How To Write A Killer Hook

WRITE A KILLER HOOKI was having a conversation about creating a killer Hook with my writing coach and friend, critically-acclaimed author Larry Brooks, and it got me thinking about how others could benefit from his advice.

We all know how important a great Hook (<- capped for clarity) is, regardless of genre. This becomes especially important with thrillers. Without a killer Hook a reader could close your book before the story takes off, your chance of finding an agent or editor goes right out the window, because most will only give you a few pages to pique their interest, your book could be destined to collect dust on a shelf, virtual or otherwise.

So now that we know why we need a killer hook, let’s talk about how to create one that grabs the reader by the throat and won’t let go.

If anyone knows how to create a killer hook it’s Larry, author of Story Engineering as well as many other craft books — link to his e-bookstore is in my Crime Writer’s Resource. During our conversation, I discovered I was doing myself a disservice by not starting my books in the best place for maximum impact. Sure, I started in the middle of the action after I’d made sure to invest the reader in my protagonist. Blah, blah, blah. The internet is chock full of that advice.

But how about starting further along in the story?

This is certainly not new advice. Screenwriters are taught this early on. Watch any crime show and you’ll probably see a murder or an intense scene involving the main character in terrible trouble. For some reason, though, novelists don’t always do this. Maybe it’s because no one comes right out and tells us this is a kickass way to write a Hook. For me, I’ve read many bestsellers that use this technique in the Prologue, but because agents/editors frown upon using Prologues, I didn’t feel it wasn’t something I could do till I got published. UPDATE: Once I got my publishing deal for MARRED, I rewrote my hook and used a Prologue.

For those going traditional, call the Hook Chapter One instead of Prologue. Then, in Chapter Two, write your chapter headline as “Five Days Earlier,” or whatever. This is perfectly acceptable, will meet the standards of what agents/editors are looking for, and you’ll have a Killer Hook that will increase your chances of getting full requests and possibly lead to representation.

Let me show you exactly what I’m talking about.

In the book I’m reading now — one of Larry’s fast-paced thrillers, Pressure Points — OMG, what a hook! It nearly knocked me off my couch.

Before I tell you about it, I’ll show you what first attracted me to the story. Book description is as follows:

The game is a weeklong retreat. It’s located in a remote region of northern California. It’s designed to build teamwork, establish trust, and increase awareness.

The players are three ambitious executives — one woman and two men, each prepared to put his physical, mental, and moral limits to the test. They never dreamed how far they could go.

The rules are simple. First you run. Then you hide. Don’t appear weak, don’t admit to the fear, and don’t react to the pain.

The prize is staying alive. Let the game begin.

Closeup of message stones on white background.

Never let go of your dream.

 

You can see why it piqued my interest, right?

All three characters have their inner demons ranging from self-doubt to total control-freak. The goal for each is to be made CEO of this gazillion dollar company. The present CEO told them if they completed the seminar (retreat) he’d sell them the business for way less than market value and appoint one of them CEO in his place, depending on how they did at the seminar. The farther I read the more I realized none of the three executives particularly liked one another, so just deciding whether to go to the retreat was a tense meeting of the minds.

The Hook Larry used was one of the best I’ve ever read. It starts out with a man running for his life through dark woods. He’s cold, terrified, barely dressed. When he finally reaches the road he hears his name whispered in the dark, but the reader has no idea who he is. And then, the man collapses, dies right there on a deserted stretch of asphalt.

Bam! I’m in 100%. There’s no getting away from this story even if I wanted to.

And that, writer peeps, is what a great Hook does. It forces the reader to keep flipping pages to answer questions raised in the Hook. Now, do you have to use this technique? No. There are plenty of great stories out there that start at a certain point in time and continue forward. This is just another way of doing it. And one that works remarkably well.

To use this technique correctly, you can’t simply take your climax and stick it at the beginning. That will get you nowhere fast. You’ll also ruin a crucial part of your story. The Hook also doesn’t have to be a moment that occurs in the climax. It can set up the First Plot Point, the Midpoint, the Second Plot Point, the Climax, anywhere really. Doesn’t matter. The choice is yours.

For instance, in my WIP the Hook sets up the Midpoint, because at the Midpoint the story does a 180 to the point of no return. It’s the part of the story that raises the most questions and, therefore, the perfect spot to pay off my Hook. And that’s the point you need to find in your story, where the most questions are raised, a tease, a tantalizing peek at what’s to come. But I’ll tell you, when using this technique it’s easy to forget to invest the reader in your protagonist. Which brings me to…

How To Get Readers To Root For Your Hero

Contrary to what many believe, readers do not have to like your main character. I hear boos and the shaking of disapproving heads. Stay with me. They don’t have to “like” your hero but they do need to “empathize” with him/her. That’s the key word: empathy.

How do we do that?

Let’s hear from the man himself, Larry Brooks. This quote is from Storyfix…

“… we readers need to recognize something of ourselves.  We need to empathize. Most of all, we need to get a sense of what the hero’s inner demons are.  What is their backstory, what are the worldviews and attitudes and prejudices and fears that define them and hold them back?  What are their untapped strengths, their unwitting secrets?  These are the things the hero must later, when squaring off with the antagonistic force, be forced to acknowledge in order to step up as the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion.”

I’m not suggesting you dump a whole lot of information about the protagonist in the opening pages. Kill me now if you think that’s what I’m proposing. Just sprinkle enough inner demons, wants, needs, desires, etc. to create empathy. The rest of their backstory you can pepper throughout the novel, but only if it’s germane to the story. Please don’t give a full rundown of their lives. Nothing bores a reader quicker than musing about nothing. Especially the first quartile — the first 20%-25% — the set up phase before the First Plot Point — the most important moment in your story, because that’s when your main character begins their quest. I’ve briefly written about this before (and I’m sure I’ll write about it again) in How To Create A One-Page Synopsis Using Story Beats, which you can check out here.

So, what do you think of starting your novel much later in the story? Have you read any good books that use this technique, or are you using it in your novel? Tell me about it in the comments.

 

43 Comments

  1. HI Sue,
    1. Thank you so much for following my blog. I so respect you. Thank you. I am honored.
    2. You and Lucy were right. I did it! I followed your great instructions and put the SU sharing button back! I just wanted the icon, not the text. When they hover over it, it says the text. It was easy! I found a square icon on Google Images.
    3. I believe I stumbled this page today which is why I am commenting here.
    4. I’ve gone back into some of my lists and tried to more specifically tag them. How do I go back into the specific articles?
    Thank you for everything. Wednesday was an amazing day because of our new connection.
    Janice

  2. Pingback: How Story Structure Relates To Our Lives | Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta

  3. I discovered Larry Brooks a few weeks ago, Sue and was instantly smitten. I soaked up his story structure articles like a parched sponge and made myself a Word template with all of his points slotted into the right positions. Now I’m working on my second book and, oh… it’s going to be SO much better than my first, thanks to Larry! I’m truly sold on the idea that novels should mirror movies, as far as structure goes, to keep readers’ eyes riveted to the page. The more I read now, the more I notice the underlying skeleton of a good story that keeps me reading so, darn it, I’m trying it! Hook, line and sinker.
    😀

    • I’m drinking the same Cool Aid, Wendy! I can’t watch a show or a movie without seeing structure now. I’ve pressed pause to see if I’m right so many times my husband now guesses… “Midpoint!” he calls out. “2nd Pinch!” It’s very cute.
      If you get a chance, work with him, Wendy. Larry is an incredible coach! He believes in not holding back but it’s only because he truly wants others to succeed.

      • I;m pretty broke right now but I will most certainly do it when I can get the means, Sue! I think it’s odd that some won’t give using structure as a tool but think of it as cheating. To me, this feels more like going to college to learn what you need to know to succeed in the career you have chosen and, as writing is all I really desire, I will follow what Larry says and see where it takes me! I am so excited because it all makes perfect sense. 🙂

        • I hear you. To me, it feels like I’m writing on a more professional level. Those who refuse structure just need time to figure it out. They’ll get there eventually, if they want to be published. It’s inevitable. Happy writing, Wendy!

  4. I remember reading this technique in books back in the 1980s. I’m not a fan of that… but it’s just me 😉

    I think, if you find the right place where the story truly starts, you don’t need to play with the timeline… unless that’s something you’re going to do all through the book, in which case it’s a different matter.

    I think the best way to start a story it’s starting… at the beginning. That’s not as easy and intuitive as people may think, but if you find that magic point, I think you don’t need any other trick to hook a reader.

  5. Thanks, Sue for this great advice! Makes a lot of sense, now to implement it. More thinking, oh my poor brain-LOL

    • Oh, I hear you! So much to remember. It seems like every time I think I have a handle on this writing thing someone else mentions another technique. It’s enough to keep your head spinning. But that’s also what makes this gig so special. There’s always more to learn. Happy writing, Gina!

  6. Sue Nichols sent me over. She’s right – LOTS of good stuff here! Can’t wait to come back and delve further!

  7. I’ve toyed with where to start my novel times over and will soon find out if I nailed it (about to submit). I think this is excellent advice to consider the prologue as a hook in ch1. As a reader, have never minded prologues but heard they are best avoided. Thanks (and for other great advice here).

  8. The mention of Larry Brooks “piqued” my interest. He is at the “peak” of success. Thanks for a fine article.

  9. A great post, and some excellent advice!

    But the big news has to be the 2nd grandchild. Congratulations!!! 😀

  10. Wow! You’ve made the big time. I don’t know how I missed this post, but it was pushed to me on Zite magazine. Great tips, and hope you have a great weekend too

    • I have? It was? Can you tell me about Zite magazine?

      • WordPress has been dropping the ball lately. Some posts aren’t getting to my reader, and I’m not getting all my comments either. Zite is one of those I blogged about that sends me topics I’m interested in. It’s were many of my Idea Mill posts come from. Your post arrived as writing advice. Maybe it has to do with your popularity on Stumbleupon or something.

  11. Happy, happy, joy, joy!!! Congratulations. Babies are being born everywhere. I know of so many pregnant people right now! And babies, lots of babies. 🙂

    Back to the post. Right on. I can’t see how I could do my current WIP that way though. The protagonist has clairvoyant nightmares. In the opening scene, the first is a nightmare she had as a child and it recurs. It was about a serial killer who was later captured. She sees through the eyes of the victim. It is the beginning of an entire series of clairvoyant nightmares. But not the serial killer killer of her childhood, a new killer.

    It’s brief and she wakes up to get on with her activities of daily living. Her dog is missing. She connects with an old friend from childhood via FB who is in town. She goes to feed her dog and sees the shadowy figure of a man slip through a gap in her privacy fence.

    I don’t think a Chapter Two, “Five days earlier” would work, but I could certainly see how it worked in his story. The trudge through the wilderness in fear…and then you learn how it all started. That’s great!

    • I love the sound of your WIP, Susan! My novel, A Strangled Rose, is very similar to your WIP. Is this a paranormal thriller? Your hook sounds incredible. It would certainly grab my attention.

      Thank you for the congratulations. They still haven’t settled on a name yet. It’s driving us crazy! Hope your new grand-baby is doing well.

  12. I meant of course, ‘reason that hook can’t…’ Sorry!

  13. This is really interesting advice, Sue! And it doesn’t only work for thriller writers. The hook is important in any novel, as you say. And there’s no reason that book can’t be an event that happens chronologically later. So long as the reader knows when,the different events happen, and can keep them in order, that’s what matters.

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