Happy Friday, everyone! Today, I’m starting my new story structure series. I know there a dozens of resources out there on story structure, but I’m still excited to lend my perspective.
To start, we’re going to examine the Hook, which is the first beat in traditional three act story structure (FYI, you will feel so smart if you say that phrase — go ahead and try it).
Let’s jump into this!
Where Does the Hook Belong?
Right at the beginning of the story — typically 1-2% into the narrative. It’s usually best if the Hook appears on the very first page — at least part of it, anyway.
What is the Hook?
The Hook is what grabs your reader. Picture a fish clamping down on a fishhook — that’s what we’re going for when we start our stories (that sounds cruel, but you know what I mean). Readers who open your book have picked it up on the suspicion that it might entertain them, and it’s the job of the Hook to convince them that they’re right.
The Hook is a Question
Often, the Hook prompts readers to ask a question (i.e., why is this Rebel ship being attacked and who are these two droids?), and that question should be compelling enough to make them want to read on and discover the answer.
One way to beget questions in your reader is to start your story in media res — during the action. For example, if something interesting is going to happen to your character when they go down to breakfast in the morning, don’t start the story with them waking up and going through their morning routine. Instead, start the story with them entering the kitchen.
Of course, a random question isn’t enough — it will only make your reader feel tricked and cheated. The question must tie into the main plot and act as the starting gun for the story.
Example of stories with hooks that ask effective questions:
- Star Wars: A New Hope — the opening scene drops us into the middle of a battle that catches our attention, makes us hungry to know more, and attaches us to two characters that give us reason to care about what happens next.
- Mistborn: The Final Empire — this book’s beginning introduces us to Kelsier, sets up the world, and hints at the main conflict. It makes us ask many questions (as do pretty much all of Brandon Sanderson’s books). What is the mist? Who is Kelsier? Why does ash fall from the sky? Et cetera.
- (Possible vague spoilers in this section) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — the first chapter in this book introduces us to the Dursleys, the mystery surrounding Harry, and the strange events that lately surround Privet Drive. While the Dursleys try to avoid all the questions that are raised, the mystery of it all makes us excited to find out what’s really going on, who Harry is, and why oddness seems to follow him.
The Hook is an Introduction
Besides asking questions, the Hook can serve to introduce the setting or the characters. In fact, some of the best hooks do both.
Simply asking a question isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you have to tie a question to a relatable character or intriguing setting to give it weight. Not every reader will continue reading just in search of some vague answer to “what happens next”. One of the best ways to make readers care about your story is to make them care about a character first.
Consider Tangled. The movie opens with Flynn Rider explaining that this is the story of how he died. This catches us off guard and makes us wonder what happened to him. In addition, the subversion of expectations combined with the humorous way Flynn begins to tell Rapunzel’s story immediately attach us to him. By the time Flynn is a few sentences into his tale, we already care about this wisecracking narrator and are willing to sit through the opening exposition in order to figure out what happened to him and Rapunzel. Note that the question is tied to the fates of two characters, rather than to the unfolding of the plot. It’s an emotional attachment, rather than a cognitive one, which typically makes it stronger. Bypassing the head for the heart is a great way to grab people’s attention.
Another way to use your Hook to ensnare readers is to make your setting the Hook — or part of it. Our brains are wired to learn and discover; we are exploratory beings. So if you drop us into the middle of a unique setting that interests us, we’re typically going to want to find out more.
For example, Treasure Planet’s opening scene immediately introduces us to the space-but-not-quite-space setting of the movie and also slips in the futuristic 1800s aesthetic. Combine that with the “pirates on the high seas” (except it’s space) vibe and incredible visuals, and you’ve got 98% of people hooked (yes, I made up that percentage on the spot — shh, it’s called science). While the movie also goes on to establish Jim’s character (including the stark difference between his child self and his young adult self) and get us attached to him, the initial Hook is the setting.
The beginning of a story should cause questions in the reader, but it’s your job to make sure they’re the right kind of questions and that they’re powerful enough to keep the reader hooked.
The Hook Should Hint At The Stakes and Main Conflict
Now that we’ve discussed what the Hook is, we can turn to what it should do.
Good Hooks tie into the plot and allude to the stakes going forward. Like I said, a Hook shouldn’t be random and disconnected from the story. Every beat in story structure should hang together, and the first beat is no exception.
If we look at Star Wars: A New Hope again, we see that the story’s Hook definitely points to the stakes and main conflict. Immediately, we see the clash between the Rebels and the Empire, and we recognize that the Empire is the stronger force.
(SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR AHEAD)
Another example of a hook that introduces the stakes and conflict is the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War (gosh, it’s been a while since we talked about Marvel). Right away, the movie reintroduces us the Thanos and shows us the tail end of what was obviously a disastrous battle for Thor, Hulk, Loki, and the other Asgardians. The scene sets up the stakes by showing Thanos using the Power Stone to defeat Thor and the Hulk — two of the franchises most powerful characters. It also introduces the central conflict of the story and — bonus points — establishes the tone.
The Hook shouldn’t just be some cheap trick that gets your reader to read further than the first page. It should be the sales pitch — in a way — for your entire book.
So… What is the Hook?
Next week, we’re going to take a look at the Set Up!