Sharpen Your Hook

All writers agree that a sharp hook at the beginning of your story or novel is crucial.  How daunting: you have less than 100 words to sculpt your tone, setting, introduce your characters and let the readers know just enough about your story to pique their interest.

So how do the pros do it?  Start by picking up a favorite novel, perhaps the new one on your coffee table that you’re dying to read.  Open to the first page, read the first paragraph and then close the book.

How many questions can you answer about the story and where it might take you?  This is where you use your pen and paper to write out how the author conveyed this to you.  I’m sure not all of the information was literal.  Word choice plays a major role in setting tone and giving you personality hints to the main character or narrator.  Frank Lutz writes, “It’s not what you say, but what they hear.”  In this case the reader is “hearing” the nuances that will be carried throughout your story.

For the sake of this exercise I’ve picked “Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures” by Robert K Wittman with John Shiffman.  Although this is a non-fiction work, its vivid and specific language shows a mastery from which we can all learn.

“The platinum Rolls-Royce with bulletproof windows glided east onto the Palmetto Expressway toward Miami Beach, six stolen paintings stashed in its armor-plated trunk.” (Only 23 words!)

That’s it.  In one sentence, I know this is going to put me inside the sting with Wittman without Hollywood gloss or imposed government vagueness, the players are wealthy and there’s a lot at stake, and the “armor-plated trunk” speaks volumes about the action to come.  The second paragraph, which is not much longer, introduces key players and heightens the tension even more for a total of 83 words.

So how does he do this?  As I mentioned, he used clear language that puts the reader in the story. It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it.  Do this analysis on several books, preferably by successful authors, and you’ll see how they built interest off the top and then back fill as the story unfolds.  Also, letting your readers hear, see, taste, smell and touch the action engages more of their brain which is always a good thing:)

So, how did your favorite author keep you wanting to read past that first page and stay up all night?

Try the test on your hook and see if you can answer these questions:

·         Who is telling the story? (Narrator? Main Character? POV?)
·         What is the mood of the story?  (Dark?  Humorous? Mystery? Light? Literary?)
·         What do you know about the setting? (Hint: mood and setting build off each other.)

If you can accomplish this in a few sentences, then you have a pretty good hook that will let your readers decide if they want to venture further.

Special thanks to Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman
“Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures”
Crown Publishers, New York 2010