A “hook” is a passage or bit of information that changes the stakes, pulls the reader along, and builds the trajectory of your narrative. Constructing a hook map can help ensure yours are serving your story.
When you read, what piques your attention? Perhaps you look for beauty, surprises, keen observations, or fundamental truths.
Probably, what you love are “hooks.”
In storytelling, these are bits of text that suddenly change the stakes. Something new is happening and you want to know how things are going to pan out.
We call them “hooks” for a reason. They are designed to catch you and pull you along. Hooks are easy to see. Once you think to look for them, they jump off the page.
If you dissect a book, you can see sentences vary in function. This variety is core to great writing. Some describe character traits, others form dialogue, some key sentences progress the plot, etc.
Many standout sentences are hooks.
Hooks open a door. They make a promise. They cause an explosion of images and ideas in a reader’s mind. What does this mean? What will happen next?
Here are some examples:
“Frances was lost in thought when a note silently slid under the door.”
“Typically, Howard made a point of never walking through this alley on his way home.”
“Instead of the mailman, a policeman stood at the door.”
“Jake jolted awake and looked at the clock — his plane to Jamaica departed two hours ago.”
Hooks can be anywhere on the continuum from subtle to blindingly obvious. Compare the hook, “She found she couldn’t even meet the stranger’s eyes…” to “The explosion rocked the tiny village and triggered a deadly avalanche.”
Crystal balls and trajectories
Hooks let the reader participate in the story. We can fill in probable and possible details. We can imagine that the letter brings a mysterious message, there’s danger in the alley, the policeman bears bad news, and the avalanche will wreak destruction. It’s a bit like getting a crystal ball.
We can also be wonderfully surprised when the author takes us in unexpected directions. Maybe the letter holds news of a million-dollar inheritance, Howard meets the love of his life in the alley, the policeman is a long-lost relative, or the avalanche side-steps the village and uncovers a gem mine.
Hooks can be clues that trigger obvious reactions in our minds. As little as a single well-placed word can get our minds playing ahead: Oh no, a sad part is coming… Watch out! Danger… Ahhhh, love is on the horizon.”
Or, a hook can just signal change. We can’t predict the course of events, we just know the author has set something on the stove to brew.
Hooks are triggers for cascades of events. Predictable, unpredictable, things tumble or race forward. A related series of events can be thought of as a trajectory that starts with a hook and ends with a climax.
Trajectories can be small or large. You can do as many as you like and often the more the better. Just make sure they all play out to the pay-off for the reader.
Many sources of writing advice say to start a story with a question and not to answer it until the end. This is the primary hook and the global trajectory of the book.
Will Luke Skywalker get the adventure he so craves? The entire movie is the answer to that hook, a trajectory of events that leads him to place his trust in the Force and destroy the Death Star, the planet-destroying, ultimate weapon of the Dark Side.
Cliffhangers are a special kind of hook where you delay the trajectory that holds the answer to the question posed. Once the trajectory gets started, the cliffhanger functions like any other hook and is eventually resolved. We care about cliffhangers exactly because they are signposts for a slew of happenings that will be of acute interest.
Of course, you want a super-snazzy hook on your opening page to draw readers in from the start.
Engineering great hooks
When you catch sight of a hook, you are seeing part of the structure of the book, a key part of the book’s anatomy. No other single sentence works so hard to make readers want to read forward.
Readers are on the hunt for hooks. This is why you need to pay meticulous attention and make sure you have enough of them in the right places in order to spin up the trajectories that make your story.
If readers reach a section that is not driven by an overarching set of questions derived from a hook, they will start to lose interest. They will feel the story has stalled and scan ahead.
But don’t be disingenuous. A false hook is as bad as no hook. Readers crave meaning. If they lock onto a detail in your story they believe is a hook and nothing comes of it, they will lose trust in your storytelling skills.
If you write, “Jessica enters the library and sees a shadow” and fail to build the trajectory that explains the shadow, readers will be confused at a minimum or frustrated at the worst.
On the other hand, if you make the shadow the monster of the book and you take this exciting trajectory to its conclusion, you can fill readers’ heads all along the way with page-turning questions.
The hook map of your story
Go through your manuscript and mark your hooks. Do you have enough? Are they at a pace and place that works best for your story?
Are your hooks where they can best be enjoyed?
Tiny hooks might be okay hiding inside a paragraph in the middle of a chapter, but a big hook needs to headline. The location of every hook should be proportional to its importance. Just like you hang your favorite family photograph in a place of prominence and not in the closet, you want to your best hooks to shine, perhaps by placing them at the beginning or end of a chapter.
Examine your use of cliffhangers, if you have them. Search for any false hooks and decide how to amend them. Make sure all intended hooks have stellar trajectories that come to meaningful conclusions that propel the story along its way to the climax.
Do a good job engineering your hook map and you’ll keep readers turning the pages.
Filling The Holes In Your Story
Words That Carry Maximum Weight: Tropes In Storytelling
Request a “Suspension of Disbelief” Edit of Your Book
Use Pacing to Improve Your Storytelling
Things I Learned About Storytelling From Stranger Things