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What Hooks you?
Posted: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 6:29 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

The hook is probably one of the most frustrating parts of writing a book. This question isn't for the -writer- in you, it is for the reader.

What do YOU like in a hook? What type of hook compels you the most? Is it an action scene? Is it a slow set up? Is it political tension?

Identify what hooks you into a story.

For me, it is writing quality and characters -- I don't have a preference on if the character is in an action scene or not, but the character has to be doing SOMETHING... I like learning about characters through them doing things.

How about you?

L R Waterbury
Posted: Thursday, September 8, 2011 1:24 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

Are you talking about the Hook hook (two sentences max that is meant to entice someone into reading your book) or are you talking about the beginning of a book where you're supposed to try and hook a reader into continuing past the first few pages?

In the first instance, I couldn't really say precisely what gets me to want to read a book, but I do know what turns me off completely: poorly written hooks. There are a number of egregious examples on this site where there are glaring grammatical or spelling errors. I make an assumption that if you can't write a hook correctly then, chances are, you're WIP is going to be so poorly written that I my enjoyment of the plot is going to be completely curtailed.

As for the second instance, I also like to begin with something character-related, though I'm not picky about the manner in which its character-related. They don't actually have to be doing something for me to get hooked. If I like the characters then 9 times out of 10, I like the book in general. I've read a few things where the plot is great but none of the characters appeal to me, in which case my enjoyment of the entire book just disappears. It's all about the characters for me.

Of course writing quality is extremely important too, as I mentioned above. I'm temperamentally incapable of ignoring bad writing. That doesn't mean you have to be a brilliant writer to pique my interest, but you do have to be a decent writer. And nothing galls me more than frequent grammatical errors. I can deal with occasional spelling mistakes (we all make them), but I just can't see past the grammatical ones.
Posted: Thursday, September 8, 2011 8:42 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

It has to be characters first and foremost. If I can't connect to the character in some way, I'm done.

My biggest test for if a story is working for me when I'm reading a book is this:

If I'm forced to put the book down and pick it up at a later time, in the interim am I antsy to get back to it?

If I'm not antsy to get back to a book that's my number 1 indicator that it hasn't grabbed me and I generally move on to a different book, never to finish the one I put down.
L R Waterbury
Posted: Friday, September 9, 2011 4:52 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

Thanks for the shout out, Kzinga. I'm glad you like my slow plotting. Not everyone does. As for your book, I don't recall saying I hated it. Nor did I actually hate it and pretend I didn't. I rarely 'hate' anything or anyone. I thought you had some great ideas but they were, unfortunately, buried beneath writing that needs improvement. But how else are we to improve but to try and have someone tell us what we did wrong and then try again?

That's how I learned. I was fortunate in that I had a mother who was both an English teacher and a perfectionist. I can recall her taking her pencil to my work when I was in high school and marking the shit out of it while I cried on the bed next to her (We always sat together on the bed for her 'editing' sessions.). But I'm a better writer for it.

Some people may be more capable of ignoring mistakes, but I'm not. I don't comment on them if there are just a few, but I do feel like I need to point out when an over-profussion of mistakes interferes with my ability to understand and enjoy what the author has written. That is why good writing matters. And I'm not talking about someone's 'artistic' abilities as a writer. That's something else entirely. I'm just talking about stringing together cohesive, correct sentences that all together tell a great story.

But maybe that's just the ex-teacher in me. I can't read something without thinking about how to help the writer make it better.

And Kzinga, if you ever come to NYC I'd be glad to give you a few lessons over coffee and a real bagel. ; )
Katherine Webber
Posted: Saturday, September 10, 2011 7:20 AM
Joined: 8/22/2011
Posts: 14

It can be a variety of things for me. For example if every sentence is so well written it is a joy to read then I will forgive a little bit of a slow start in terms of plot or if the characters don't engage me right away. On the other side of that if a character is funny or interesting or the plot immediately gets my attention I can overlook sub-par writing- as long as nothing is glaringly obvious. Ideally of course a story will have well crafted sentences with carefully chosen words and characters who are captivating and a plot that keeps me reading. Margaret Atwood is a excellent example of a writer who really does this well.

In those first few crucial pages I either need to be taken into the writers world through confirming details that make me want to stay in that world or drawn in by the character. Confirming, interesting details are a big thing for me. And natural dialogue. If dialogue is awkward that will really put me off a book. I want to believe in the characters. If I am thinking about the characters or the world after I put down the book I know I am hooked. For books and characters I really love I imagine them in alternate situations - thinking what they would do.
Michelle Mills
Posted: Saturday, September 10, 2011 2:08 PM
Joined: 7/21/2011
Posts: 41

Vivid, creative descriptions and characters, combined with an intriguing plot capture my interest, and are essential ingredients of a good story, but I'm not usually "hooked" until I'm emotionally invested. It's important for me to care about the protagonist enough to want to accompany s/he on their journey. Otherwise, "Have a nice trip!" and it's on to the next book.

There was an exception to this however, and oddly it's a book that I don't think I'll ever forget: 'Her Fearful Symmetry' by Audrey Niffenegger. I was appalled by most of the characters, would rather starve than eat lunch with any of them, but they fascinated me nonetheless. I suppose I'm also a big sucker for a good ghost story, so perhaps theme plays a part.
Ava DiGioia
Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 9:51 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39

Characters, world and story.

When I start reading a book, I want to meet these new, interesting people and learn what they experience in their world. So the first hook I am looking for is to like (or not -which can sometimes be a powerful hook) the characters, to find a connection that makes me want too know more.

World-building is one of my favorite things, and if someone creates an interesting world, that element can keep me reading even if I haven't completely connected to the characters.

Sometimes the story is compelling to me, even more than characters and world. When that happens, I can overlook weaknesses in other categories.

LR -- It's good that you have such strong grammatical skills. For a lot of us on Book Country, a large part of the reason we are here is to learn to improve our skills. To do that, we need feedback from those who are strong in our weak areas. Sometimes, a writer spends so much time with a manuscript that the writer brain begins to fill in the mistakes, and fresh eyes are needed to see them.

Recently, I posted a major rewrite of my story based on initial feedback from reviews here on BC. The other day I was glancing through my book to check how it reads, and noticed something I'm aware I shouldn't do. However, my brain had not noticed till that moment. (Haven't had time to fix it yet.) I started 3 sentences in the same paragraph with the same phrase. That's an elementary writing mistake that I know is a no-no, yet my eyes glossed it over because I know what should be on the page.
Sometimes, we need someone else to point out what is actually on the page.
Posted: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 11:38 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

Interesting answers -- and a lot of things to think about. Thank you very much for your responses. I think this is what makes the hook so hard. Everyone likes different things, so one book pretty much can't hook everyone.

But at first glance, it feels like characters come first, and everything else is second or later down the line. This is definitely something I'll have to look at when I'm considering my hook in my stories.

Thanks so much :3
Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 3:53 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 56

Yeah, it's always about characters. Invest me in the character, and I'll be willing to grant a fair amount of latitude.
Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2011 2:22 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I have to amend my earlier post. Yes, characters are paramount. But it has to be a sub-genre I can get behind. Recently I've been trying to branch out of fantasy, reading genres and sub-genres I don't normally like. But it hasn't been working. The characters are fine in the books I've been trying to read but it's just not a genre that appeals to me. I don't like feeling majorly depressed or worrying that I'll encounter material that makes me want to bleach my brain and that's what these genres do to me.

At least with traditional and contemporary fantasy I know I'm going to get an enveloping experience that can absolutely sweep me away.
Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2011 7:42 PM
Joined: 8/28/2011
Posts: 7

What hooks me?

There is an order of things that hook me and when they do.

The first thing that hooks me is the authors voice. I don't like when the writer tries to over sophisticate descriptions and use a lot of words that I need to look up. (A few dropped here and there are fine though).

Second is the setting. I look for interesting settings (mostly when it comes to fantasy). If its weird and off the wall then I will like it.

Third would be the characters. I want my characters to seem like they could be real and have flaws as well as strengths. (I hate superman type characters).

As far as hooks like the back cover... I don't really read the book descriptions. I honestly buy books randomly by Title and/or cover.
Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2011 7:44 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

Writing, writing, writing. I will usually turn to the middle of a book and read a page or two and if anything makes me roll my eyes, I put it back on the shelf.

I can't abide poor writing, stereotyped characters, cliched dialogue, excessive description, unnecessary explanations of how someone got from point A to point B.

I was watching the True Blood season finale the other day and burst out laughing in the middle of a highly dramatic scene because Sookie said "Don't you dare die on me!" I told my partner that if I was in charge of television script writers and someone brought me a scene in which a character says "don't you dare die on me" that person would be fired instantly.

In t.v. and movies, I tolerate this because it all flies by and it's an hour or so of my time, in which I'm usually also crocheting or sewing or something else at the same time. But there is no way I will give the dedicated time it takes to read 300+ pages to that level of writing.

After that, yes, characters are critical.

Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 2:17 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103

There seems to be two occasions where people talk about hooks. One as a marketing tool, aka a log line - a line or two to sum up the story. The other as the first sentence, paragraph, or scene of a story.

I'm assuming you meant the latter, but just in case...I'm not really a log line person. I prefer a book description and in it I'm looking for an idea, location, concept, etc. that intrigues me - something outside of my everyday life that I can learn about. I try not to judge the description on writing style since there's no guarantee the description was written by the story's author.

In a story start, I'm looking for voice, a connection with the character or narrator. I want to be instantly transported to that time or place and to feel like I can trust the writer to keep me entranced. The actual mechanics of the scene - action, description,whatever, aren't important to me.

Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 2:50 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

For the purposes of this discussion, I think "hook" is the wrong word. I would rephrase it as "what pulls you into and most compels you to continue reading a story?" In writing, a hook has a very specific meaning.

I personally love books that start with smart dialogue, whether it's literary fiction or something like urban fantasy. I also look for a unique voice, which is a very different thing.

It's probably easier for me to write about what STOPS me from wanting to read further. One thing you'll frequently hear agents and editors talk about are the three things they most hate to see opening a novel: 1.) the novel opens with the main character waking up, 2.) the novel begins with the main character standing and staring, or standing and thinking, and 3.) a prologue of pretty much any kind.

I'm totally down with number 1 and 2, but I can forgive a prologue if it's very short and actually does help set up a story. The one exception is a murder mystery where the prologue sets you up to meet a character who is simply going to be killed in the next three pages. Wow, I hate that!

There are some other things - certain cliches - that can throw me right out of a book and make me stop reading. One example...I used to always tell my clients to go through their manuscripts and remove every instance where a character "threw back his/her head and laughed" - because, really, JESUS is that overused. (Also, when you laugh, have any of you ever actually thrown back your head? LOL!)

What kinds of things drive you nuts?
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 3:20 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

"Don't you dare die on me!" she exclaimed, then threw back her head and laughed.

That sort of thing?

I once read a book by a very successful, general women's fiction writer and the word "peripatetic" came up about once every-other chapter. To me, peripatetic is a once-per-book kind of word. I don't like to see terribly specific, uncommonly used words used over and over or it begins to look like the writer just learned the word yesterday and loved it a little too much.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 3:50 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

LilySea -

I call those "crutch words" - every writers has one or two, but some are more noticeable than others. I have a good writer friend who is British; she uses the word "lush" like 100 times in each manuscript to describe greenery. I'm always pointing this out to her, and then she runs through the manuscript deleting the word. It's kind of hilarious!
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 7:01 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

oh yeah. I have my standard find/change words. But peripatetic??? I have to fault the editor there.
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 10:55 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

What bugs me about the "character wakes up" opening is when it's just them waking up as per normal. If the book starts with action and that action rouses the character from their sleep and thus launches them into the plot of the story, I'm more okay with it.

But just "Oh it's morning when I'm starting this story so I should start with them waking up" is annoying.

Unless of course you're using that to set up that this really isn't a normal day. The example that comes to mind here is Will Ferrell's movie "Stranger than Fiction" where he wakes up thinking it's a normal day then the narration that only he can here starts.

And it's been a long time since I saw that movie so I could be totally wrong on it starting with him waking up and going through what he thinks is going to be a normal day.
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 11:17 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

Groundhog Day, right?

But rules of thumb for movies and tv are different than rules of thumb for books. Movies and tv move faster so there's necessarily less time spent waking up, in that case.
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 6:46 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

The thing about the MC waking up, as in Stranger Than Fiction and Groundhog Day is that it's a very self-referencial choice, very "meta." It calls attention to the metanarrative that the MC is a creation of an author, underscores that the characters in the story "come to life" at the same moment as the story. That's a lot of meaning and a lot of "meta" baggage and unless the story demands it, as these two charming examples do, then it's just deadweight and the savvy reader is thoroughly disappointed, even angered and more than likely moves on.

What grabs me about a novel, any novel, is a sense of what I call "life as it is lived." That's what a novel length work is supposed to do: create a sense of life as it is lived, whether it's a contempory literary novel, police procedural or a fantasy book. The characters live, their story is relatable and the author's voice speaks with authority about our shared experience.

Ava DiGioia
Posted: Friday, October 28, 2011 2:55 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39

Funny that I came to this topic today. Based on feedback from critique readers I trust, I am heavily rewriting the beginning of my book. One thing everyone mentioned was that I didn't show enough about my MC's "normal" routine before jumping into the main plot. I touched on her routine in part of a narrative, and most suggestions were that I show that happening.

I think those suggestions were born out of a sense of what Kevin above calls life as it is lived.

So, my new first chapter starts with her waking up in the morning (cause that's how we begin our day, isn't it?) Guess I'll need to find a way to change that. Is it any form of a character waking up that you don't like or just the this is the normal start to my day kind of story? Because even though she is awoken at the start, it's not a normal day from the get-go.
*rolls eyes in frustration*
Posted: Friday, October 28, 2011 3:00 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

it's just one of those rules of thumb. I would simply push her forward a bit. Show her pouring herself coffee of something that happened after she woke up, just to avoid it!
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Friday, October 28, 2011 3:51 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Ava,

Unless the way she wakes up, or the circumstances of her waking up are absolutely extraordinary, then I'd start with a moment in her life that is extraordinary. Not in the context of her life at all necessarily (which is, I think what you were trying to do with your opening), but etraordinary in the context of *our* lives, the reader's life. Otherwise, starting the story when she wakes up comes across as a convenience for the author, merely.

If you show your MC's extraoridnary accomplishments with the exhibit before sending her into a melt-down, then we'd understand where her melt-down comes from. We'd have an expectation: "this is a story about her crowning achievement and how she's to be rewarded" and then find out that her boss is a tool. When you just drop us down into the middle of her melt-down, all we see is a crazy person and you're stuck trying to justify her strange behavior after the fact. In that context, I must confess I found myself empathizing with her pretty mild (as written) boss. It's very hard not to look like you're making excuses for her behavior. What I'm saying is that when you've already alienated the reader, you waste precious time having to woo us back, and you may not succeed. We need some *experience* with what drove her over the brink first, 'cause we don't know her well enough as it stands to care about her rather than judge her.

Ava DiGioia
Posted: Friday, October 28, 2011 7:54 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39

Thanks, Kevin, I understand what you're saying, and you're not the first to give that kind of feedback about the character, so don't be worried that I will have my own melt-down about it. I don't mind when people are critical of my work if they also have constructive feedback to offer.

I find what you've said to be quite constructive and helpful. I'm already having ideas about where else the story could start that would accomplish the same goals. (and include hooks.)

Michelle Mills
Posted: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 6:05 PM
Joined: 7/21/2011
Posts: 41

Very well said, CatchCan! Elliciting curiousity is an essential element of a good story.

Angela Martello
Posted: Monday, December 5, 2011 8:28 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394

For me, it's first and foremost the characters. If I can't connect with them, then I'm not interested in what happens to them. The second aspect of a good book that grabs me is how the world was constructed: is it our world, gritty or glitzy, bucolic or urban; is it our world with twist; is it a whole new world? And then, how do the characters interact with and view the world around them? Do they notice the colors of the sunset? Do they appreciate the smell of a freshly brewed pot of good coffee?

Of course, overlaying all of that is the quality of the writing and editing.

Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 1:22 PM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35

Two words: good writing. 

My wife and I are both eclectic readers and we will give virtually anything a try.  But if I get more than a few pages in and the writing does not impress me, chances are that book goes back to where ever it came from.  If the writing is solid, chances are that the characters and the settings and the story will hold their own as well.

Example - and this is just because I am re-reading this now - for me is the 1st book in the Wheel of Time series.  Sure, the prologue grabbed me, but overall the first few chapters feel much too drawn out and generally bland, spending too much time reinforcing the characteristics of the main group and delaying the main plot too long for my tastes.  However, the writing was so crisp and enveloping that I did not mind as much, and then when the story really kicked into high gear I was captivated.  I must have been - that is a monstrously long series, and I started reading it about 20 years ago!
Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 4:00 PM
What hooks me? I'm not 100% sure -- but I can say, it's doubtful I would be turned off a fantasy novel by the first sentence not being shocking, funny, etc (I sometimes think, "Oh, well that's intriguing." But it never decides if I read on) [I mention this because of the advice I've been reading recently]

Oddly enough, what I really like are names. Yeah - names. Often the first page, usually the first chapter, will have that new name on it. I don't mean character names; I mean the wonderful curiosity inspired by a place, faction, town, river, whatever. For example - "He had been running from the Kerrans since he left Elfar." The who? The where? I can't explain even to myself - but there's wonder in that, a need to know these names and attach meanings to them, to see what they look like or how they act - maybe I'll like or hate them, who knows? But it's that dive into a new world with mysterious and unknown people or places that I love.
 That can go wrong of course, and I've seen comments like "Proper Noun overload", and people being turned away by what seems like too much to remember too soon.

 As I progress through the book it's character I look for and love - but that first taste of a world, if done right, really grabs me.

GD Deckard
Posted: Thursday, December 8, 2011 11:39 AM
I will happily read a badly written book if I like the story. Poetry has taught me there is no grammar, just communication. Hell, I read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English and enjoyed the stories despite the annoying writing. Some of the Book Country stories are not at all the genre I'd normally choose to read but I read them because, well, they were good stories.
Conversely, I have no patience for openings that don't open anything. So, the best hook for me is a good feel for the story right from the beginning.
Zia Ahmad
Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 12:32 PM
Joined: 4/29/2011
Posts: 17

Connecting with the main characters is definitely the key for me, followed by a story with just enough twists at the end of each chapter to make me keep wanting to turn the pages.
Joe Bridges
Posted: Sunday, December 18, 2011 8:58 AM
Joined: 12/18/2011
Posts: 25

Yes, I must agree, it is the characters. If they are interesting, then I have to know their story; so there is the hook: people. The better an author knows and loves people, the better that author's characters will be constructed.
Laura Dwyer
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 9:53 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192

For me, I like having a visceral reaction to the beginning of a book - a gasp, tears, laughter or a warm and fuzzy feeling. Any of those work, but damn it, make me feel something! If an author can elicit strong feelings from me as the reader, they've got my vote and I'm certainly going to keep reading. Boring beginning? Eh, I might not get through the first chapter. Call me a product of my tech-based, high-paced environment, but an author must get my attention!
Matt Bauer
Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 1:40 AM
Joined: 1/16/2012
Posts: 1

At first glance what hooks me is the cover of the book. The title specifically. I tend to pick up a lot of books in the book store just to see what they look like and read the back cover as well to see what it is about. After that the next thing that hooks me is the first opening sentence. I love a quick jump into the story, as if I am walking in on the start of it. I hate long drawn out opening sequences that take a chapter or two to get through. But, another main thing is characters, and names, as well as other information in the story. 

My anti-hook, or what really turns me off to a book, is having an entire dictionary in the back that I need to follow along with the book (Yes, I am yelling at you Robert Jordan, rest in peace).  I want to read to relax and envelop myself in a good story, not have to study the book like it is my SAT, LSAT, GRE, or any other sort of examination at the end of the book.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 10:19 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

Characters I care about. a bit of mystery, don't reveal all your worldbuilding at once. Give me events that SHOULD make sense in context, but don't completely, because I don't know anything about this world, and make me want to know more.

GD Deckard
Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 11:06 AM

Good point, Alexander. Thanks. I hadn't thought about it but I don't want too much revealed too soon either.
It is experiencing something of interest that keeps me reading.


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