Making Masterful Hooks

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Hooking your reader is an art form all of its own. From the first line, the reader is circling warily, deciding if it is safe to entrust his or her precious reading hours to your story. Compelling hooks turn ‘I might read this’ into ‘I must read this.’

One of the best ways to learn how to keep your reader turning the pages is by studying how veteran authors approach the subject.

The Hunger Games

I remember reading this book before it became a bestseller and marvelling at the ease with which Suzanne Collins won her readers over to Katniss’ cause.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

This line hints at intimacy and loss. It is often considered bad form to start a story with a character waking up, but Collins does so in a way that raises questions. Who is missing from Katniss’ side? However, Collins also knows that one nibble is not enough. The next few lines end with another hook:

My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

We soon find out that Katniss may be called on to fight in a deadly arena. Her little sister, Primrose, is also in the draw. Collins continues to amp up the tension, creating a rising sense of dread. She ends paragraphs in lines like the following, each of which raise yet more questions:

But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed. The reaping isn’t until two. May as well sleep in. If you can.

By the end of the chapter we are well and truly in Katniss’ skin, rooting for her own survival and the survival of her family. Collins then adds a twist through a cliffhanger ending:

Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smooths the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me.
It’s Primrose Everdeen.

A Monster Calls

“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”

In Patrick Ness’ children’s book, A Monster Calls, his first line is as ominous as it is intriguing. The tension is somewhat mitigated by the second line, which injects humour and irony into the situation. If the first sentence exists to draw young readers in, the second sentence succeeds in hooking older readers, who might roll their eyes at that first line, and laugh at the second.

Ness teases us for the rest of the chapter, but the last line leaves us with no doubt that this book will take us to places we fear to tread, no matter what age we are. It also serves to tip us into the next chapter – like Collins, Ness has mastered the cliffhanger ending.

“And the last thing Conor remembered was the monster’s mouth roaring open to eat him alive.”

Dig deep

So, how does one come up with such juicy hooks? This is where your own observational skills come in handy. Look through your bookshelves (or someone else’s). What is it about other writers’ first (second, third…) lines that made you want to read on? Think about how you can use similar techniques to surprise your reader, and entice them into your own story. And always bear in mind – this is something you can come back to later. Writing is as mysterious as it is rewarding, and often requires a gestation period. Let your unconscious play its part in coming up with the best words. And have a notebook handy for when it does!

Here are a few of my favourite opening lines:

“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

Nobody came to my seventh birthday.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

“My father took one hundred and thirty–two minutes to die.
I counted.”

Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”

The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

And here’s the first line of my own novel, Esme’s Wish.

“If any of you can show just cause as to why these two should not be lawfully wed, speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

What are some of your favourites? Or share some of your own writing!

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