What’s a hook??? I admit to scratching my head over that term, and for a much-too-long time. I would hear it when people were discussing top-selling novels; I’d see it in articles about the craft of writing. It was a frequent comment from my critique partners. “Not much of hook there, Leslie.” (Insert visual of me scratching my head. Again.) They tried to explain it to me: Leave the reader hanging at the end of the chapter. An unanswered question. A cliffhanger.
Well, that was all fine and dandy, except I didn’t get the concept. Until our critique group got down to business and I began to evaluate other people’s unfinished work. Over time, I began to recognize when the end of a chapter or scene felt flat. I began to see how they worked through the process. And then when I saw what my fellow writers did to spice up the work, it finally began to make sense. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place for me when I read James Scott Bell’s Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict & Suspense.
The basic idea is to end a chapter with the character facing peril of some sort, whether an internal conflict or an external plot development. The higher the stakes for the character, the better. In fact, Bell suggests the character must face death in some form – physical, psychological or professional. Of course your story isn’t filled with melodramatic, overblown situations, but each character must have something crucial at stake in each scene. By setting it up so someone is forced to face failure at some level, and then leaving the conflict unresolved, you create a hook.
Hooks come from disaster (Bell’s death) looming, occurring, or simply being implied. The hook can be expressed through dialogue, as a plot twist, as emotion, or via action. The hook can be an actual question, although I’d caution you to use that technique sparingly. I read a book once that ended every chapter with a question, and it felt like old-fashioned middle grade fiction. It didn’t work so well in an adult novel. Whatever method you chose to create a hook, take care to do it in a way that doesn’t leave the reader feeling manipulated. That usually has the opposite effect from what you intend!
One of the most common errors is the form that many of us learned in school: To write each chapter with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This works for nonfiction, but if you want a fiction reader to say “I couldn’t put it down!”, try ending the chapter a paragraph or two early. You’ll be surprised at how well this simple technique works. Then use that bit as the beginning of the next scene.
Go to your personal library of favorite books, or to the library or bookstore. Page through your favorite authors’ work and read the last paragraph of each chapter. You’ll get a solid sense of what creates a hook in short order.
It’s always a question that leaves the reader wanting—no, needing to know what happens next??? Whatever you do, don’t answer the question until the end of the book! Well, you can answer bits of it as you go along, but don’t answer the main question of the book until the end.
Hopefully, the result will be an ocean full of readers happily chasing the hook you’ve dangled – and saying, “That book was so good, I couldn’t put it down!”
How do you define a hook? What’s your approach to creating one? Share your favorite technique!