The Hows and Wherefores of Hook Sentences
by Deborah Owen
You and your readers are engaged in a game. Your duty is to keep them guessing. Their duty is to outguess you, properly decipher the clues, and predict the ending. Needless to say, you’d better win this contest if you want to keep your readers.
How long do you take to develop a hook sentence? Would you believe – it should take hours, days, or even weeks?
When I first started writing, I never gave the opening line a thought. I just sat down and wrote whatever came to mind. Of course, I didn’t sell anything – and that should have been a clue! So here’s what I learned.
1. It’s futile to worry about the opening line when you first write a story. Save that for later when you edit. For now, scribble something out and come back to it when it’s cold. About 95% of the time, you can ditch the first two or three paragraphs and actually begin on the third or fourth one anyway. Any details that you wanted to keep in those first few paragraphs can be worked in further down.
2. Your opening line should set the tone for the entire story. Is it a romance story? Then you might want to open in the middle of a love scene. (That could be very interesting.) Is it a horror story? You may want to start in the middle of a murder. Is it non-fiction drama? Start in the center of the drama. Whatever your genre, design that first line to fit your story.
3. It has to be snappy. Something that will reach out and grab the reader by the throat. You might want to use heavy alliteration. You might want to scare the daylights out of your reader and send them scampering for covers. You might want to stir their emotions. That first line must grab your readers and pull them in.
This is called “setting the hook.” Sounds like fishing, huh? In a way, it is. You’re fishing for readers and trying to keep them from trading your story for another.
Would you rather read a beginning that says, “Dad had to kill chickens that day so I ran away and cried.” Or “Dad entered the house with bloodshot eyes, carrying a bloody axe. I scrambled for the back door, screaming.”
This is misrepresenting a scene, but it works, and seasoned writers use this method all the time.
Here’s another hook sentence I used recently: “Both shuddered as the madman smashed bottles and cursed downstairs.” Now… who could stop reading before they found out what was going on?
Play on your readers’ curiosity, and use all the excitement you can muster to hold their attention.
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