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Hook 'em with character

“You’ve got to open with a strong hook.”

Ask anyone in the publishing industry—agents, publishing house editors, sales reps—and they’ll all tell you that opening a story with a strong hook is a great way to make your manuscript stand out from the rest.

But what does that actually mean? It’s pretty vague advice. If you press them on it, they’ll give you something like “Well, the story has to open strong. It has to pull the reader right in, grab them by the shirt collar, and make them want to read the next page.”

That doesn’t help much, does it?

Then there’s the other school of thought, summarized very well by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover:

I know a few people, very few, who can spout plot summaries of novels on request. What most people remember, I contend, are their favorite characters.

She’s right. The thing is, these philosophies mesh very well together, because a strong hook also shows your characters.

Today I’m going to tell you exactly what a strong hook is, and give you practical, hands-on tips for how to open with one, and how to how to make your hook show your characters.

A strong hook is nothing more than something that grabs the reader’s attention. That usually means crafting a surprising situation that is thick with conflict. Why? Because conflict drives the reader’s curiosity: what’s the conflict about? What’s at stake? Who’s going to prevail?

Raising questions in the reader’s mind compels them to keep reading. And in your opening scene, more than anywhere else in the book, you want the reader to keep reading.

Yet, all too often I see manuscripts that open with some of the most boring situations imaginable. People waking up in the morning, walking down the street, going about ordinary, day-to-day activities. Don’t do that. Somewhere in your plot, is some interesting, pivotal event that gets the main storyline going. Right? Say yes. There had better be, and it had better come soon.

Find a way to put this event front-and-center on page one. In paragraph one. Ideally, put it in the very first sentence. Open with a scene of conflict. Work to immediately raise those questions in the reader’s mind. Don’t think it’s better if the conflict sneaks up on the reader. It isn’t. Jump right in.

That’s one component of a great hook: opening big, picking the right scene from your overall story to open with. Do that and you’ll raise the right questions in the reader’s mind. But the hook won’t have any bait if you fail to make the reader care about the answers.

In my experience, this happens when the big opening scene fails to establish the main character’s personality. You can’t fix this by throwing in a sentence or two of description. You can’t fix it by telling the reader that your character is a smart-ass, or is utterly fearless, or is a rotten drunk.

To establish your main character’s personality well, you have to show it, not tell it. And that, in turn, means creating opportunities for your character to display his or her attributes in action.

There’s lots of ways of working a character’s attributes into a scene, but in an opening scene one of the best ways is to make sure that your main character drives the scene, rather than letting the scene drive your character.

I can’t tell you how many opening scenes of manuscripts I’ve read that have a lot of conflict in them, but in which the main character doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t affect the outcome of the scene. Openings where the main character is buffeted about by events, making no effort to participate in them, letting the chips fall where they may.

That is not a recipe for making readers care about your main character. Who wants to root for a character that doesn’t do anything? One way or another, you have to make your main character drive that scene.

This doesn’t mean that your main character can’t be in a world of trouble. It’s probably better if he or she is. This doesn’t mean he or she has to prevail in the scene’s conflict. In fact, he or she should probably not prevail.

What it does mean is that you need to show the character trying to affect the outcome of the scene. You need to show them making decisions, taking actions, reacting to events, engaging in dialogue.

Every one of those elements is an opportunity to show character.

Actions speak louder than words, right? There’s no better way to learn what someone’s really made of than to watch how they act in an atypical situation. You won’t learn anything about someone from watching them walk down the street, get up in the morning, or any of those other un-conflicted, daily life situations.

But watch them act in the middle of a crisis, and you’ll come to know what kind of person they are really fast. Authors have the extra luxury of not only showing how a character acts, but also of showing how they think. Use it. Give the reader that extra insight into your character’s mind.

Here it is, boiled down: A great hook shows character through conflict.

Tattoo that on your forehead if you need to, but learn it. Take a look at the opening scene of whatever book you’re working on right now, and ask yourself, is this a great hook? Is there enough conflict here, and have I used it to show my main character’s personality? Is my main character driving the scene?

This is how you not only pull the reader into the story by raising questions, but also make them care about the answers.

July 20, 2009 18:04 UTC

Tags: hook, conflict, questions, answers, character, choice, action, reaction, show don't tell

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Posted by kris250 on September 22, 2010 16:19 UTC

I really enjoy your blog, it’s been very helpful to me. This topic, though, has been a huge issue for me and I’m still struggling with it. What if the main character is a teenage girl swept up in the middle of a war? She is innocent and obedient and the grownups around her make the decisions. Over the course of the story she matures and begins taking more control of her life. But, how, in the beginning, can she make decisions and take control when that is not the reality? (It is narrative nonfiction, btw, so I cannot change her to make her do things she didn’t). How do I make the reader care about her in this passive state?

Posted by Jason Black on September 22, 2010 18:33 UTC

Thanks! Glad it has helped.

As to your question, it’s not necessary that the character take control of anything. As you say, that wasn’t the reality. Indeed, it may be better that she can’t do that. What’s important is for the reader to see her trying to affect her circumstances.

She doesn’t need to succeed, but we do need to see her try.

That can take many forms. She might actively try to change the outcome of some situation, but fail. Like, when my son complains that “I don’t wanna go to school today!” and I tell him “too bad, you’re going.” He will then try a whole litany of strategies to get out of it. “I’m too tired. My tummy hurts.” And so on. He still goes to school anyway.

Alternately, she might simply have wishes and goals which are out of her reach. For a teenage girl stuck in the middle of a wartime existence, there must surely be things she wishes for. A bed to sleep in. Safety. And also loftier goals such as what she wants to be when she grows up, dreams of falling in love, et cetera.

These are goals she may have no ability to pursue at that time in the story, but if you can show us that she has them, and takes even the tiniest of baby-steps towards them, that will suffice.

Posted by Karen Burns on March 01, 2011 06:06 UTC

Ah, wise advice. And surprisingly difficult to implement! Opening scenes are a bear. Thanks for this. Again, it bears re-reading and reading again.

Posted by Jason Black on March 01, 2011 06:38 UTC


Thanks for the kind words. Reading and re-reading is no doubt helpful, to a point. But eventually, you have to just jump in and start writing! At the end of the day, I think you have to just be confident that you know what you have to do, then apply butt to chair and write until you figure out how to do it.

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