Wednesday, April 05, 2006

An Opening Hook?

(cover to Assassin Apprentice)

An Opening Hook?
-----Original Message-----
"We constantly hear people talk about a hook. I was just wondering, how important is an opening hook? How close to the opening does it have to be? Seriously, how many people pick up a book or story and put it back down after the first sentence or paragraph? Do we have some forgiveness here? I would think that a published, well known author might not need one."
-- Writer in Waiting
Let’s break this down and tackle each, one at a time.

"I was just wondering,
how Important is an Opening Hook?”

How important? Vitally important.
"57% of new books are not read to completion. Most readers do not get past page 18 in a book they have purchased."
--Jerrold Jenkins
This means you have 4500 words to hold your reader -- AFTER they buy your book.

However ~ in order to GET someone to buy your book, most potential readers decide what books they’ll purchase by:
  1. Cover Art*
  2. Back Cover Blurb
  3. Inside Excerpt
  4. First Page (first 150 words)
  5. Last page (A LOT of buyers will not buy a book with an Unhappy Ending no matter how good the meat of the story is.)
-- In that order.

If your first page is dull and boring, you’re more or less screwed.

Note on Cover Art – Although it is the first thing assessed by a potential buyer, Cover Art actually carries far less weight in the final purchasing decision than any of the others. Cover Art is merely a tool to catch the eye and make the buyer pick up the book for consideration.

Most readers have learned that few covers actually have anything to do with what the book is about, so if the cover art stinks, but the rest is interesting, they’ll buy it.

“How close to the opening does it have to be?”

To GET them reading, your hook should be the First Three Paragraphs on the First Page.

According to Les Edgerton in Hooked:
...intentionally look for an opening that 'hooks' the reader by creating a question.

Not sure if this is sound advice? Try this little exercise by Ed Lists:
In one of my crits, I suggest writers take their top ten favorite stories/novels and read the first three paragraphs. What were you, as the reader, thinking about by the end of those three paragraphs?  Odds are, it was a question--you wanted to learn more about something in those paragraphs (the character, the plot, whatever). 

To KEEP them reading, you should have a hook --a Question-- at the end of every single chapter.

“Seriously, how many people pick up a book or story and put it back down after the first sentence or paragraph? Do we have some forgiveness here?”

Survey says…!

“As a reader I generally give a new book (before I've bought it) the first paragraph to get my interest, sometimes less. I'll almost always put down a book that starts with a description of landscape, as lots of fantasy seem to.”
“As a reader, I always open the book to the first page and start reading (in a book shop before I buy the book). If the writing style is awkward, or the wording is boring, I'll put the book down and keep looking.”
“Weather report beginnings are a turn off for me. But something subtle, interesting, or thought provoking, in the first paragraph is enough to keep me reading, for a while.”
“I'll only grant ‘forgiveness’ to an author who has entertained me in the past, and even then I'm not all that lenient.”

Most if not ALL potential buyers have only one interest when buying a book to read: PERSONAL ENTERTAINMENT. If the reader is not grabbed on the first page, your book goes back on the shelf in favor of one that DOES grab them.

The only books allowed to be dull and boring on the first page, are text books designed strictly for education. (They’re expected to be dull and boring.)

“…I would think that a published well known author might not need [a hook]."

Being published and well known does NOT mean that a reader won't put a book down that doesn't interest them, and there are ALWAYS people that have never heard of you.

“If a book is going nowhere after initially getting my interest, I'll stop reading, and never pick up another book by that author again.”
“If I'm not ‘into’ it after 15 pages I usually give up.”
“It's the author's job to keep me interested from the very first line to the very last, because if they can't, there are plenty that can and I'd rather be reading their books.”~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Never forget! Your book is in direct competition with every other book in that store, therefore you should avail yourself of every trick you can think of to Get that Reader – and then Keep that Reader.

“What is a HOOK anyway?”

Very simply, it’s what makes the reader turn the page. It’s the Mysterious Circumstance, the Precarious Situation, the Horrible Turn of Events, etc. that drives the Reader to Keep Reading to discover: “What will happen NEXT?” More commonly known as: SUSPENSE.

There is a Reason why MYSTERIES are the Number One selling genre – they keep the reader guessing right up to the last page.

“But I’m not writing a Mystery!”

So what? I don’t write mysteries either, but I do have a Mysterious Circumstance, a Precarious Situation, a Horrible Turn of Events -- a hook -- at the end of every chapter. And I never give anything away until the last possible second.

“But what if I'm writing Literature?
They rarely (if ever) have hooks?”

Once upon a time they didn't, (like 10 years or more ago.) They DO NOW or they don't get past the publication editor. A book without an opening hook certainly won't make it past an agent.

These days agents and editors ask for Partials manuscripts, that's 60 pages - 4 chapters - not whole manuscripts. Not a whole lot of room to impress someone. What they DON'T tell you, is if you don't hook them on the First Page, they won't even bother reading the REST.
Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile
They can’t judge a book without its cover.
-- Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale
The Sunday Times, London UK, January 01, 2006
Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.

One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel Prize for literature.

The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s “In a Free State” and a second novel, “Holiday”, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.

None appears to have recognized them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.
Read the Entire Article

In Conclusion:

If you expect your manuscript to get past an agent, or a publishing editor, you need to make your story engaging, and compelling to read at the Opening Line.

If you want to make your READERS ask for More, you you need to make your story engaging, and compelling to read, from Opening Line to the Closing Chapter.

Morgan Hawke


  1. Great post, Morgan, as always.

    This was one of the most important things I think I picked up quite early on.

    There needs to be a hook at any point where the reader may feel their questions are (mostly) answered and put the book down. Otherwise, why should they pick it up again.


  2. Thank you Maura!
    - You would not believe how many authors give the entire plot away by the fourth chapter!

    The most common way to kill all the surprises in a plot?
    - Give the Villain a POV.

    You would THINK that hiding what the villain was up to would be an obvious way to keep the plot under wraps, but nooooo...

    I keep hearing: "But he's so cool - I wanna write it from his view!"

    Sheesh - If they like the Villain so much, then they should write the WHOLE THING from his POV and make Him the Hero. It would make for a great a plot twist!

  3. Wow, I loved your post, it helps as always. But, I can't believe people read the end first. I canNOT stand to do that LOL. I want to be surprised. I do love HEA or at least happy for now, but it should never be set in stone until the end.

    As for the POV of the villain? I don't want to do that, but I do want to see his actions, if only to illustrate just how bad he is. *grins* I like him to be bad, if only so I can enjoy his being maimed and killed.

  4. Hey Jenn,
    - you would not believe how many NY Times best-selling Romantic Suspense authors INSIST on having the Villain's POV - which of course gives the whole frikken plot away.

    Now you know why I don't bother reading Romantic suspense. If I know how the story will end - where's the Suspense???

  5. Oh, cool blog! I see the last entry is April 5th. Have you shut this blog down?

  6. Hi Zinnia,
    -- Oh hell no I haven't shut the blog down!

    I just haven't come across any interesting writing topics to bitc*... ahem, write about in a while.

    Any suggestions?

  7. I've been toying with a couple of ms for a long while; one is a complete draft and the other part of something that will require several volumes. I found I enjoyed reading stories with good inter-chapter hooks and so on, but never thought to engineer them deliberately into my own writing.

    Part of the problem: most of what I've written in the past is poetry, so writing prose is a bit of a gear change.

    Got any thoughts where I might look for a discussion of engineering "hooks" into stories? I've already re-written my intro so it starts with punch, instead of trying to make the reader mildly curious about the narrator. Mild curiosity about the narrator was interesting to me as a writer, because I knew what the narrator was going to do, but it did nothing for readers, who wanted to know whether I was going to tell a good story. So I've started. If you know any discussion on the topic, I'd appreciate it ;-)

    Thanks for your impassioned rants against poor craftsmanship. They are not unappreciated :-)