A ‘hook’ in a story promises intrigue, entertainment and answers to the questions it raises. Far from the trickery of a bait and switch, a hook gives a true sense of what your reader can expect of your story’s pleasures. Explore great story hook examples and what they teach us about starting strong:
Story hook examples
These hooks that do what a hook should: Raise curiosity, create questions and promise eventful action:
1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (2014), p. 3.
2. Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
When the team reached the site at five-thirty in the morning, one or two family members would be waiting for them. And they would be present all day while Anil and the others worked, never leaving; they spelled each other so someone always stayed, as if to ensure that the evidence would not be lost again.Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost (2000), p. 5.
3. Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke – stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads…Colum McCann, Let The Great World Spin (2009), p. 3.
4. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
It’s 1851. I’ll be twenty-four years old next birthday. I’ve been shut up in here since the age of sixteen. I am a model prisoner, and give no trouble. That’s what the Governor’s wife says, I have overheard her saying it. I’m skilled at overhearing. If I am good enough and quiet enough, perhaps after all they will let me go; but it’s not easy being quiet and good…Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996), p. 5
5. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Villon-sur-sarthe, France, July 29, 1714V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020), p. 3.
A girl is running for her life.
The summer air burns at her back, but there are no torches, no angry mobs, only the distant lanterns of the wedding party, the reddish glow of the sun as it breaks against the horizon, cracks and spills across the hills, and the girl runs, skirts tangling in the grass as she surges toward the woods, trying to beat the dying light.
6. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Let me begin again.Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), p. 3
I am writing to reach you-even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. I am writing to go back to the time, at the rest stop in Virginia, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face.
7. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong.Toni Morrison, God Help the Child (2015), p. 3
8. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
On the morning of October 30, 1969, the body of Chase Andrews lay in the swamp, which would have absorbed it silently, routinely. Hiding it for good. A swamp knows about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), p. 6
The examples of hooks from novels above illustrate what effective hooks do:
How to write good hooks for stories:
Great story hooks do one or more of the following. They:
- Build urgency
- Prompt pressing questions
- Involve intriguing contexts
- Introduce striking voices
- Show a glimpse of a vivid world
- Imply past or future conflicts
- Build narrative tension
- Share relevant backstory
- Set the story’s tone
Let’s explore each of these ideas in brief with reference to the story hook examples given above.
Ways to write hooks:
1. Build urgency
A girl running for her life; a dead body lying in a swamp; a crowd gathering to point into the sky.
Each of these actions or images create a kind of urgency that hooks a reader into the story.
The reader wants to know why a girl is running for her life. We need to find out who murdered Chase Andrews. We want to know what the crowds are staring up at in Let The Great World Spin (an urban tightrope walker).
To build urgency in your story’s hook, you could:
- Describe an action with a time limit: For example, having ten minutes to get to a crucial interview
- Share actions with high stakes: A girl running for her life; a tightrope walker between NY skyscrapers
- Imply a situation requiring urgent investigation: A murder, a mystery – a vital piece of missing information for one or more characters
What needs to happen at the start of your story (or scene, or chapter) that is of utmost priority for your characters?
2. Prompt pressing questions
Good story openings include meandering beginnings that take time getting to the point (this is especially common in literary novels that do not necessarily require the brisk pace of a thriller).
Yet even if your story opening is gentler, more tone-and-mood-setting than full-tilt action, how can you prompt pressing questions, creating elements of a hook?
In the opening hook to Anil’s Ghost, for example, we wonder what evidence is being sought that could be ‘lost again’.
A good story makes us ask ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ at several junctures. The hook is a crucial place to set up these questions. For the above story hook examples, readers may have questions such as:
- What are people gathering to point at? (Let The Great World Spin)
- What or who is the girl running from? (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue)
- Why does the narrator think something is gravely wrong with their newborn (God Help the Child)
- When will the prisoner be released, if ever? (Alias Grace)
What pressing questions does your hook give your reader? Share it as a comment on this article.
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3. Involve intriguing contexts
The best story hooks don’t only grab our attention. They tell us (often in a highly compressed way) a lot about the world we’re about to enter.
We begin to understand aspects of context such as place, era, scenario and situation. That a wartime city is about to be evacuated, for example (All the Light We Cannot See). Or that there is a wedding party, somewhere in the periphery, that may be relevant to a character’s current situation (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue).
What makes context intriguing? Elements such as:
- Implied recent, imminent or eventual conflicts
- Interesting, compelling relationships (e.g. the man writing to his mother at the start of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous)
- Interesting facts (for example, Delia Owens’ description of the swamp’s peculiarities as a biome opening Where the Crawdads Sing)
How can you involve your characters’ contexts at the start of a novel, chapter or scene so that your reader pricks up their ears?
4. Introduce striking voices
We tend to think of hooks strictly in terms of ‘Plot’ with a capital ‘P’. Yet a hook is just as often made from an inviting (or compellingly repulsive, in the case of an anti-hero) ‘who’.
For example, in the opening to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (written as a Vietnamese-American man’s letters to his abusive mother), there is an immediate, intimate sense of a connection between two characters. A connection that has its own complex history filled with vignettes such as the rest stop scene the narrator describes.
We have an immediate sense of voice through the wording of the man’s letter.
A hook thus is not only made up of the pressing questions it inspires. It can also be something as simply compelling as a lone, specific voice reaching out to us from the written page.
What makes your viewpoint narrator’s voice compelling from the first line? What fragment of their experiences, beliefs, fears or desires may invite your reader into their narrative?
5. Show a glimpse of a vivid world
Many novels start with story hooks that describe and define place. Delia Owens’ swamp facts at the beginning of Where the Crawdads Sing, for example. Or Ondaatje’s description of a forensic archaeological site in Sri Lanka.
To hook readers in, you could show a glimpse of what is extraordinary about this place. The dead body in the swamp with its already remarkable properties. The strange hunting trophy on the rest stop wall that fills the narrator’s mother with horror in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
What detail is typical of your story’s era, time or primary location? Or else, your hook could begin with something out-of-the-ordinary – the tightrope walker between towers of Let The Great World Spin, for example.
6. Imply past or future conflicts
Stories are about change, at root. Nothing is an agent of change like conflict (as the evacuation order leaflets at the start of All the Light We Cannot See show).
As an example, on the first page of God Help the Child by Toni Morrison, we wonder what is so wrong about the narrator’s newborn.
We quickly learn that her worry is driven by colorism, a by-product of racism. The narrator’s child has been born ‘midnight black, Sudanese black’ (p. 3), the mother’s surprise being because she has lighter skin tone herself.
From the first page, this story hook example suggests conflicts at the heart of racism; its comparative prejudices and violences. We wonder how others will treat this child due to a mother’s concern, thus her anxious focus creates narrative suspense.
What past or anticipated conflicts might feature strongly in the opening pages of your story? Find ways to build a hook around their suspense.
7. Build narrative tension
The best story hook examples teach us how to build narrative tension from the start. It may be something as simple as Addie LaRue running for her life from the wedding party. Or else the hush of a crowd craning their necks at a terrifying, aerial spectacle.
To build narrative tension in your hook, you could:
- Describe high-stakes events (e.g. a man walking a tightrope between skyscrapers)
- Imply an immediate struggle or obstacle (for example, the implied hurdles of being ‘other’ in the opening to God Help the Child)
- Suggest a situation whose outcome could go either way (for example, whether the protagonist will be released from prison or not in Alias Grace)
8. Share relevant backstory
Beginning with a large chunk of backstory that is irrelevant to the main events of your story is not a good way to begin. Your reader may quickly become bored, as writing coach Romy Sommer explains:
An issue I see with a lot of beginner writers is they tend to write the backstory as the story itself. So the first few chapters will be, ‘This thing happened, and then this thing happened…’Understanding Character Arcs: How to write characters, preview on YouTube
Good story hook examples instead of giving all the backstory tell the reader backstory that is relevant to the current situation.
For example, the petty crime that lead a character to be currently incarcerated. Or the evacuation order that lead to your character’s current hurrying from their home city.
Relevant backstory tells us just enough to give the present scene context, history, and fuller narrative purpose.
9. Set the story’s tone
Many of the story hook examples listed above set the tone for the story. Addie LaRue’s bid for freedom, to not ‘just’ be anybody’s wife, for example. Or Little Dog’s difficult, complex relationship with his mother in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
How can your story’s hook hint at your story’s primary subjects, themes and symbols?
Writing exercise: ‘Toning’ your hook
Find three adjectives for a hook sentence you’d like to write. For example:
- Tense, unsettling, eerie
- Lyrical, languid, mysterious
- Gritty, fast, loud
- Silly, quirky, unexpected
Write a sentence to a paragraph while thinking about your three adjectives. How many questions out of the 5 (‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’) can you make your reader ask?
Start finessing your story idea now so you have the foundation for a brilliant hook.