The Hook

There’s an old bit of advice that says that short story writers need to hook the reader on the first page. This is actually true. In fact, I think a whole page might be more than most readers give a short story before deciding whether to read it or not. As a subscriber to Daily Science Fiction, I notice this myself. When that free short story arrives in my inbox — unless it’s by an author whose work I know I like — it gets maybe a couple of sentences before I’m on to the next message, promising myself I’ll get back to it later (which almost never occurs). This harsh reality has led to myriad essays, blog posts, chapters in textbooks, etc. on the topic of how to hook a reader. And I’ve found I agree with very little of this advice.

One oft-repeated trick for hooking a reader is to start with a moment of intense action:

Major Aomawa Crane clung to her six-point harness as her spaceship shuddered around her. A klaxon blared an air-leak warning. Her guidance screen blanked, and the rocky moon directly in front of her loomed ever closer.

On the surface, this seems like a great hook. I’m immediately worried for Major Crane’s welfare. I wonder what just happened to her ship, how bad the damage is, and how she’s going to avoid crashing into that moon.

But I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read (mercifully, very few of them published) where the next sentence would be something like, “Aomawa pondered how she’d gotten herself into this situation.” The story then, inevitably, zips back in time to take us on a long-winded exploration of facts that have nothing to do with the damaged ship careening towards a lifeless rock somewhere out in space. Not that the story of the young girl fighting to get her chance in the Space Corps is necessarily a bad story, but it’s not the story the hook promises.

Your hook, that crucial first page (or first paragraph), absolutely must match your story.

Look at this first paragraph instead:

Aomawa never knew how many hours she’d spent on the bluff as a young girl, watching Space Corps ships steer their lazy arcs up from the dusty plains. As the sun would glint off their metal hides she would imagine the ship’s grinning matter scoop turning to look at her, a sensor dome winking knowingly. And now, as two full sergeants escorted her to the intake exam room, she knew every ship they passed as if it were an old friend, silently encouraging her.

This is a very different approach. Personally, as a reader, this is a story I’m less likely to be interested in than the about-to-smash-into-a-moon one. This opening paragraph promises me a poignant coming-of-age story as a young woman struggles to achieve a childhood dream.

Now, imagine if you’d opened with this second version, but then had Aomawa quickly pass her exam, breeze through training, shoot up the ranks, and then told a story about a bloody dogfight in outer space that left her careening out of control toward a lifeless rock. Me, the reader who would enjoy that space-battle story, gave up in the first paragraph. The folks who wanted to hear all about her struggle to be accepted and then to excel feel like you’ve glossed over the interesting bits.

So what’s the key to writing a good hook? That’s simple. Promise the reader that you’re going to tell the story you’re going to tell.

It’s possible to do this in a Dickensian fashion, of course:

Now, dear reader, I’m going to tell you a tale of social inequity through the eyes of a young girl — we’ll call her Aomawa — who wanted to join the Space Corps.

Again, if you lead off that way, the reader expects that to be the narrative voice throughout. And you should be aware that this style of narrative is very much out of vogue right now (despite the fact that I think it’s incredibly cool when done well). Most likely, though, this isn’t the approach you want to take. You want your promise to the reader to be implicit.

To make that implicit promise, first show (don’t tell) your reader how you’re going to tell the story. Will this be a fast-paced story with choppy dialogue? Start off that way. Will this be a Pat Conroy-esque tale using languid prose to explore the deeper meaning of life? Start out that way. No story appeals to all readers, so letting those who won’t care for the style of the story filter themselves out immediately benefits everyone.

Second, use your hook to establish the genre of the story. You do this for the same reason as above, to allow readers who don’t like science fiction to skip it and to avoid turning off readers who love science fiction because the hook sounded like a contemporary romance.

Third, establish something to fire the readers’ imaginations. Readers who are already imagining the story keep reading, even if there are other elements that should be telling them that this is a story they wouldn’t ordinarily enjoy. Typically, what you want to establish to accomplish this is the setting. Without setting, readers have a very difficult time grounding the action in something they can picture. You end up with “voices in the dark” or (worse) an incorrect assumption of setting which then jars the reader violently out of the story when it’s contradicted later. But there are exceptions, which I’ll explain later.

And, fourth, introduce us to a character we will care deeply about by the end of the story, and clearly and unambiguously give that character a problem which he or she will resolve at the end of the story. Note that this problem does not need to be your A-plot, but your story should end with the resolution of the problem you set up on the first page.

Let’s look at how our three “hooks” above do these four things. First example, to repeat:

Major Aomawa Crane clung to her six-point harness as her spaceship shuddered around her. A klaxon blared an air-leak warning. Her guidance screen blanked, and the rocky moon directly in front of her loomed ever closer.

OK.  1) How is this story going to be told?  Here we’ve got lots of active verbs, simple sentences, and action. This is what I’m talking about when I say the reader will be jarred if this isn’t an adventure story. 2) What’s the genre? Well, spaceship, rocky moon… pretty clear this is science fiction, right? But, more importantly, there’s also a piloted spaceship of a sort that doesn’t exist today in danger, and that tells us this is probably space opera. 3) What’s the setting? Again, our clue here is “spaceship.” But even more specifically than that, it’s her spaceship. She’s hearing the klaxon. She’s looking at her guidance screen and out the front window. We’ve established more than that she’s in outer space. We’ve established that she’s in the cockpit, and most likely the pilot. 4) Character with a problem? Check. I used the Algis Budrys approach here by unsubtly giving her full name and rank to establish her. The shudder, warning klaxon, and lack of guidance while careening toward a rocky moon will generally count as a problem. If the story goes on to deliver what was promised in this first paragraph, this should work as a hook for it.

Second example, repeated again to minimize scrolling:

Aomawa never knew how many hours she’d spent on the bluff as a young girl, watching Space Corps ships steer their lazy arcs up from the dusty plains. As the sun would glint off their metal hides she would imagine the ship’s grinning matter scoop turning to look at her, a sensor dome winking knowingly. And now, as two full sergeants escorted her to the intake exam room, she knew every ship they passed as if it were an old friend, silently encouraging her.

Here we’ve got a very different answer to question 1, about how the story is going to be told. Longer, introspective sentences set a very different tone, looking back at her childhood and forward to the upcoming exam. This story will be more slow-paced and character oriented, the reader is told.

For question 2, again, the explicit mention of Space Corps and spaceships leaving the planet clearly set up an expectation of science fiction, but there’s more to it than that. I tend to think the combination of childhood memories with a moment of transition in the lead paragraph also establishes this as a coming-of-age story (though I’d love to hear your take on that one).

Question 3 is an interesting one here because we’re not landing immediately in a scene, opening instead with a bit of exposition. But we do establish that we’re on a planet, near/in a spaceport, and we’ve got a couple of details about what the ships look like, so that’s probably enough to get people’s minds going.

Question 4 is actually a smidge thorny in this example, because the obvious problem Aomawa is facing is that she’s about to take an exam which she may or may not pass. However, it’s unlikely that the exam is the sum total of the story. But I would argue you’ve also introduced a more subtle problem, which is the tension between Aomawa’s childhood dream and the reality of actually bringing it about. To me, that is what the story is going to be about, and that is the conflict I expect to see resolved on the last page.

So, by now you’re probably wondering about the intrusive-narrator version:

Now, dear reader, I’m going to tell you a tale of social inequity through the eyes of a young girl — we’ll call her Aomawa — who wanted to join the Space Corps.

Believe it or not, these four points are still demonstrated in this example.  We clearly establish how the story will be told, specifically with an opinionated narrator (who will likely be regarded as a character in his/her own right). We know it’s science fiction because of the reference to Space Corps, and, more importantly, we know from the “we’ll call her Aomawa” that this is a tall tale or an allegory as opposed to something that actually occurred. And we’ve been told that Aomawa wants to join the Space Corp, and that the problem she has is social inequity.

That just leaves the third point. No real setting is established. How is this passage supposed to fire the reader’s imagination? Well, here’s an example of how you can get away with establishing something else. Don’t you hear that narrator’s voice in your head? Can’t you just picture the narrator (however you picture him or her)? Personally, I see a crusty old college professor sitting in a wingback chair in a library, but that’s my personal bias and imagination. Hopefully you see/hear/etc. something that makes even this sparse opening vivid in your mind.

So, three very different hooks for three very different stories, but all three of them the story of Aomawa Crane in Space Corps.

This four-point approach is, of course, only the way I do it. The myriad articles out there on the topic prove that there are other approaches. So I end, dear reader, the way I often do by tossing this back to you. How do you hook a reader?

2 thoughts on “The Hook

  1. You hooked me with the description of how you react to DSF stories in your inbox:-)

    In all seriousness, an interesting rebuttal to the stale writing “advice” we’ve all tried to follow at one point or another.

    • And it needs to be said that the DSF writers on the whole are already pretty good at this. Any publication as diverse in what it publishes as DSF isn’t going to hook everyone with every story, but I do trust a DSF story to be well presented in its opening sentences, even if it’s a story I’m not going to go gaga over.