Story Structure Part 1: The Hook
How do you get readers to keep reading past the first page of your novel?
With all the books available to them in bookstores and online, it’s more important now than ever to immediately capture your reader’s interest and give them a reason to buy or read your book over someone else’s. But how do you actually do this?
In order to successfully catch your readers attention and draw them into your story, your novel needs to have a great Hook. And in today’s post, we’re going to review what a Hook is, where it goes in your story, and some examples of great Hooks from books and movies.
What is the Hook?
The Hook is your first opportunity to grab the readers attention and make them wonder what’s going to happen next. It’s what gives the reader a reason to keep reading after your first page.
The Hook can be a great opening line, an unexpected event, an interesting description, a compelling narrative voice, a mystery, dramatic action, etc. As long as it’s something that makes readers think “I want to know more about this,” the Hook has done its job. Whatever it is, you want it to be big enough to get the reader asking questions, but not too big that it overshadows the rest of the story.
Where does the Hook go?
The Hook occurs in the First Act, of your novel – ideally as soon as possible, around the 1% mark, in the first scene or chapter.
Why? Because this is your opportunity to catch the reader’s attention and draw them into your story. Readers tend to make lightning-fast decisions about whether to buy a book or to keep reading it. Many times, they make a judgment based on just a few opening lines. If you don’t “hook” the reader early enough in the story, and make them wonder what happens next, they’ll lose interest and pick up another book to read.
As K.M. Weiland puts it, “Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.”
Now, let’s take a look at some examples of great hooks in books and movies:
Examples in books and movies:
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone
In Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, the first chapter contains two scenes. In the first scene, we meet the Dursley family. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved with anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” A little while later, it’s revealed that the Dursley’s don’t want anyone discovering their deepest, darkest secret – they’re related to the Potter family.
In the next scene, Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall meet outside the Dursley’s house in the middle of the night. Dumbledore tells Professor McGonagall that Voldemort has killed Harry Potter’s parents, was unsuccessful at killing baby Harry and has disappeared. Hagrid arrives with baby Harry, and they leave him on the Dursley’s doorstep hoping he’ll be taken in and cared for.
Why This Works:
In the first few paragraphs, we immediately get a sense of what kind of people the Dursley’s are – not just because of how they’re described, but because of the narrator’s self-satisfied tone and exaggerated politeness while describing them. The first scene begs the question, “What kind of people are the Potters, and why don’t the Dursley’s want anyone to know they’re related to them?”
The second scene adds more to the mystery and deepens the pull on the reader. By the end of the first chapter, the reader has quite a few questions “Who is Voldemort? Why did he kill Harry’s parents? Why did he want to kill Harry, and why wasn’t he successful? How will living with the Dursley’s turn out for Harry when they don’t even want to acknowledge that the Potters exist?”
Star Wars: A New Hope
In the movie Star Wars: A New Hope, the opening scene takes place on a rebel starship as it’s being captured and boarded by Darth Vader. Princess Leia secures the stolen Death Star plans with two droids, R2-D2 and C3PO, who then use an escape pod to flee to the nearby planet of Tatooine. Princess Leia tries to escape but is ultimately captured by Darth Vader’s crew.
Why This Works:
This first scene is full of action and suspense, and by the end of it, the audience is wondering, “Will Princess Leia survive? What will happen to the secret Death Star plans?” It also gives the audience a quick glimpse at the antagonist, Darth Vader, and the threat he poses to the galaxy.
Pride and Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the opening line is, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Within the first chapter, we learn that a single bachelor has moved into the neighborhood and that Mrs. Bennet desperately wants to introduce him to her daughters with the hope that he’ll marry one of them.
Why This Works:
In this famous first line, Jane Austen sets the tone for the story and hints at what the whole novel is going to be about – love. By the end of the first chapter, the reader is asking, “Will this single bachelor (Mr. Bingley) fall for, and marry, one of the Bennet girls? If so, which one will he choose?”
The Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the first paragraph says, “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
Why This Works:
This paragraph opens with a characteristic Katniss moment – she’s showing affection and concern for her sister, Prim. By the end of the paragraph, the reader is asking a specific question, “What is the reaping and why is it causing this family distress?”
In the movie Jurassic Park, the first scene shows park employees unloading some kind of large, caged animal that ends up violently killing at least one of the men.
Why This Works:
This scene opens with mystery and action which provokes the audience to ask a specific question, “What just killed that park employee?”
To be effective, the Hook must:
Capture the reader’s interest
Make the reader ask at least one specific question
Occur within the First Act, ideally around the 1% mark
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q. Is the Hook the same as the Inciting Incident?
A. No, the Hook and the Inciting Incident are two separate story milestones. The Hook is the first thing that catches your reader’s interest and draws them into your story. The Inciting Incident is an event that sets the story in motion and puts your protagonist on an irreversible path toward the story’s climax.
Q. Does the Hook have to be the first line of my story?
A. Not necessarily. The Hook doesn’t have to be the very first line in your story, but you do want the Hook to appear as soon as possible so it can properly ignite the reader’s curiosity and compel them to keep reading. That being said, it absolutely can be the first line, if that’s what works best for your story.
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Can you identify the Hook in your favorite book or movie? What was it that caught your attention and made you want to find out more? Do you have a Hook in your story? How early does it occur? Let me know in the comments below!