Nailing the Narrative Hook

The goal of the narrative hook is simple: get the reader to keep reading. This literary device is used to tease them with a question or a hint of what’s to come, forcing them to ask questions and seek answers in the coming pages.

It’s an opportunity to make the right first impression because readers rarely allow for a second.

If your hook is dull or cliché, you will lose the grasp you had on the reader, the initial spark that prompted them to pick up your book in the first place.

Shiny new books hit shelves every day and given the ever-increasing rate of authors going the self-publishing route, authors are facing more competition than ever for readers’ attention.

If you want to retain reader engagement, to solidify the hold your novel has on your reader, you need a strong hook. Fortunately, there are a number of different approaches to choose from that will best suit your novel.

Types of Narrative Hooks –

Satisfying that curiosity early on might seem like a wasted opportunity for creating momentum, but if you’ve done your job well, the reader will be hooked by another question you’ve posed, furthering their curiosity, and on the cycle goes.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
— excerpt from George Orwell’s, 1984

This is a perfect example of a puzzling hook: it’s short, sharp, and immediately piques the reader’s interest. Why were the clocks striking thirteen? Is this some strange world where time is different, or is it a metaphor? The reader wants answers, so they continue reading, waiting for you to deliver.

2. The Direct Address Hook:
This addresses the reader directly, making them feel involved in the story. They can’t read passively once they’ve been called to attention, so they’re almost active participants. It’s a sharp hook that tends to make the reader pause, ears perked to listen.

“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”
— excerpt from Chuck Palahniuk’s, Choke

This is an intriguing approach to this hook. It’s a call to action, or at least a call-to-no-action. Why would Palahnuik discourage us from reading? What a strange request. That morbid curiosity humans are plagued with — where we’re told we can have anything but one specific thing, and suddenly that forbidden object is all we can think of coveting — is a pull we can’t resist.

3. The Subtle Hook:
This hook drops enough hints to pique the reader’s interest, appealing to their curiosity while holding something back, refusing to reveal any or all until just enough time has passed.

“Some real things have happened lately.”
— excerpt from Joan Didion’s, The Last Thing He Wanted

These six short words do a whole lot. I’m not usually a fan of the word ‘some’ because it’s vague, but that vagueness works here — it’s hinting to the reader that these ‘things’, the events that happened, will be covered, but only in time.

It’s all indicating some kind of action, and it was recent, nothing that happened ten or twenty years ago. It’s relevant right now, so it’s got more snap.

If Didion had chosen specificity over vagueness with, “Four real things have happened lately,” he could have captured the reader’s interest, but the set number indicates the actual list is about to be delivered.

There are authors who choose to satisfy the hook immediately after bating the reader, and it can be done well, but I personally think it’s better to draw it out, giving you more time to hook and hold them as you move through the story.

4. The Scene-Setter Hook:
This hook sets the atmosphere using description to anchor the scene and elicit emotions in the reader, but keep in mind that while detailed and vibrant description is important, beginning with a chunk of illustration has become a little outdated.

It was far more common in the past, the story pausing for the author as they spend two full pages detailing the old English manor they had just inherited. Today, that doesn’t fly. Don’t give a laundry list of descriptions; make it a treat for the senses and make it short, sharp, and sweet.

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.”
— excerpt from Raymond Chandler’s, Red Wind

This works well. Not only is the prose tight and word economy being a priority, it also allows the reader to visualise this wind. Even the reader unfamiliar with Santa Anas winds can call on their imagination to concoct the feeling of it. That’s a testament to the Chandler’s ability to set a scene.

5. The Visual Hook:
This narrative hook uses description to create a visual, painting a picture to ease the reader into the scene. But keep in mind that much of the same can be said here as with the scene-setter hook.

A colourful, vivid backdrop for your story is important, but it’s not really a part of the story unless you integrate it in. If your hook is longer than the example below, try to make it a part of the action.

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
— excerpt from William Gibson’s, Neuromancer

Again, a sharp example. When reading that sentence, our minds immediately picture a television tuned to an off-air channel. We all know what it looks like, it’s no stretch of the imagination or effort to visualise it. He’s not making the reader work as he uses a common, easily conjured image, but it’s still powerful.

We get a sense of the scene, the gloomy weather possibly hinting at a dark mood for the opening chapter. When opting for a visual narrative hook, I would go with hooks of this length. The average reader’s attention span might not last much longer if you overload them with information before the story really begins.

6. The Comedic Hook:
A comic narrative hook, appealing to the reader’s sense of humour. Not easy to nail; you might want to please the reader with a twisted approach to comedy, but that could peeve more traditionally minded folks.

It’s obviously more common to begin a novel using this approach if humour is an overarching theme you want to convey, but if your novel is a thriller or horror, dark in any way, it wouldn’t be the most advisable thing to start this way. Sharp, dry wit is common in, say, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, but we certainly weren’t introduced to the story with a punchline.

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.”
— excerpt from Victor LaValle’s Big Machine

This line appeals to any sense of humour. There’s no fat on this; every word is necessary. And it invokes images that, while we may not enjoy, we certainly are familiar with. It’s a sophisticated sentence about an unsophisticated topic, and it won’t be lost on anyone. If you want to go for humour, remember as LaValle clearly has that brevity is the soul of wit.

7. The Direct Speech Hook:
This narrative hook pulls you in right in the middle of a conversation, indicating a faster, more action-based pace than previous hooks. But, like the humour angle, it’s hard to get right.

You’re introducing conversation between characters the reader hasn’t had the chance to get to know, which makes it that much harder for them to care about what’s being said and who’s saying it, i.e. the reader can’t even attribute words to a specific character.

A way around this is to make the dialogue unusual, so it catches the reader’s attention. A benefit of this hook: you can use the puzzling hook here, e.g. the character may say something shrouded in mystery and immediately the reader’s attention is piqued.

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
— excerpt from Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebisond

This is a great example, a mix of unusual imagery and action. “Take my camel, dear” isn’t something we hear regularly, so it catches our attention.

This strange sentence is integrated into the action of climbing down and is a succinct introduction; there’s no — “Hi, how are you?” said Aunt Dot. “Did you enjoy last night’s episode of The Price is Right? I thought it was interesting…” etc. It starts at the most interesting part of the hook and line itself.

Narrative Hook Guidelines –

I want to be clear: I’m not saying you can’t display a rainbow of emotions throughout your story, but I wouldn’t recommend beginning your novel in any theme or emotion other than the overall one that comprises your book. There is always a place for humour in horror, for fear in romance, for hope in thrillers, but consistency in the beginning is key.

When delivering the theme with the hook, you’re giving the reader a taste of what’s to come, a little teaser you deliver with the promise of your premise.

It’s akin to Chekhov’s gun — ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.’

If your narrative hook involves an abandoned car, the odour of decomposition, and a trail of blood leading from the boot to the front steps of an abandoned rusted trailer, the following scene really shouldn’t describe a night at the cinema followed by hot fudge sundaes.

Don’t Drag It Out:
The start might be a very good place to start, but even The Sound of Music can’t always get it right. If you want to create more tension, try the in media res approach, meaning ‘into the middle of things.’

Your story could start at a point in the middle, a pivotal moment in the action, the extra exposition you would be missing out on instead taking the form of flashbacks, dialogue, or description of past events.

If you’re going for an action launch over a narrative opening, make sure to start with the action, not the morning of, or an hour before. Avoid mundanity by introducing the story to your reader at the point at which it really gets going.

Writers fall into this trap thinking the events before the action matter because their protagonist is so interesting and unique — that might well be the case, but the reader hasn’t had the chance to become invested in them, hasn’t been given the opportunity to see this character’s individuality, so reading about their daily habits and events before the pop of the story will pull their interest.

The last thing you want is the reader fearing the rest of the story is all exposition and no conflict, tension, or action.

A Little Mystery Goes A Long Way:
Descriptive hooks are strikingly pleasing when done well, and philosophical statements are interesting because they’re enlightening in terms of the character and their voice, but I’m convinced inciting a reader’s curiosity is the best approach in retaining reader engagement.

This doesn’t mean the invocation of interest has to be dramatically suspenseful or tense in any way; there are plenty of comedy or coming-of-age novels beginning with a question that the reader wants answered.

Phrase your narrative hook in a way that poses a question that the reader will want the answer to, in time. Reveal some, but not all; leave enough mystery in the air to compel them to continue reading.

If you’ve already written your hook and find it’s got no snap, failing to make a reader question anything, don’t panic! You can always make the necessary changes.

Go back in with the knowledge of what a narrative hook can and should achieve and experiment a little. Use what follows the hook to better mould your story’s beginning until it’s got enough bite to pull in any reader.

Freelance writer & editor. Living in words. Avid Oxford comma supporter.

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