Want to know six easy ways to hook your reader right from the first sentence?
See what I did there? Did it work? If you’re reading this sentence, I’ll assume that it did. I’ll get to some practical examples and a bonus in a minute, but first a bit about hooks.
Hook, Line and Sinker
A strong opening can make the difference between whether someone reads your writing or just opens YouTube. What is less obvious is what sort of hook you want and how “hooky” you want it to feel. The opening sentence of this article is beyond my comfort zone for some pieces, but not for others (like this one, obviously). The goal of these hooks is to delight the reader, to draw her in, to give her handle to connect to the article. But they also have been used and abused by spammers.
Creating a good hook that readers find engaging rather than enraging depends less on the hook than on being sure that the rest of the article delivers on the promise. In the end, a hook is a promise. You have to deliver.
Let’s look at a few possible hooks one by one. I’m going to try to keep them as short as possible here. Keep in mind that in some types of writing the hook itself might take pages to fully play out (see the section below on audience). This is just a small selection of obvious hooks that are easy to drop into your writing. There are probably hundreds more.
So without further ado…
The Jeopardy Hook
Like on Jeopardy, sometimes the answer is in the form of a question. I started this article with a question. Once you read it, you probably wanted an answer (if not, you wouldn’t still be reading). Even if you already have strong opinions on the subject raised by the question, it’s hard to avoid at least skimming to see what the five hooks are. I hope so anyway.
- Have you ever wondered… ?
- What’s the first thing… ?
- How many times… ?
- What are the five ways… ?
The Story, Interrupted Hook
My friend Mia has a journalism degree and years of experience writing on deadline. Back in January, her editor assigned a story that touched on a childhood trauma so troubling that she just couldn’t focus on cranking out copy. She decided to go for a walk to think about how to tell her editor she couldn’t finish the article. That slow walk on a rainy night turned out to be a pivotal moment in her life.
Not everyone has dealt with trauma like the one Mia experienced, but we have all experienced the trauma of being sucked in by the Story, Interrupted only to have to read the whole article to piece together the individual parts of the story.
I might have started that story differently, but I wanted it to be a bit stealthy. In another context, it could start with the walk: “Mia’s life changed over the course of a short walk on a rainy night while she was working to meet a deadline,” and then pick up the story where I started it above.
The Story, Interrupted hook has become a bit overused in long-form journalism in recent years, but that’s because it continues to work. On the one hand, the reader wants to finish the story. On the other, it lets you provide more human interludes in otherwise abstract discussions. It helps keep the reader from falling asleep.
Unlike the Jeopardy Hook, the questions are merely implied. What was the trauma? Why was the walk pivotal? Did she write the article? The Jeopardy hook is short and sweet. The Story Interrupted can take time to develop. Depending on your audience, you may or may not have that time.
And, of course, the story is not unfinished. It’s merely interrupted. You have to wrap it up by the end of the article. You have to deliver on the promise. If the hook is even modestly effective, your reader will want to know what happened to Mia.
You Are There Hook
When I was a kid, there was a history show called You Are There. The conceit was that they reenacted great historical events and every show began with a setup of the date and place and the events about to unfold. The introduction ended with the grave narrator explaining that everything is as it was on that fateful day except “you are there” (cue the dramatic music).
There is something about second-person narrative (you are there), that draws you in:
Your kayak on the roof rack, you drive to the infamous Kalegan Rapids launch point full of confidence. But two miles before you arrive, the road comes down to the river and gives you a dead-on view of the famous Washing Machine. With that first look, the butterflies in your belly turn to mad frogs and you start to second guess the whole plan.
Compare this to roughly the same opening, but in the third person:
For many kayakers, running the infamous Kalegan Rapids is the goal of a lifetime. They leave home full of confidence, only to suddenly find themselves rethinking their plan when they get their first glimpse of the famous Washing Machine.
Or, we’re writing about a calmer river.
When you round the bend at Otrona and get your first look down the full expanse of the Mustregan River, you know that you will never read John Aton’s stories the same way again.
Compare that to:
Travelers get their first full view of the Mustregan River as they round the bend at Otrona. Once they’ve seen that view, they never read John Aton’s stories the same way again.
Both versions include and, more importantly, leave out much the same information. It should raise the same feeling of “tell me more” in the reader’s mind, but the second-person version feels more compelling, at least to me. It makes you feel more part of the scene. You are more likely to actually feel those frogs starting to jump in your own stomach, feel your throat going dry, feel that tension in your shoulders. Right?
The Surprise Inside Hook
Just like a box of Cracker Jacks, a surprise inside your opening can be enough to hook a reader (though, realistically, eaters of Cracker Jacks are hooked by the sugar, not the surprise).
I know doctoral dissertations are not known for hooking readers, but this is the hook I chose to begin my thesis on sixteenth-century history. I told the story of anti-Reformation forces storming a church to protest against the change in religion. On the face of it, it was much like countless stories from rural churches in the sixteenth century where people opposed the Protestant Reformation. The big reveal is that the events had taken place not five centuries earlier, but only a dozen years earlier in Paris where people were protesting not the Protestant Reformation, but the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It was meant to create a sense of curiosity and pull the reader out of their position of detached, scholarly distance across the centuries. Multiple readers have told me it worked.
The Surprise Inside hook needs a reveal that not only makes the reader want to read on, but maybe go back and reread that beginning or at least pause to ponder it a bit. It works, assuming it works at all, because it should shake the reader out of complacency and prompt her to want a deeper explanation, to want to rethink an old problem.
The Mary, Mary Hook
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your writing go?
With clever hooks and ref’rence books
And pretty words all in a row
Despite what every nursery rhymer has asserted since the eighteenth century, Mary was not at all contrary. In fact, she was a most agreeable little girl, loved by both gardeners and editors. Her bad reputation was the result of a smear campaign many years later on the part of cockles who understandably found it in bad taste to wear cockleshells.
Okay, that’s not the contrarian opening that is likely to grab a reader by the lapels and keep him reading, but that’s the basic idea. Your goal is to challenge a reader’s assumption. In its spammiest version, it degenerates into, “Harvard neurosurgeon says you should never eat your vegetables. You should do this instead.” It can be enough to make you curse the person who invented the alphabet.
In its better versions, though, it can help people recognize preconceptions and get readers curious about alternatives.
- “You’ve probably seen Heart Zone posters in every gym with a highlighted ‘fat burning zone,’ but research shows that long cardio sessions are not effective for weight loss.”
- “Most people think the best way to save money is….”
- “The person who famously sued McDonald’s because her coffee was hot has been vilified in the popular press (of course coffee is hot), but in fact she won the case on its merits and rightfully so.” In fact, the Vox article on the case, uses the Mary, Mary hook. So does the Consumer Attorneys of California page.
The Mary, Mary hook is a one-two punch. First comes the accepted wisdom. Then comes the contrarian view. It’s not required that the article come down on the side of the contrarian view, just that it present it and take the reader on an exploration of each position. It may be, upon review of the evidence, that the contrarian view is wrong. Hopefully by the time you get there the reader is engaged and open to looking at the problem from a new perspective.
For the record, in the case of Mary, the received wisdom is wrong to the point of slander. Unless you’re a cockle.
The Dragnet Hook
On average 85% of World War II soldiers who were “along the line of fire during a period of an encounter” did not fire a single shot.
That fact is likely familiar to most history buffs and military personnel. For most readers, though, it flies in the face of everything they learned in their rigorous study of John Wayne and Tom Hanks movies. There’s nothing fancy there. There’s no question, no unfinished story, no one-two contrarian punch-counterpunch. Just the facts ma’am, as Sergeant Joe Friday used to say on the TV show Dragnet.
For a fact to be a hook, it needs to do something special — challenge a common assumption, have a surprisingly large or small number, or an unexpected juxtaposition. And indeed, the percentage cited is surprisingly high. It is drawn from research by U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A Marshall. He published the results in his 1947 book Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command. The part in quotes is from p. 57 of the University of Oklahoma edition from 2000.
Not surprisingly, followup studies have asserted the Marshall relied on a handful of anecdotes and those studies have called Marshall’s numbers into question, but that’s not the point here. The point is that a surprising fact can grab someone’s attention and create space for a deeper discussion, even if the original fact is disputed.
If readers find a given fact surprising or simply unlikely, they will want to read on, to see your evidence, to find out whether it’s believable. Like all hooks, it piques your curiosity (if successful anyway) and prompts you to keep reading.
There is a certain risk to the Dragnet hook, though. If your audience is well-read on the subject, your surprising fact may appear ho-hum or, even worse, ill-informed. People familiar with the criticism of Marshall’s work probably immediately balked and thought, “Not this again,” when they read that opening sentence. In that case, you might lose them before you’ve gotten to the second sentence, like a sort of anti-hook.
Half-Life of a Hook
I will be the first to admit that these hooks feel contrived. There are three reasons for that:
- My skill as a writer, or lack thereof, meaning that I am not as practiced in the black arts of the hook as many copywriters
- The context, or lack thereof, meaning that a hook divorced from any actual, natural subject is by its nature 100% contrived
- The novelty, or lack thereof, meaning that all these hooks are hooks you see almost daily if you are a reader (and if you are not a reader, you have no business being a writer). For that matter, your daily bombardment from the ad industry probably exposes you to every one of those hooks daily even if you are not much of a reader.
Point number three is important. Hooks have a half-life. As I mentioned above, I have come to feel that in recent years the Story, Interrupted hook has become an overused go-to hook in journalism. If you read a lot of long-form articles, you are probably sick to death of it. Nevertheless, done well it still manages to suck me in, albeit with a little voice in my head saying, “Here we go again.”
Every hook has its day and a hook that is past its expiration date can easily make an article feel cheap. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. People have been using these hooks for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aristotle has fancy Greek names for them. But for the ones that seem to be enjoying certain vogue, you have to be careful and subtle so you get the reader’s attention without the hook feeling trite. Finding that sweet spot is increasingly difficult in a world driven by clickbait.
A Word about Audience
Depending on your audience, you have somewhere between zero and a few thousand words to set your hook. In some cases, it’s just hopeless. If a kid in Cleveland is desperately searching for information on the Nile River for an overdue report for school lands on your page and that page reviews the Blue Nile Ethopian Restaurant in Berkeley, you have no hope.
If, on the other hand, you’re Malcolm Gladwell and the typical reader of your next book is someone who has read three of your books already, you might be able to string that person along for five pages before building up to your actual hook. Of course, if you were Malcolm Gladwell, with years of journalism under your belt, you would never expect a reader to slog through five boring pages to get to your hook. Malcolm Gladwell did not become a bestselling author by getting lazy about his openings.
The first sentences of Blink:
In September of 1983, an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco Becchina approached the J, Paul Getty Museum in California. He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC.
It’s hard to stop reading, but the full hook, the full opening anecdote and the question it raises (how is that the immediate reaction of art experts was more accurate than months of research by lawyers and scientists?), takes about five pages. Gladwell can get away with it not because his audience trusts him (though most do), but because the first sentence sets the hook for the anecdote, which sets the more elaborate hook for the book.
Note that rather than blandly pulling a Jeopardy by asking a question, Gladwell makes it subtle with a “he said.” It implies the question, “Is it a forgery?” and that the answer is yes, but we want to know the answer, not get it by implication.
Gladwell knows two things:
- He must grab his audience right away, standing in the bookstore, as one did back in the day
- His audience is up for a long ride. They aren’t snacking on the go. They’re pulling up a chair and settling in for a four-course dinner. He can take five pages to get to the point, as long as that initial ride is a lot of fun (and it is).
For the short-form writing that most of us do, we need to get to the conclusion in less than five pages, so the hook needs to be shorter and tighter. But it also, let’s be honest, does not have to be as good because we are usually just asking our readers to eat a snack, not the whole meal. But the point is that context matters. If you’re writing for a literary magazine that mostly goes out to subscribers, you probably can expect some patience and willingness to wait a bit to see where you’re going. If you’re writing a blog post about hooks, you probably need to get right to the point and have a fairly blatant hook, otherwise your reader is off to check Twitter.
Some hooks don’t feel like hooks at all, but like breadcrumbs that make stronger or weaker promises of more information to come. In the “stronger promises” category would be the famous opening of Anna Karenina:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
It’s a great hook (we could call it The Rest of the Story hook, but we’ll leave that for another time). But it’s also a breadcrumb that lays out a principle for the story. With that line, Tolstoy has committed himself to tell the story of at least one unhappy family.
Breadcrumbs are often more subtle and function to keep you reading, not to get you reading. They are common in fiction and usually take the form of an offhand remark that assumes knowledge you don’t have… yet. Let’s say the main character is the first-person narrator Ishmael who is walking down the street:
Thinking about my day as my nose was assaulted by the smells of summer in Gotham, I heard someone yell, “Ish! Ish!”
“Vikram! What’s happening? What are you doing in Gotham?”
“I had to meet with some lawyers. What about you? Are you still writing bad hooks?”
“Honestly, I haven’t written anything since Bill moved away.”
“Ah, I wondered about that. Hey, I think I’m already going to be late for the lawyers and they bill at $500 an hour. I gotta run. Are you busy tonight? Have time to get together for a beer?”
“That would be great, man.”
Why is Vikram going to the lawyers? We’re very likely to learn that over said beer, but what about all the rest? Who was Bill, why did he move away, why did Vikram wonder about that and why did Ishmael stop writing after that? That’s probably enough for a whole novel in the hands of a more talented writer. If you want to read a whole novel by a talented writer who masters this technique, I would recommend Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides, or Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky.
Breadcrumbs can work in non-fiction writing too. In general, someone reading an informational article like, say, a computer review, doesn’t want to be annoyed by possible storylines littered in the review. Rather than a subtle breadcrumb that implies a followup, she wants a simple statement that announces a followup: “As we’ll see below, the Asusbook Con is an excellent alternative to the Macbook Pro.” No nonsense, just get the reader to those affiliate links as fast as possible.
But there are times when a few well-placed breadcrumbs can help move the reader through a non-fiction piece too:
- Memoir or travel: “Leaving Dublin for what I thought was the last time…,” implying that there is a story behind why it is not the last time. This could work as a hook or as a breadcrumb in the middle of a story.
- Op-ed: “The carbon fee and dividend is just one possible tool for reducing carbon outputs.” There’s no promise there, but the reader is primed to read about other tools.
In straight-ahead non-fiction, breadcrumbs can be similarly straight ahead, marking out the trail bluntly but effectively. Nothing clever:
- Early in the article: “In our look at the effect of crime fighter vacations on murder rates in select cities, we begin by looking at Batman in Gotham City, before turning to San Francisco, Star City and others.”
- Later in the article: “As we saw in our treatment of crime in Gotham City, murder rates rise when Batman goes on vacation. If we look instead at what happens in San Francisco when Harry Callahan goes on administrative leave after displaying somewhat less than his normal marksmanship….”
Of course, we don’t think of those as breadcrumbs since they seem to plod in a straight line like a white paper or an academic article, which they do. But sometimes, the point of non-fiction writing is just to get a set of facts and related arguments out there is the simplest possible way. It doesn’t mean you can’t drop breadcrumbs for your poor reader.
Ideally, think in terms of hooks that don’t trick the reader, but help the reader. Unless you’re going for spam, you ideally hope for a relationship with that person so you can’t afford a hook that makes her feel cheated. In the end, the goal of the hook is to draw the reader in, but also to provide an organizing principle for her reading, a glimpse into your mind and where you’re going that will help her separate the important parts of the article from the color. Think “delight” not “deceive.”
And my journalist friend Mia? She lived happily ever after until the end of her days. The End.