December 16, 2020

Where’s the Hook? Five Ways to Make Your First Chapter Unputdownable

By Paul Goat Allen

If you’re writing a novel with the hopes to entertain—to facilitate the literary escapism of your readers—you want those readers to pick up your book and not be able to put it back down. I’ve described these kinds of reads as “unputdownable” in the past—they’re page-turners, and everyone loves a page-turner. And it doesn’t matter what category you write in; any novel can be considered a page-turner if it has strong enough hooks.

One of the biggest keys to creating an unputdownable novel is in those very first pages. It’s that initial hook that, on some level, connects your readers to the story and compels them to read more.

I wrote a BlueInk blog back in June of 2020 about how novels in all genre categories are increasingly being constructed more like thrillers: “The utilization of structural components that play a part in making a thriller a thriller has even spread into genre categories like science fiction, fantasy, romance, and mystery. And there’s a reason for this. By constructing your novel to read more like a thriller, you make that novel more of a page-turner—and that is always a good thing.” I mentioned a focus on tension, relentless pacing, and exploring the dark side of human nature, among other things, but one element I didn’t mention was how quickly thrillers hook the reader.

Good thrillers hook their readers with the expertise of a master fisherman, oftentimes right on that first page. German author Romy Hausmann’s stellar debut novel Dear Child, which was released in October, is a perfect example. The thriller begins with a woman getting hit by a car in a forest on the German/Czech border. Within the span of a few paragraphs, the reader is immersed in the unfolding tragedy. Pick up any thriller—particularly one released in the last decade—and I’ll bet you that the hook is not only immediate but powerful as well.

Traditionally hook placement has varied from category to category. While thrillers and mysteries tend to have their hooks as close to the beginning as possible, other categories have had different philosophies. Romance hooks can be the development of one or more characters and their respective situations, but the big hook is generally the revelation of the relationship dynamic being explored, which could be entire chapters into the novel. And while science fiction and fantasy hooks can come relatively quickly in a story, I’ve read novels in the past where the hook doesn’t occur until the reader is deep into the novel. This is all changing though. Readers no longer want to wait 100+ pages for the hook—they’ll just DNF it and move on to the next one. Hooks in all genre categories are being moved closer and closer to the beginning of the novel—and it makes perfect sense considering the hyper-technological culture that we live in is creating increasingly short attention spans.

So, the sooner you hook your reader the better—but how can you accomplish this? There are a multitude of ways to do this but here are a few frequently used methods:

1. An emotionally intense event.
The Hausmann novel is a great example—a gruesome car crash—but any event that triggers powerful emotions can work, be it joy or sadness or terror. A character watching a love interest dance with someone else. An assassination attempt. A character spending a quiet moment at their mother’s grave. A group of colonists watching their spacecraft burn on an unexplored planet. All of these work as initial hooks because that emotional intensity draws the reader in and immerses them in the story—it’s like jumping into the deep end of a pool.

2. A strong first sentence.
A powerful first sentence can hook readers with just a few words. One of my favorite thriller authors, Jeff Abbott, does this very well. In Never Ask Me (2020), he starts the novel with this tantalizing line: “Ned Frimpong waits for Julia Pollitt on the porch, six minutes away from the terrible moment.” In Adrenaline (2011), he begins with: “Once my wife asked me: if you knew this was our final day together, what would you say to me?” Both of these lines are brilliant as they immediately plant a question in the readers’ mind—it’s impossible not to continue. Here are a few more great first lines:

  • “I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.”—Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis
  • “This is how Mortimer Tate ended up killing the first three human beings he’d laid eyes on in nearly a decade.”—Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler
  • “I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man.”—Six Years by Harlan Coben
  • “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”—The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”—Firebreak by Richard Stark
  • “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”—The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • “Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived he saw a man’s life change forever.”—The Hard Way by Lee Child

3. An unanswered question or the seed of a mystery.
This is probably the most basic hook—force the reader to speculate upon why something is happening. Why is the character running from a group of would-be attackers? What triggered the apocalypse? Who abducted and killed the young girl? Who does the bloody shirt belong to?

Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel The Dain Curse comes to mind. The story opens with the unnamed detective investigating the theft of diamonds from a prominent San Francisco family. Within a few sentences, Hammet has the reader hooked by the mystery: “It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. It was small, not more than a quarter of a carat in weight, and unmounted. I put it in my pocket and began searching the lawn as closely as I could without going at it on all fours. I had covered a couple of square yards of sod when the Leggetts’ front door opened. A woman came out on the broad stone top step and looked down at me with good-humored curiosity. She was a woman of about my age, forty, with darkish blond hair, a pleasant plump face, and dimpled pink cheeks. She had on a lavender-flowered white housedress. I stopped poking in the grass and went up to her, asking: “Is Mr. Leggett in?” “Yes.” Her voice was placid as her face. “You wish to see him?” I said I did. She smiled at me and at the lawn. “You’re another detective, aren’t you?”

A simple hook, but highly effective. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

4. Setting.
I don’t see this one often but when done well it can be a great initial hook. The beginning of Tolkien’s The Hobbit immediately comes to mind—I remember reading this as a kid and instantly being transported to the Shire: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Also, what Charlaine Harris did at the very beginning of Midnight Crossroad was impressive. She described the secluded Texas town so well that it almost became a main character in the novel. Her focus on setting at the very beginning of this novel was an undeniable hook:

“You might pass through the town of Midnight without noticing it, if there weren’t a stoplight at the intersection of Witch Light Road and the Davy highway. Most of the town residents are very proud of the stoplight, because they know that without it the town would dry up and blow away. Because there’s that pause, that moment to scan the storefronts, maybe three cars a day do stop. And those people, more enterprising or curious (or lower on gas) than most, might eat at the Home Cookin Restaurant, or get their nails done at the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon, or fill up their tanks and buy a soda at Gas N Go…”

5. Atmospherics.
This one isn’t as obvious but when executed with skill, it works. It’s that fusion of strong narrative voice, rich descriptive setting, and tone that gives the reader a tantalizingly glimpse into what’s to come. Bride of the Fat White Vampire by Andrew Fox is a good example of using atmospherics as a hook. The novel starts like this: “It was a good night to be a rat. The early March night air was brisk, just cool enough to make the white fur on his long, plump body tingle deliciously whenever a breeze gusted through the French Quarter alleyway where he waited impatiently for his dinner. The breezes brought the scents of the city to him, emissaries bearing gifts for a king: spilled beer, fermenting enticingly in the sticky gutters of Bourbon Street; andouille sausage and crabmeat and spiced rice baking in the restaurant kitchen that backed onto this alleyway; the pungent, fruity perfume worn by exotic dancers on Iberville Street, wafting out open doorways, an aroma that made the rat mysteriously nostalgic and sad.”

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington, a novel that I absolutely loved, is another example of how atmospherics—creating a specific tone at the very beginning of a novel—can be a powerful hook. The tone of the first paragraph is indicative of what is to come: “To claim that the Brothers Grossbart were cruel and selfish brigands is to slander even the nastiest highwayman, and to say they were murderous swine is an insult to even the filthiest boar. They were Grossbarts through and true, and in many lands such a title still carries serious weight… Blood can go bad in a single generation or it can be distilled down through the ages into something truly wicked, which was the case with those abominable twins, Hegel and Manfried.”

So ask yourself this: what’s the initial hook in your novel and where is it located? If you have trouble identifying a clear hook or can’t locate it in the first chapter, you may want to consider utilizing one or more of these methods. Write on!

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.

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