Writing a Memorable Hook for Your Novel or Short Story

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

Donna Tart, A Secret History

A memorable hook may not be a matter of life or death for your story, but an intriguing start can persuade a reader to take your book home from the shop or add to cart after skimming the preview online. Think of it as a first impression; it won’t do all the heavy lifting for you in maintaining a relationship with the reader, but it can warm them up to your work. What do you want to establish about your story from the first few sentences?

Do Some Prep

Before you jump in, consider your genre. The hook you write will depend on your intended audience, as well as what the genre values most. If you’re writing crime or mystery, for example, you may want to consider setting up intrigue from the get-go, while a romantic YA novel may first establish the main character’s listlessness or the setting where the story will unfold.

Once you pinpoint the type of hook you’ll be writing, take some time to get inspired. Are there books on your shelf that felt thrilling from the start? How do other horror writers begin their novels? Dust off your favorites and take a look at the first few sentences. What do they introduce, establish or foreshadow?  

Analyze What Works

Let’s spend a moment with the first two sentences of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara:

“The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking. Willem held up a hand in greeting to him, but the man didn’t wave back.”

What makes this hook successful is everything it’s able to establish in so few words. We learn that the first character, a male named Willem, has looked at eleven places to live. He’s being selective, but there’s a drawback with this place, so perhaps the pickings are slim, or his budget is tight. We know what time of year it is, and based on Willem’s thoughts on his new neighbor, that he’s someone who would dress according to season. We’re shown that he’s friendly, but perhaps this neighbourhood is a bit cold and odd in contrast.

Yanagihara’s opening is proof that a memorable hook doesn’t have to be sharp and punchy – it can start with a simple action, as long as it has a purpose.  There’s nothing wrong with opting for dreamy and slow if that’s the pace of your novel as a whole, and this signals to a reader if the book is right for them.

Compare this hook to the first sentence of Donna Tartt’s A Secret History from the start of this article.

Tartt indirectly sets the season here and draws in the reader in with the mention of a death, as well as undisclosed consequences. There’s a tenseness and urgency in this first line, and the melting snow on the mountain heightens the sense of some inevitability, like sand trickling through an hourglass. Seeing as this novel centers on a mystery, this hook is ideal for the genre and communicates to the reader that they’re in for a thriller.

Try It Out

Once you’re ready to try writing a hook for yourself, experiment with different approaches. What happens if you foreshadow a major event? How does it change if you begin with dialogue or start mid-action? What environment or conflict would demonstrate the key personality traits of your main character? Play around and see what piques your interest most, as this will do the same for the reader.

If you’re not sure where to begin, there’s no need to stress. You can always come back to the hook once you’ve finished the rest of your story, and the start may change regardless as you move scenes around. A memorable hook may be the goal, but it can be easy to overthink the concept. When in doubt, starting in a place that excites you as a writer will hook the reader more than anything!

  • Posted by Julia McAlpine
  • May 5, 2020 8:21 AM PDT
A memorable hook may not be a matter of life or death for your story, but an intriguing start can persuade a reader to take your book home from the shop or add to cart after skimming the preview online.




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