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Friday, April 1, 2011

Author Talk: The Hook

I spoke to a creative writing class this week at the University of Maine Augusta, and it was awesome.  I only prepared a 40 minute discussion, but the talk lasted 1.5 hours.  The students and instructor were enthusiastic and had a lot of questions about my writing and how I got published.

I spent part of my presentation talking about the hook.  The hook is the first sentence or two of the story, but in fiction, I will sometimes say it includes the entire first page.

The importance of the hook never caught me when I was younger.  Back then, I thought it was perfectly fine for my story to "get good" on page 20, 15, or even 50.  The reader was going to be patient, right?


Editors I met at workshops admitted that when they get an unsolicited manuscript from a newbie author, they give the story 3 pages or less.  If it doesn't catch them in that time, they stamp a "reject" on it.

We have to remember that editors get tons of manuscripts every month--affectionately referred to as the "slush pile."  

When I first heard this information years ago, it seemed cruel. Three pages wasn't enough to tell if the story had potential, right?

Well, experience teaches us a lot.  As I've grown, my patience--like those editors--has thinned out.  I now realize how important the first page is.  Coming up with a good first sentence and paragraph for your story should be on the radar of any serious writer.

One thing writing for newspapers has taught me is how important the hook is.  It's the first impression for the reader.  They often read that and the headline to decide to read or skip your piece.  I spend more time on my hook than I do on most other sentences.

Here's the example I used in the class:

After interviewing pro-wrestler "The Franchise" Shane Douglas, whose real name is Troy Martin, for my newspaper article, I wanted to mention how he used to get in trouble with his mom for wrestling with his brothers and sisters.

So I wrote this:

Troy Martin used to get in trouble for being rowdy with his brothers and sisters.  Now he gets paid for the same behavior.

The hook was all right, but I took three issues with it.  1) His brothers and sisters were irrelevant to the rest of the story.  2) What was meant by "used to?"  Last week, last month?  3) The vernacular phrase "get in trouble" could mean "jail."

So I eventually re-shaped the sentence to read:

As a boy, Troy Martin was scolded by being rowdy.

This new hook added a descriptive verb "scolded" to highlight that the "trouble" he faced wasn't serious.  It was rambunctious play, not petty crimes.  I also added the "As a boy" clause to provide a clear time.

The second sentence still annoyed me because I didn't like ending with "the same behavior."  The phrase felt too technical, and I wanted it to be fluid.

This is the final version of the hook I created for the piece.

As a boy, Troy Martin was scolded for being rowdy.  Now he gets paid for it.

This felt like a fun, but narrow hook that focused on a single idea.

My only problem was that the first sentence was passive voice.  To make it active, I would have to include his mother in the sentence because she had performed the action of the verb: the "scolding."  I debated this back and forth, but in the end, I thought the passive voice read fine in this instance.

I was right.

My editor liked the hook and the story enough to put it on the front page of the newspaper.  As the lead story for the entire day, it took up most of the front page.

I shared this anecdote with the class to show the kind of thought process that goes into creating a hook.

It's something I do every time I write for the paper, but I've never shared it with anyone until now.

On a personal note, despite having nearly 200 articles published and making the front page of a weekly newspaper 22 weeks in a row, I had never been on the front of a daily.

So I reached a new milestone in my career where the front page of the daily was possible.

To commemorate this, The Franchise signed my article, and it's now framed in my home. 

Just in case you don't know who "The Franchise" is, he's worked in every major wrestling promotion in the U.S. including WWE, WCW, and ECW.


  1. Great post! I think hooks are important, but not always completely necessary depending on what you're doing. For instance, a writer who has published 5 literary novels and has a big following, will know that their publisher will pick up the next book and that the audience will trust him enough to keep reading past the first 3 pages even if the beginning isn't a "huge hook."

    Still, that beginning had better be well-written. I think good writing will always shine through. I have been an editor for several anthologies now, and as I sift through entries, I discover quickly that it's not necessarily the hook that makes me keep reading - but solid writing. I get a feel for that right away.

  2. Great point, Michelle. As with everything regarding the craft, nothing is set in stone.

    However, I think it's critical for new writers to think this way and be aware of why they are starting a story in a particular place.

    Part of good storytelling is knowing when the story really begins, and how you can make that beginning as interesting as possible.