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Master the First Law of Writing: Create a Compelling Hook

Stop worrying about the thousands of words that will fill your book.

Focus instead on creating a juicy hook that will grab your reader so completely that she will ignore her email, her buzzing cellphone, and that screaming baby down the hall.

A hook is an opening sentence that pulls the reader in. It may not be the first sentence you write when creating the rough draft, but it must eventually appear at the beginning of the proposal to a publisher or the final draft of your self-published book. Without a hook you risk losing readers before they ever get into the heart of your book.

Memorable books throughout history have memorable opening first lines. Do you recognize these?

  1. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
  2. If music be the food of love, play on. . .
  3. To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.
  4. All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is  unhappy in its  own way.
  5. You better not tell nobody but God.

In all fairness to the rest of us writers, these famous lines were etched in our minds not always because we were lured into the books. Some were forced upon us as required reading in high school and college or we remember them because the books were made into movies.

While your book may never be turned into a blockbuster movie, you do want your book read. The challenge, then, is how can you write a hook that compels readers to continue beyond the first page.

How can you create a hook?

Arouse curiosity

All the opening lines cited above have an antecedent, a reference to a previous time, person or event of which we are not yet privy. They make us want to know the conflict, the problem or the situation that lead the author to utter that line. Who is she, it, and what is it we better not tell?

Hint at conflict, a problem or tension in simple language

The hint at conflict is best done with simple words. Even when the first line seems to be just an everyday introduction such as the opening of Moby Dick or telling us that the behavioral science department that deals with serial murder is half-buried in the earth as in the beginning of Silence of the Lambs, we immediately expect and yearn to know more.

Start in the middle

There is no need to start your manuscript at the beginning, but it is important to make the reader care. When a story begins “Once upon a time. . .” we are not just introduced to characters, but are about to witness them walk into danger or conflict. They were already on a course to a problem which we get to see play out and eventually be resolved.

Be patient with yourself

Don’t belabor your opening line, charging it with the duty to carry your whole book. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction your hook just needs to make us want to know more.

Does this opening sentence make you want to know more?

“Until today, Ava had never stolen anything in her life.”

What does it suggest? Does it meet the basics of a good hook?

How about the opening line of your current project?

Check below to see if you correctly guessed the source of the first lines from above.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities~Charles Dickens
  2. The Twelfth Night~William Shakespeare
  3. Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia~Arthur Conan Doyle
  4. Anna Karenina~Leo Tolstoy
  5. The Color Purple~Alice Walker

What opening line from a book or blog has grabbed you? If you’ve written a great hook, share it with us in the comments.