Why the Hook is the Most Powerful Part of Your Story
Remember when your teachers would return your essay with the first line scratched out because it was too general, too vague or too boring? The same thing goes with a bad hook.
A good hook captures your readers right from the start in that very first sentence — it “hooks” them in and keeps them reading. The hook and the lead/lede are the first section of your non-fiction story or feature that set the tone of your story and give your reader a sense of what’s to come. It keeps them intrigued.
Easy enough; yet I come across many stories with weak hooks or none at all, which can run the risk of a writer losing the chance to keep their audience engaged.
Here’s some examples of good hooks:
1) “My husband and I broke up five days into the New Year.” — “Eating our goodbyes,” Sarah Gerard, Hazlitt
This hook doesn’t waste any time — it goes straight for the conflict. It provides incentive; if you read on, you'll get the rest of story and what led to the break up.
2) “On March 15, 2014, my cousin Masud Khalif was murdered at a restaurant two blocks away from the building at the Scarborough intersection of Markham and Lawrence we both once called home.” — “The state of black mourning,” Huda Hassan, Hazlitt
This hook draws emotion out of readers from the start with Hassan describing her cousin’s death. The addition of location makes this relatable for readers who are familiar with the area.
3) “'I can't. I just can’t, I said.'” — “The first time I travelled as a trans girl to meet my World of Warcraft friends,” Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir (Owl), Broadly
We don’t know what is happening yet, but we can sense distress. This throws the reader into the conflict immediately.
4) “Let me tell you something you already know: Your housekeeper spies on you,” — “I spent 2 years cleaning houses. What I saw makes me never want to be rich,” Stephanie Land, Vox
This hook answers a question many of us have always thought about, which makes readers want to know what else the author knows — and establishes trust.
“The slap of my mother’s hand against my bare stomach rings out and fills the entire store,” “Confessions of a former fat kid,” Isaac Fitzgerald, BuzzFeed
This hook describes an action, and more — a mother slapping her child. I know you want to read more.
So what makes a good hook, and what doesn’t?
A good hook should:
Surprise, shock or intrigue your reader
Make your reader want to keep reading (55 per cent of visitors will only read your article for 15 seconds or less, so captivating them is fundamental!)
Incite some kind of emotion or be relatable for your reader (it can be a personal anecdote)
Can recreate a scene and appeal to the some or all five senses
Should be original, intentional and help push the moment the story you’re telling
A hook shouldn’t:
Shock your reader just for the sake of it
Should be directly related to the story you’re telling
Be an overgeneralization or cheesy (i.e., “There are many films in the world, but only some capture your heart”)
Shouldn’t tell us what you’re story is about — it should show us
Shouldn’t usually be a quote unless it’s moving your story forward or it’s part of a lead that’s a discussion or conversation between people (for example, “The first time I travelled as a trans girl to meet my World of Warcraft friends.” )
So how to get writing a hook? First, give yourself permission to write something that’s far removed from your typical article or narrative structure. Nothing is too outrageous for a hook — that’s the whole point of it all! There are thousands of stories that people can read, often on the same or similar topic that you’re writing about, so it’s your job to make it different — and worth their while.
Think about your proposed hook — if you read it to a friend or stranger (I recommend actually reading it to someone), would you get the reaction of shock, surprise or intrigue you were hoping for, or would it fall flat? If so, it may need some revising.
Sometimes hooks don’t come to you at once; you may end up writing part or all of your story before you can think of a good hook. Sometimes a good hook can rear its head after several drafts of your piece — don’t panic, this is normal.
If this is the case, rake through the piece to think about other events that you didn’t use in the story that could be repurposed for a hook, or think of an anecdote that you can connect to the story you’re telling.
A great hook sets the entire tone of the piece, so take the time to write it well.