben has done, the results reel readers in hook, line and sinker. (I just know you were waiting for me to use that cliché!)

5. Introduce the Main Character. This hook is most effective when working with character driven plots, especially if the author is establishing a series with a particular character. Here, F. Paul Wilson's character, Repairman Jack, has developed a cult-like following by portraying a darkly dangerous Jack with a quirky yet endearing, under-the-radar life style.

"Jack looked around the front room of his apartment and figured he was either going to have to move to a bigger place, or stop buying stuff. He had nowhere to put his new Daddy Warbucks lamp." (Conspiracies - Repairman Jack Series, by F. Paul Wilson)


Paul told me Repairman Jack was only supposed to be a few books. Instead, Jack's huge success spawned fifteen Repairman Jack novels. Paul recently released a Repairman Jack young adult series to explain Jack's formative years. Yes, indeed. Dr. Wilson must own a pretty snazzy tackle box to hook such a huge fan base.

So of the various techniques for creating hooks, including use of dialogue, and introducing conflict and/or problems, these are my top five picks. What are your hooks of choice? Feel free to give examples. I'll check back later because I'm off to bait another hook. I'm going deep sea fishing, this time!


  1. Kathy, great examples. Here are a couple that have stood out to me over the years.

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984, George Orwell

    The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy, Samuel Beckett

    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. Neuromancer, William Gibson

    The hooks I don't particularly care for are the spoiler hooks such as: As he left for work, he didn't realize it would be his last day on earth. When I run into that type of hook, I always find that if the first sentence was deleted, the hook becomes so much stronger and interesting.

  2. What a surprise to see my YA - In the Arms of Stone Angels- used as an example next to Stephen King & Heather Graham. (Picture me on my knees, bowing again & again, saying, "I'm not worthy...I'm not worthy.") Wow. Thanks, Kathleen. You picked some intriguing examples. I'd definitely want to read more.

    And I've been to that Hydra bridge. The two-lane traffic at rush hour is murder.

    Today is the release day for book#4 of my Sweet Justice series with HarperCollins - RECKONING FOR THE DEAD. Seeing your post this morning started the celebration party early. Thanks, Kathleen. You rock!

  3. Joe--fabulous examples. I think a great hook promises an excellent read. If you can imagine, I've never read Orwell's 1984. Thanks to the hook you shared, I'm going to dig it out of the closet!

  4. Jordan--see what happens when you write amazing hooks, or worthy one?!

    Congratulations on today's book release. Hope you sell millions!!

  5. "i can feel the air change, the earth, and I can sense change coming" from J.R.R Tolkien books the Lord of the Rings.

    Its not always an opening line but in most cases an 'idea' of what a reader can expect that has them hooked. As an author myself I had to rely on the sensory entrapment of words to hook my readers. It worked but having done this as author one now needs to keep up with ingenuity and this in itself becomes a challenge.

    This is what Kathleen's book did for me. It was the opening scene that got my attention.

  6. This posting was just what I needed this morning. It has motivated me to pull get working on the writing immediately this morning. Great post! Thanks for the examples and tips.

  7. Ah, Lechane! How nice of you to stop by! I can see how Tolkien intrigues you since The Kingdom of Ssgueny takes the reader into another time and places as well. More great reading!

  8. Great post. We were talking about hooks yesterday in my novel class. As a reader, I'm always pleased when I find a book that draws me in with the first sentence. Sometimes the hook feels contrived, but if it IS interesting (someone is in mortal danger, for example), I usually read on out of sheer curiosity.

    I started my short story, The Vines, with:
    “Watch out!” The cry of a frightened soldier rang out through the dark tunnels.

    It's nothing profound, but it introduces danger and sets up soldiers in a strange setting--dark tunnels. What happens next?

    I agree with Joe on the spoiler hooks. Not a fan of those.

    "And I've been to that Hydra bridge. The two-lane traffic at rush hour is murder."-Jordan
    Oh, I see what you did there. Well played.

  9. Thanks for citing The Evil Inside, Piks! Great bit on the hook . . . needed more than ever in the first lines of a book when there are now literally millions and millions of books to choose from. I always loved the comment made at an editorial panel when an author asked if he should turn in his first three chapters or best three chapters, and, frowning, the editor said,"Those best three chapters are now the first chapters of the book--that means you throw the rest out. Always start with your best, and more of your best will follow."

  10. "My family has always been into death." Lisa Alther - Kinflicks

    For some reason, always my favorite line. Here is the three-sentence punch.

    "My family has always been into death. My father, the Major, used to insist on having an ice pick next to his placemat at meals so he could perform an emergency tracheotomy when one of us strangled on a piece of meat. Even now, by running my index fingers along my collarbones to the indentation where the bones join, I can locate the optimal site for a tracheal puncture with the same deftness as a junkie a vein."

    This opens up the most sardonically funny book I have ever read.

  11. One of my fav hooks is in Robert Harris's The Ghost (The Ghost Writer):

    The moment I heard how McAra died, I should have walked away.

    Death, danger, regret, and such a lyrical quality (what is that -- iambic pentameter?), make this a great opening to a great book.

  12. I second Jilly's choice of THE GHOST by Harris. One of the best books I've read in years. And a hell of a suprise ending.

  13. Opening hooks are even more crucial today when readers can download a sample of your work or peek inside the book. If the opening doesn't grab them, you've lost a sale.

  14. While there have been many examples of good literary hooks that have made me keep reading, I have learned through trial and error that literal hooks are not necessarily a good thing in books.

  15. S.t.T.-- look at that. Hooks on the blog, hooks in your novel class. Looks like you get them! How are you enjoying the class?

  16. Heather---Thanks so much for stopping by! How can I not cite your hooks, girl. Your books ROCK!!!

    And that message you shared? Absolutely right on. The competition is fierce in the book world. If you want to stand out, then STAND OUT! xox

  17. Terry---now there's a hook! Thanks for sharing.

  18. Jilly and Joe---I'll have to read that one, too!

  19. Basil---only you can say that and get away with it. LOL!!!

  20. Haha, I came across your blog from Nancy Cohen. I found this one, and ironically, I have a book blog I call Oh, for the Hook of a Book. I think of it as fishing for the best book out there too and how it can "hook" you. :)
    www.hookofabook.com if anyone is interested.