Writers talk a lot about hooks-the thing in a story’s opening that grabs the reader and makes them want to continue. It’s a popular question among writing groups when critiquing a first page or scene: “Where’s the hook?”
This can be… frustrating.
The problem is that critiquers often don’t treat the term like the broad, vague thing that it is, which makes their critiques broad, vague, and unhelpful. First I’m going to explain how hooks are subjective, and then how to make your critique more beneficial to the writer.
Every opening scene should have a hook in the sense that they should all have something stand-out that makes readers turn the page. Of course! But this is not a universal thing. Different readers will turn the page for different reasons. Yet many critiquers talk about The Hook as if it were a geometric function. “Find the hook” like “Find the X.” But X will change depending on who’s reading. Sometimes X = Y. Sometimes X = 42. Sometimes X = banana.
Reader A might want a book that will put him on the edge of his seat with an intense car chase right off the bat. Reader B might want a book that makes her laugh with clever banter and relatable characters. This reader would be bored by your car chase because why should she care if these nameless nobodies hit a guard rail and run off the road? The first reader would be bored by your quirky dialogue because when is something going to happen already?
A hook isn’t a guarantee that someone will keep reading. There’s a smorgasbord of stories out there deemed to be hooky that I wouldn’t read past the first paragraph, because they’re not for me. And that’s okay! No book will appeal to all audiences.
Now, as for critiques… I’m sure there are situations where an opening is truly lacking in hook. Maybe it’s meandering, maybe it takes too long to get to the inciting incident, maybe the characters aren’t strongly portrayed. That’s all constructive feedback! But I’ve frequently heard critiquers tell writers their opening scene needs a hook, and yet are unable to explain what they mean. They hmmm and ummm and uhhh and then conclude by repeating “hook!” a few dozen times. Which makes me wonder if critiquers simply aren’t digging a story, so they grope for the best comment they can think of. “Ah! The hook! That’s a literary word I know! I’m not hooked so it must need a hook!”
It’s polite code for: “I don’t like it, make me like it more.” But you’re not going to like every novel. None of us will.
So as a critiquer, if you’re not feeling absorbed by a piece, first ask yourself if it’s truly lacking in hook – try to be specific and identify exactly what’s missing. Because believe me, every writer already thinks their opener has a hook, so simply telling them it doesn’t gets them nowhere. Ask the writer what their goals are, what their story is leading to, what the major conflict is… Then help them figure out ways to implement that in their opening.
If you’re unable to pinpoint more than a nebulous dislike for the story, maybe they’ve got a hook, but it’s just not hooking YOU. And that’s okay.
Tell me, how do you define a hook and how do you apply it to different kinds of stories?