Thinking about the hook

I’m not spending much time on the beginning of my story just now, but I was thinking about this thing called ‘the hook’. It’s that bit of the story near the beginning, let’s say the first chapter, that draws the reader in and could make the difference between a sale and being dropped into the slush pile. When I hear other writers talk about it (or see them write about it), it puts me in mind of some epic event like those stupid extreme marriage proposals where a guy is arrested whilst jumping from a space-plane tied in chains or something. I’ve come to the conclusion, as a thoroughly amateur writer, that the typical advice falls ludicrously short of the mark. The typical advice being: “You need a good hook, it really needs to grab the reader.”

Here’s what I think: The beginning of the story just needs to to have enough conflict to be interesting, that is, pose some problem for the character that makes the reader wonder what happens next. I don’t think it even matters what that conflict is, though it should probably be relevant to the story as a whole. What’s really important in the hook is having something that is instantly engaging. A lot of the most enjoyable books I’ve read start with something like a conversational tone. It’s light and feels vaguely like those times when you’re having a few drinks with friends and telling stories. The sort of thing where you might say: “Oh, man, there was this time we were out hiking, and Steve saw this squirrel, and you wouldn’t believe what it was dragging around…” There’s always a lead-up in those stories, often heading to a punchline, but I would argue it’s the same for a book, except that you’re aiming for a climax, not a punchline. The point here is that it’s more in the telling than the actual events, though those are important too.