I feel like I just grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it.
-Lyndon B. Johnson
Readers are like fish: they're always nibbling, but if you want to catch one you've got to use the right bait, and you've got to have a hook in it. Without a hook (or if you use a weak hook), the best bait in the world won't help you. Readers will nibble a bit, spit out your bait, and move on to the next guy who's using one of those really nasty barbed hooks that go in but have to be cut out with a filleting knife. It's no use complaining that your bait is steak while his is Spam. Readers don't care. If they're not hooked, you can't reel them in no matter what kind of delicacies you dangle in front of them.
Equally useless is the hook that's attached to a weak line. Your hook's only as good as the line that holds it. So we're going to take a look at both elements here: the hook that jerks the reader out of their quiet browse and makes them come along, and the line that ensures they can't break away from you with only a really clever hook as an annoying memento.
The Elements of a Good Hook
First, make sure that you're using good quality steel. Secondly, make sure you're using the right sort of hook for the right sort of fish.... I'm sorry, I'm forgetting myself. We're talking metaphor, not actual fishing. But these two things are true: your hook must be quality stuff, not so flimsy it snaps at the least bit of tension (like the reader asking, "Is this worth $7.99 plus tax? I could get a really good hamburger instead). And your hook must be suited to the target fish. You wouldn't go fly fishing with a marlin hook. You probably won't try to hook a literary reader with a horror novel hook.
So, here are the elements as far as I can identify them:
1. Strength. Your hook has to stand the abuse the reader will hurl at it.
2. Suitability. Your hook should suit the type of book you're writing (which will in turn dictate the type of audience you're looking for).
3. Sustainability. Your hook can't be a one-hit wonder. It's got to stay embedded in the reader's flesh throughout the whole first chapter.
4. Intrigue. Your hook has to intrigue the reader, just like the perfect dry fly intrigues the trout. In the case of a hook, it should raise questions that absolutely must be answered if the reader ever wants to have any peace again.
5. Originality. Your hook should be unique. Not tricky, not flashy, but unique. This hook has to say, "I'm different from all of the hooks you've seen before."
6. Disguise. Obvious hooks will only entrap the naive. The rest of the population has been taken for a ride before and is a little suspicious of shiny metallic things. The less your hook looks like a hook, the better off you are.
So let's dive in and have a nice close look at all these elements.
Courtesy of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol:
Strong hook: "Marley was dead: to begin with."
Weak hook: "Scrooge, the owner of a counting house, was sitting at his desk and counting some money."
The first hook has force. It has impact. It has power. The second is flabby, weak, passive, and about as interesting as the ingredients list on a can of tuna.
A strong hook gets in the reader's face. It may not be obvious, but strength radiates from it. It commands attention. It's powerful enough to launch a whole novel. A strong hook is active. Don't be swayed by the fact we have a passive verb in the first hook (was): this is an incredibly active hook. It's not mumbling around, it's shouting out a fact: Marley was dead from the very beginning, folks, and how he got that way and what happened next is going to blow your mind!
Not that Dickens would have used that kind of language, of course, but you get the idea. A strong hook doesn't just lounge there. It may not be moving much, but it at least gives the impression it's about to explode. And then it does.
Courtesy of Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Suitable hook: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again."
Unsuitable hook: "Last night I dreamt of the dead wife my husband kept in his closet."
What's wrong with the second hook, you ask? It has all the right elements. It's strong, intriguing, original, and all that jazz.
But it's totally unsuited to a literary novel about the process of discovery and the slow unfolding of a horror that haunts one still. Your hook needs to suit your book. This is more a matter of what tone you take than what event you use as your hook. Start as you mean to go on. You're making a promise to the reader with your hook. Don't promise them a tabloid expose when what you're delivering is a mood piece. Don't begin with a shooting or a car crash if those are just minor events that don't impact the main story. And that brings us to
Courtesy of Dick Francis, The Edge
Sustainable hook: "I was following Derry Welfram at a prudent fifty paces when he stumbled, fell face down on the wet tarmac and lay still."
Unsustainable hook: "I was following Derry Welfram..."
Yes, folks, that's right: the exact same hook can be completely unsustainable. In the first instance, the fall of Derry Welfram starts a chain of events that pulls the reader along like the engine of the train the characters board. Now imagine this opening hook in a book where Derry Welfram's untimely demise was just a side note to a love story. The main character goes home, says, "Wow, life's short" and thinks no more of it as he dials up his girl.
This book can handle a hook full of fireworks because the events only get bigger from here. In the hypothetical instance, the hook can't be sustained. It drops out of the reader's mouth. You got them in with a death, but you can't hold on to them with a boy-meets-girl story after that. If you can't sustain the tension of the hook throughout, you need a different hook.
Courtesy of Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Intriguing hook: Shadow had done three years in prison.
Not-intriguing hook: Shadow was a very nice person inside.
Your hook should immediately start a flow of questions in the reader's mind. Note that every hook I've shown (the authentic ones, not my lame interpretations of same) makes you question something. Who the fuck is Marley and why is it so important he's dead? Why is this woman dreaming of Manderly? What was this joker doing following Derry and why did he fall down? What's Shadow in prison for?
The questions can be life-and-death, or just niggling curiosity, or anything in between, but a good hook intrigues the reader, makes them start questioning why things are as they are, happened as they happened, what's going on... And then, after that initial line, the hook keeps on making the reader ask questions even while it answers the first. It keeps the intrigue level going. It ratchets up the tension by piquing the reader's curiosity.
Humans are nosy buggers: we just have to get the dish. A good literary angler knows that and uses hooks that won't stop pressing the curiosity button. Before the reader knows it, the hook's set deep and they're being reeled in with no say in the matter.
Courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Original hook: "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees."
Cliche hook: "Money makes the world go round."
You may have noticed that the other hooks I've used don't seem all that original (although, Dickens' was terribly original for it's time). But go on Amazon, look up the books, and you'll see in their first paragraphs that they are very original indeed. They don't rely on tired old scenarios for their intrigue, or if they do, they describe them in ways that are just a bit off the beaten track. Kurt's just one of those who hits the ground running.
You won't want to go for strange for the sake of strange, but you do want to present something new to the reader. Tired old situation like money-grubbing? Find a hook that describes it as no one's ever described it before. It doesn't have to be as unique as Mr. Vonnegut here, but you do want to give expectations a twist. Play with the reader's expectations. Give your Inner Editor the sack and let your Inner Lunatic take over. Let your own voice come through, and you'll find something nice and original.
Courtesy of Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Disguised hook: There were four of us - George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking and talking about how bad we were - bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.
Blatant hook: My friends and I didn't know when we hatched this scheme for a boat trip up the Thames that we would nearly perish several times along the way.
Either hook works, of course, but the second one blares a bit. It doesn't leave all that much to the imagination - we know these blokes are going to go boating, and we know that it's going to be fraught. The first lulls the reader into lounging about with the folks involved, seems to promise us some amusing conversation about hypochondria (and does), and doesn't give away the fact that this conversation is directly responsible for getting these blokes into the boat where all of the hijinks ensue.
The jaded reader is going to look at that second hook and say "Aha! This writer is trying to force me to read their bloody book. Well, I know exactly what happens - it says right here on the back cover." And they'll huff away with their nose in the air.
Shiny hooks are nice and all, but sometimes what you really want is a hook that sets itself without the reader ever knowing what's going on. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that every hook has to yank the reader kicking and screaming into the story.
On the Importance of Using the Right Sort of Line
So, you've hooked the reader and given that little jerk that sets the hook. In fact, your first several paragraphs, probably the whole first chapter, are going to be focused on the hook, making sure it's worked so deep into the reader's flesh that escape is improbable at best. And it's a damned good hook. The poor bastard can't get it out of his mouth no matter how hard he struggles.
Which is all well and good, but what happens when you get to the end of the first paragraph/page/chapter and the reader discovers that your custom-made hideously-expensive hook is attached to an off-brand fishing line sold by the local 99 Cent Store?
You'll lose 'em, that's what.
A good hook is only as good as the story that follows. The rest of the prose has to live up to the promise of that hook, or eclipse it. This is why we spend so much time studying the craft and getting it right. This is why you can't spend all of your writing time creating the best hook the literary world has ever seen and then attach it to a story unworthy of it.
Writing is a lot like angling, but it differs in one important respect: if you don't catch readers, you can't stop by the market on the way home and have the butcher throw some fresh readers your way so you can honestly say you caught them.
So make sure that your hook is paired with the right line. The only way to do this is to work your arse off and read as much of the best as you can. You have to practice and discard horribly deformed efforts until you finally cast that one perfect dry fly, attached to a line of such strength and lightness that no reader in the world can possibly break free once hooked.