Gotcha! Hooks: What They Are and How to Create Page-Turning Fiction

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!

About Leslie Lynch

Leslie Lynch writes women's fiction, giving voice to characters who struggle to find healing for their brokenness – and discover unconventional solutions to life’s unexpected twists. She is an occasional contributor to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s weekly paper, The Criterion. She can be found at www.leslielynch.com and is on facebook and Twitter@Leslie_Lynch_
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10 Responses to Gotcha! Hooks: What They Are and How to Create Page-Turning Fiction

  1. Angie says:

    The class I took on “hooks” was probably the most helpful and eye-opening I’ve ever taken. I was trying to tie everything up neatly and make the end of each chapter a logical stopping point :P I did some re-writing, but mostly I accomplished my objective by simply changing where I ended chapters. I had the hooks there, but I’d buried them!

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Hi, Angie! I did the same thing – isn’t it amazing to see that the hooks were under our noses all the time? We just didn’t recognize it. And it’s such a satisfying skill to master, once we learn what to look for.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your expertise!

  2. Anne Faye says:

    This is very interesting! Thank you!

  3. Caroline says:

    Loved this, Leslie! Powerful yet simple!

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Just to think, Caroline – I learned a lot of it from you! (Caroline is one of my critique partners, usually the one saying, “Not much of a hook there, Leslie”!)

      Glad you stopped by! Thank you for your kind words.

  4. Bro. Joshua says:

    Thanks. I’ll look some of that up in a few books. I’ll start applying it to my works. I’ve done it a few times, but wasn’t aware there was a name for this. It is certainly something that keeps me turning the pages when I should put the book down and get some speep.

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      We’ve all responded to hooks in the books of our favorite authors, but they do it so well that we aren’t aware of the technique. I’m glad this resonated for you, Bro. Joshua, because if you are anything like me, mastering this bit of craft will multiply those instances where you’ve used it instinctively – until you’ve written the book that keeps readers awake till all hours!

      Thank you for stopping by and responding!

  5. Donald E. DeFilippo says:

    Dear Leslie

    Your post on “writing hooks” is very informative. I’m an amateur writer and have used these “hooks” to the best of my abitity in my self published novel “The Revelation, Year 2027, it’s Coming” a novel of suspense, mystery and faith set in the year 2027.

    Can you imagine a supercomputer that was accidently programmed to find the last day of Earth? The priest in charge along with technicians think that it is an impossible joke. The priest knows that three events must take place: (1) Abnormal and unusual events occurring in outer space. (2) strong and frequent natural disasters on Earth, (3) certain individuals having insights,religious revelations or dreams.

    Having secret information, the priest is alarmed as all three events start to accur. Yes, the supercomputer does come up with the date.
    Should the priest let the world know?, or keep it to himself! This suspenseful process effects all the characters in the book in different ways.

    Friends of mine encourage me to find a literary agent in the Hollywood area to promote this book to a movie studio for a generious fee. Do you know of someone in the Catholic Writers Guild! Thanks for your help, God Bless You.

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Hi, Donald,
      Glad the blog on hooks resonated with you! You are lucky indeed to be ahead of the class in that regard. In terms of finding agents, you can check with the CWG forums; I am not personally acquainted with anyone, but that doesn’t mean anything. Beyond that, get a copy of the current Writers’ Digest Guide to Agents and Editors – and then query. Good luck!