Elements of Critique: Hooks

“It’s only 3 AM. Just one more chapter…”

I can’t count how many times I’ve looked at my watch or the clock in the middle of the night and justified reading the next chapter of a good book. What is it that sucks me in, holding me captive to the storyline?

Or how about the books I pick up at the store? I flip through the first few pages to check them out. What moves me from “Hmm, interesting” to a purchase?

The powerful concept that manages both these experiences is the Hook. And since most of us hope to do more with our writing than file it away in a desk drawer or folder on the computer’s drive, the hook is something I look for when I critique other writing.

A piece should start with a hook. “Why should I read this thing? Why should I care? Get my attention.” I say that, because that’s what an editor is going to be wondering. So if a fiction scene starts off with a long peaceful account of John and Mary’s mundane dinner conversation, or a description of the magnificent table and the sweetness of Grandma Myrtle’s special meatloaf recipe, no one cares.

Ok, the writer obviously cares, and maybe the critique group cares, because we’re friends helping each other out. So I might read that thing.

When daughter Sarah bursts into the dinner screaming “Help! Timmy’s bleeding all over the place. The neighbor’s dog did it!” – well, now it has my attention.

A hook creates questions that demand answers.

How bad is Timmy bleeding?
Was it his fault?
What’s the deal with the neighbor’s dog?
Do these families get along?

Better yet, consider the difference between “It was the neighbor’s dog” and “It was the neighbor’s dog again.” One added word tells some interesting backstory right at the start, creating more questions.

Conflict arises. Curiosity follows.

So the hook belongs as close to the beginning as possible. Depending on the length of a piece, it might go right at the start. A personal story would begin with Sarah’s outburst, then describe the disruption to a peaceful dinner as John and Mary scramble to Timmy’s aid.

The principle is still true even if the subject is nonfiction. A nonfiction article might pose a question or make a statement about the importance of the subject–better yet, suggest what life would be like if things were different. “Were it not for the heroic actions of the 82nd Airborne leading up to Normandy, D-Day might have been the greatest Allied loss of World War II.”

What did the 82nd do?
How did they impact the success of the Normandy invasion?
What might have happened if the Allies failed at Normandy?

Hooks are all about creating and keeping reader interest from the start. The work has to stand out in a heap of other submissions, blog posts, and manuscripts in someone’s inbox. So I look for something that grabs my attention near the beginning. Because if I’m not that interested when I’m reading something for a friend, no one will pay attention when it’s merely a matter of impersonal business.

In my post on “endings” I mentioned chapters in a novel needing some resolution to the scene they present. Sometimes a break from the urgency of events in the story might be nice, so there are certainly places where a calm ending is appropriate.

However, chapters should rarely end with a sense of satisfaction that lets a reader put in a bookmark for later. When dealing with longer works, a hook usually belongs at the end, in addition to the resolution of that scene.

The hook serves the same function here: it creates questions that have to be answered. But in this case, the answer is in the next chapter, and the reader dutifully turns the page, ignoring the clock.

When the hero develops an unspecified plan to defeat the villain, or when a third mysterious party arrives in the middle of a pitched battle, that’s a hook. When a character makes a decision to interfere in an upcoming event, or someone receives tragic news that makes them scream or clutch at the letter, that creates questions. The hero leaps into the fray even though he knows he cannot possibly win the battle. The heroine torn between two mutually exclusive choices realizes which one means the most to her, and moves into action to save that part of her life, at the cost of the other.

These questions have to remain largely unanswered at the end of a chapter, to create a demand for “What’s going to happen next?”

If I’m critiquing a chapter of someone’s project, if I don’t feel that drive, then I’ve identified a potential problem they’ll want to address before their work gets to the hands of an editor.

Otherwise what happens next is potentially a rejection slip.

What happens next on this A to Z? I’ll describe looking for writing that creates and maintains intensity. The first page and the last page matter, but so do the pages in the middle.

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