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8 story hook examples (how to grab attention)

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:

A literary ‘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

A literary ‘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. A brilliant hook also also grabs a reader’s attention from the get go, to encourage them to read on. A hook can also show a strong voice from the start. Explore great story hook examples and what they teach us about starting strong. Here are eight types of hooks.

These hooks in narrative writing a hook should: Raise curiosity, create questions and promise eventful action with them.

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, 1714

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.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020), p. 3.

6. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Let me begin again.
Dear ma,
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.

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), p. 3

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:

  1. Build urgency
  2. Prompt pressing questions
  3. Involve intriguing contexts
  4. Introduce striking voices
  5. Show a glimpse of a vivid world
  6. Imply past or future conflicts
  7. Build narrative tension
  8. Share relevant backstory
  9. Set the story’s tone

Let’s explore each of these ideas in brief with reference to the story hook examples given above.

Story hook examples - Ovid on the advantages of always having a hook cast

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?

Watch this brief video on how to write hooks and keep reading for more ideas:

Story Hook Examples: How to grab attention

What is a story hook? How do you grab attention quickly in your novel or story pitch and leave a reader (or agent/editor) asking questions, riddled with suspense?

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, a question hook, rather 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.

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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 her newborn (God Help the Child)
  • When will the prisoner be released, if ever? (Alias Grace)

What thought-provoking questions does your hook give your reader? You can also use a rhetorical question as a hook. Or, use a statistic hook, quoting facts and figures to grip a reader’s attention.

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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. Why we’re in for a good story.

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 may be something as simple as teasing the reader with introduction to an interesting character (or multiple characters).

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 or intriguing questions it inspires. It can also be something as simply compelling as a lone, specific voice reaching out to us from the written page.

You could also consider using a quotation hook. This, as the name implies, means using a quote from a notable or famous person. This will serve introduce the topic of your story, or lead into it. A quote hook will can be effective in reeling your reader in from the word go.

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?

Ted Naifeh on the importance of a story hook

5. Show a glimpse of a vivid world

Many novels start with story hooks that describe and define place, a descriptive hook. 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. These are all examples of vivid descriptions of scenes that create a picture  in a reader’s mind.

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 use just such an attention-grabbing hook:

  • 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. This type of hook is useful for revealing just as much as you want to in a few simple sentences.

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.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

20 replies on “8 story hook examples (how to grab attention)”

Hi Jordan, so glad I stumbled on this article while researching Hook / Concept! Excellent information and I’ve printed it off (for an anti-clutter frugal printer, that is quite high praise lol). Now off to read your other articles. Thanks!!

Hi Regan, thank you so much for your kind feedback and taking the time to share it. I am only happy to contribute to print-clutter 🙂 It’s a pleasure, have a good week.

Thanks Jordon you help me a lot I am writing a non fiction article I needed to find out about a good hook how to try to hook reader in the first sentence I got it thanks to your explanations if you ever teach writing lessons on how write short stories for children I ready to enlist thanks for your help

Thank you, Jordan. I found this very helpful! People so often talk about a ‘hook’ and it’s interesting to really break it down to see what makes it work.

Hi Rebecca, it’s a pleasure. I’m glad to hear that! Thank you for reading our blog and have fun working on your story’s hook 🙂

Very helpful. Thanks.
Although, I noticed that you use ‘their’ to refer to the woman giving birth, but ‘him’ to the person writing to the mother, whose gender was not revealed in the sentence. sigh. why do we need to erase women? Other than that small observation, very useful info.

Hi Chris,

Thank you for your feedback and my apologies, definitely no erasure intended. I think the spur-of-the-moment rationale was probably to use the neutral ‘their’ due to the ungendered reference in the immediate sentence (‘the narrator’). Yet since the narrator in question is indeed a woman, I’ve changed it to ‘her’. I’m glad you found this article useful, thank you for reading and sharing.

If you had to pick one story hook, which would you pick, having something blow up or a tiny man shrinking?

Hi Alex, thank you for your question about story hooks. Explosions are fairly standard for action stories, but depending on the context it could be a safe in medias res starting point. But if a man is tiny already, why would he be shrinking? Thanks for reading our blog.

So glad to hear that, Sule. It’s a pleasure, thank you for your feedback and for reading our blog.

I hope this doesn’t annoy you, I’m compelled to rearrange wording until its more clear to me of what’s being said.

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 ‘who’—or compellingly repulsive anti-hero.

Hi Meka, not at all, thank you. I appreciate all help from our readers in making my articles better, especially when feedback is constructive like this. I’ve rewritten that sentence for clarity (I’m always updating articles here thanks to readers’ helpful suggestions). Thanks for sharing.

I’ve struggled for ages to understand hooks and inciting incidents! I’m autistic, and despite having a great logical brain, sometimes it takes the right kind of teaching by breaking down a concept into steps, then “steplets” lmao. I’ve been writing for years, but never actually LEARNED how, if you know what I mean. Now I want to write a proper fanfiction that’s not for kids. I want it to be as scary and spine tingling as possible without being heavy handed. This article helps a ton!!! I’m definitely gonna check out any others and watch the linked videos! Thank you very much for the help! ^–^ ♡♡♡

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