Every story needs to open with a hook, or so says conventional writing wisdom. Conventional writing wisdom, unfortunately, seldom goes on to address the obvious question:
Just what is a hook, anyway? And how do you write one?
There are three things everybody seems to agree upon when it comes to hooks: 1) They come at the beginning of the story; 2) They catch the reader/editor’s attention so they’ll want to keep reading; 3) They’re really, really important.
After that, everybody goes in a different direction. Starting with length: the most common definition seems to be “the first sentence of the story,” but you can find places that define the hook as the first paragraph, the first page, the first scene, or the first chapter of a story.
Once someone has defined how long they think a hook can or should be, they usually jump right in with recommendations. “Start with a question.” “Start in the middle of something.” “Start with dialog.” “Start with conflict.” “Start with a dilemma.” “Start with a simile or metaphor.”
None of these are particularly bad advice, but none of them really address the fact that a hook has to fit the story. Any fisherman knows that if you bait your hook with worms, you won’t catch the same fish that you would if you used minnows, or a lure that imitates flying bugs. And you don’t use the same bait in the ocean as you’d use in a fresh-water stream or in a lake, because the fish are different.
Similarly, if your story is slam-bang action-adventure, then a bomb explosion in the first paragraph is likely to hook the right readers (i.e., the ones that will enjoy your book). If your story focuses on relationships, the explosion likely won’t work very well. Fooling readers into reading further because they’re expecting one sort of story will not make them suddenly like the kind you’ve actually written. Also, the wrong bait is likely to drive off the readers who would like what you’ve written. Bad idea.
So Principle #1 for writing a hook is: It has to suit the story.
Principle #2 is that the hook has to be intriguing. That is, it has to have bait on it, something that will interest the kind of readers who’ll like the story. The theory is that once you get somebody interested, they’ll stay interested…but this only works if you paid attention to Principle #1 – the hook has to suit the story.
This is why all those recommendations aren’t worth the pixels they’re displayed in. Any one of them might suit your story, but also might not. It depends on the story, and on the readers. You have to ask “Is starting with a question/conflict/a dilemma/dialog/etc. right for this story? Can I come up with a first line based on any of those things that will intrigue the readers who’ll enjoy the book?” Quite often, you can’t answer those questions until you know what the story is, which brings us to the third point.
And the third point is that a hook does not have to be the very first part of the story you write. Yes, the hook is the first bit of the story, where “bit” obviously ranges from one sentence to one chapter, depending on who you talk to. But it doesn’t have to be hook-y until the story is finished. (This is where most of the how-to advice places miss the boat; they assume that, since the hook comes first, it must and will be written first, and if it’s the first thing you write, then they don’t have to mention Principle #1, because of course the writer will write a story that suits the opening line.)
Some writers do start by coming up with a killer opening. Other times, ideas just arrive as a hook; “Mother taught me to be polite to dragons” hooked me into writing the rest of the story. But quite a few writers start writing with “scaffolding” – anywhere from a paragraph to a couple of chapters of “getting into” the story, all of which will have to be dismantled/deleted when the story is finished. And doing something just to get going (and then revising it later when one has a better idea what’s going on) works very well for quite a lot of writers, even when it’s not actual scaffolding.
If generating a killer first line is what gets you started, by all means sit down and write a list of twenty opening lines that intrigue you. But if not, don’t worry about it. Just treat it as a revision problem.
Which brings me, finally, to the actual question of writing hooks.
If you have a cool idea that came with an opening line, or an opening line that is just begging for a story to go with it, you already have your hook. Write it down and keep going. If generating one is the first step in your process, then Principle #2 is the most important thing to remember: the hook must be intriguing. Unless you already have a very specific audience in mind, start by intriguing yourself. You’re the one who’s going to have to write the story that flows from the hook, after all.
That means, if you love reading/writing action, start with action. If what gets you interested in a story is a question or a mystery, start with presenting the reader with a puzzle. If it’s characters, start with the most interesting thing about the most interesting character in your head. If you hate not knowing where the story is happening or what’s going on, don’t begin with a paragraph that hides these things from the reader; instead, think of the most interesting and intriguing way you can present them. And then write the rest of the story.
If you’re treating the hook as a revision problem, you do this in reverse. An analytical sort of writer or reviser will look at the story they’ve already written and think about it, about what kinds of things are at the heart of it (characters, relationships, adventure, etc.), and about what kinds of readers are likely to enjoy that kind of story. They ask themselves what those readers will like best about the story, and try to work out how to get as much of that thing into the coolest possible first few lines. (You can run down those lists of recommended ways of writing hooks as a sort of brain teaser, a way to jog your mind into coming up with some possibilities, but you don’t have to use any of them.)
A more intuitive writer will also look at the story they’ve written, but instead of thinking about all that, they’ll probably read it over a couple of times until something catches their attention, and then they work whatever-it-is into the perfect opening, even if they can’t explain why it’s perfect. They just know it feels right.
Either way, ultimately it’s the writer who gets to decide what makes the perfect opening line for a particular story. There aren’t rules or a limited list that you have to choose from. If all your betareaders stop reading before they get to the end of the first paragraph, then whatever you did isn’t working and you need to fix it somehow. That may just mean working on it, not changing it to someone else’s idea of “what makes a good hook.”
Note that although nearly every advice-giver looks at the punchy, first-line hooks when they give examples, the main reason they do this is because punchy, first-line hooks are short. Books that take a paragraph or a page as their opening hook rarely get quoted as examples, because that means there’s less room for the advice-giver to explain why they’re a perfectly good method of starting the sort of book that ought to start that way.