Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bait, Cast, and Hook

by Nanette Littlestone

Pretend your readers are fish. Hungry fish. They need something to attract them. Something juicy. Like a great opening line. That alone wont sell your book. But it will grab their attention.
So how do you hook your readers?
Hook means to take strong hold of; captivate. When you open your favorite book, does that first sentence take strong hold of you? Does it captivate you? In other words, does it entice you, make you wonder, or make you want to know what happens next? If so, then its hooked you. And thats what you want from your opening line.
Now that you know the definition of a hook, how do you create one? Lets examine a few opening lines from some well-known authors.
Ray Bradburys famous story Farenheit 451 begins with It was a pleasure to burn. Those words contain surprise (burning is not usually viewed as pleasurable), danger (fires can get out of control), unusual emotion (can you see the wicked grin on the speakers face as he watches the fire?). The reader gets something totally unexpected. Not bad for six words.
Alice Walker opens The Color Purple with: You better not never tell nobody but God. Again, we have surprise (you want to know what this character is hiding), emotion (do you sense the fear?), foreshadowing (something horrible is bound to happen if the person tells), and startling dialogue (the dialect gives the words additional flavor). Eight words this time. And what a result.

Sometimes the simplest lines are the most powerful.
Some writers go for a different mood. Anita Diamants The Red Tent gives readers a softer, more lyrical tone:

We have been lost to each other for so long.
My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.
This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, . . .
A beautiful beginning that shows longing and heartbreak and the sad plight of women. She worked on her opening until she established an emotional relationship with the reader.

If youre thinking but Im not Ray Bradbury or Alice Walker or Anita Diamant; Ill never be able to write like that, dont despair. Even the top authors work hard to craft remarkable language. Revise, Diamant said in an interview. Anything you write can be improved by another draft. Jeffrey Archer writes numerous drafts. Up to 17 of them for one book. All by hand.
Time and patience and inspiration allow great authors to achieve eloquent and emotional introductions. With a little effort, you, too, can craft a strong opening line.
The best advice for writing good hooks came from Mary Buckham and her class on Pacing. She explores the different elements that comprise a hook and how to use them to create powerful openers. See
Determine your strengths.
Analyze your writing. Do you use short sentences and powerful words? Then keep your hook simple. Go for the surprise, the danger, the totally unexpected. If youre a literary writer and love flowing description, then an evocative or emotional setting like Anita Diamants opening is better suited to you.

Remember the fish. Schools of them swimming out there, just waiting for that perfect morsel of exciting writing. Wow your readers. Then keep going. Hook them at the end of the paragraph and again at the end of the page. The farther they get in your book, the more likely they are to buy.
Nanette Littlestone is a freelance editor, writing coach, and author who has worked with both fiction and nonfiction for 20 years. She specializes in helping authors to use their passion to achieve their own unique voice and message. For more information, please visit

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