How to frustrate a writer: “Where’s the hook?”

hook

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.

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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.

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.

hook2

Tell me, how do you define a hook and how do you apply it to different kinds of stories?

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27 thoughts on “How to frustrate a writer: “Where’s the hook?”

  1. I was just thinking that my WIP doesn’t really have a hook. It starts with what Holden Caulfield called ‘all that David Copperfield crap’, which … it kind of has to, starting as it does with the birth and childhood of my heroine Aiella. It takes a while before the drama kicks in … tiny babies make poor action figures 🙂

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      • No, because one of the things about Aiella is that for most of the story she never talks about her past, and with good reason. Besides, her childhood and upbringing, and her first romance, and all the things that happened to make her the woman she is, is a very good story in its own right (he said, modestly) and anyway I’ve written it all now. There’s no going back!

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      • If you deliver it as part of the whole story arc, without dressing it as a “hold on guys read this first” kind of expositional history, then you might not have a problem. If your back-of-book blurb only covers the plot from page 100-or-whatever onwards, then readers might feel impatient, but if they go into it knowing that her past is an actual part of the story arc (in other words, it doesn’t just feel like “past”), then it’ll probably work. 🙂

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  2. Kind of along the lines of what you’re talking about but not quite the same, but I find it so lame when people describe their WIP as an X meets X scenario, to try and get peoples interest. “It’s like Harry Potter meets Tom Clancy”, or “Jane Austen meets Sonic the Hedgehog”. I’m sure that it’s not that the ideas need that, I’m sure that in most cases people are original enough thinkers, it just seems that lots of unproven writers just aren’t confident enough to describe it on its own terms. Though there are obviously people out there trying to tap in to a zeitgeist for commercial reasons too. Also, sorry if you do this.

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  3. Interesting post – and I particularly like your point about a nebulous dislike for a story being less about a hook and more about a “this isn’t the story for me.” For me it can be almost anything that hooks me – a beautiful description. A horrible one! A situation that makes me want to know more. A funny line. Anything. More often and not these days I find a story that hooks me is one that doesn’t do something I expect or the genre theoretically demands. Will pay more attention next time something utterly grabs me and let you know!

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  4. I think for me, it helps if there is some kind of hook in the first paragraph, maybe more so in a short story, not so much in a novel, but really as long as there is not something I actively dislike, I will read on once I have decided to read something. In a short story, I may give up after first third maybe if it really isn’t engaging me, but for some reason, I rarely if ever stop reading a novel once I have started, out of some strange principle I have about not giving up on things! So it has to be truly terrible for me to stop reading. Ideally, I think it just has to resonate with me in some way. If it is all too much work to figure out what on earth is going on in the first few paragraphs, then I’m more likely to ditch it.
    I guess in terms of picking up and buying a novel in the first place, I rarely go to the first paragraph; the back cover blurb and cover design are much more influential.

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    • Interesting – I HAVE to read the first page before buying a book. 🙂 I can’t just go by blurb, because writing style is so important to me. Unless the premise is absolutely wild, then I need the author’s voice to engage me. So in that way I look for my own hook, but hooks will be different for everyone.

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  5. Also, you should do a post about agents’/publishers’ expectations that a book be similar to other books in its genre (so they can sell it), but also completely different and new (to make it stand out). So confusing and frustrating!

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  6. Thank you for sharing this! My sister and I were just complaining about how every fantasy novel starts with a death, fire, or crazy chase scene. Glad to know you can “hook” a reader with something other than a tedious action scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that can be hard for me too. In situations like that I try to focus on clarity, smoothness, and character motivations. Can I tell what’s going on? Does it make sense? Those are things I can look at even if the story’s not my cup of tea. I ask myself if there are specific things missing that could help me like it more, such as more emotion or dialogue or description. Stuff like that. But yeah, sometimes it’s impossible to critique because it’s way too far from my tastes. That’s okay!

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  7. I’m with you. If you can’t adjust to the writer’s genre and intent, you have no business critiquing the piece. Having said that, I’ve known writers who hide behind “that’s my intent” to keep from being challenged. It works, but their writing doesn’t improve.

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    • That’s true too – it’s easy to reject criticism if you say that’s what you intended all along. Sometimes an author’s intent isn’t a very wise one. 😉 But yes, generally speaking, one must always adapt to the genre, style, demographic, etc of a piece. One size does not fit all!

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