Composing A Great Hook

by | April 28, 2014 | General | 4 comments

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

According to the late Elmore Leonard, never open a book with the weather. You want to hook a reader from the onset, not bore him or her with talk of rain. Then again, this famous hook sets the scene of a windswept London vividly in the imagination.

A hook is a literary technique in which the writer “hooks” the reader’s attention in the first sentence or paragraph so that he or she will keep on reading. When I first came to Facebook, writer Tom Piccirilli had an exercise where he asked his fellow writers to post their opening paragraphs or the opening line to their books. It was a wonderful exercise in learning how to write a great hook. When you see lots of other examples, you are more inspired to get right to the point and write something very catchy so you get most of the attention (and Facebook ‘likes’.). The same should apply to writing a hook for your books and short stories. You need to grab readers within those first few words or you will never hold them. Not only must you have an opening hook for your story, you must also have a closing hook for each chapter so that the reader is eager to continue reading, and you must have a hook for the opening of each chapter. Grabbing readers at the onset isn’t enough. You must keep their attention throughout your story. Hooks help to make that possible.

Here are some classic examples of fine literary hooks:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. [Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”]

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. [D. H. Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”]

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. [J. D. Salinger, “The Catcher In The Rye”]And my favorite literary hook, from Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House”:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone…

Sometimes a paragraph is too much. You have to grab ’em in the opening line. Don’t waste a single word. Here are some examples of good opening lines in romance novels.

“By dying now his father had won again. That old bastard.” [Ruth Cardello, “Maid For The Billionaire”]

“Hello, my name is Riley, and I am addicted to sexy lingerie.” [Lexy Ryan, “Text Appeal”]

“Where were her panties?” [Christine Claire MacKenzie, “A Stormy Spring”]

“The trouble with dead people today was they had no sense of decorum.” [Vicky Lobel, “Keys To The Coven”]

A good hook makes the reader want to know more. What is it about Hill House that frightens one so? Who or what haunts it? Riley is addicted to sexy lingerie. Well, hello there. 🙂 Humor always provides a good opening, as is evidence with several of the hooks named above.

Of course, the “dark and stormy night” quote was written by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton in “Paul Clifford”. His opening inspired the Bulwer-Lytton awards, which are given for the best “worst” opening paragraphs to fictitious novels. You submit entries you’ve created yourelf. You
have two sentences to work with. They are so mind-blowingly bad you’ll laugh your head off the whole time you read them. Here is the 2013 winner in the category of romance:

On their first date he’d asked how much she thought Edgar Allan Poe’s toe nails would sell for on eBay, and on their second he paid for subway fair with nickels he fished out of a fountain, but he was otherwise charming and she thought that they could have a perfectly tolerable life together. — Jessica Sashihara, Martinsville, NJ


Just for posterity’s sake, here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing:

Never open a book with the weather.

Avoid prologues.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

Keep your exclamation points under control!

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Same for places and things: Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

Of course, break these rules as you see fit. After all, rules are meant to be broken. 😉

Elizabeth Black

Elizabeth Black's erotic fiction has been published by Cleis Press, Xcite Books, Scarlet Magazine, Circlet Press, and others. She also writes dark fiction and horror as E. A. Black. She lives in Massachusetts next to the ocean with her husband, son, and three cats. The beach calls to her and she listens.



    I'd add to his rules: never open with your main character sitting around doing nothing except thinking.

  2. Elizabeth Black

    Good one, Kathleen. Stream of consciousness doesn't do a thing for me, either.

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Okay, Elizabeth – but I like the opening with Edgar Allen Poe's toenails!

    Lately I find myself starting a lot of my stories with dialogue. That immediately gets the reader thinking about who is talking, who they are, why they are saying what they just said, and so on.

    And I'm leaning toward one sentence opening paragraphs. For instance:

    I didn't cry until the last session. ("Clean Slate")

    “I don't need any fucking therapy!” ("Burn, Baby")

    My wife is on her knees. ("Like Riding a Bicycle")

    "You look good down there." ("Layover")

  4. Anonymous

    If writing an opening was like following a recipe, this would all be good. I love Jane Austen, but her opening was total nonsense, neither truth nor universal. Only follow Elmore Leonard's advice if you want to be an imitation of him. Better advice is to imagine your ideal reader and never take your eyes off him/her. Last quibble, instead of worrying about how to write, the world needs to worry as much about how to read. The reader and writer have nothing to share, unless they each walk an equal distance towards one another, and…

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