Your Story Needs a
Hook, but Your Characters Are the Bait
by Jason Black
Ask anyone in the publishing
industry—agents, editors, sales reps—and they’ll all agree your
novel must open with a strong hook. You'll never escape the
slushpile without one. If you ask them what that means, you'll
probably get an answer like, “It has to pull readers right in, grab
them by the shirt collar, and make them want to read the next page.”
Translated into advice you can
actually use, here's what they're trying to tell you: A great
hook shows character through conflict.
That's the trick. A story needs a good
hook—usually a dramatic, page-one situation brimming with
conflict—but the hook needs bait or nobody's going to care. Your
characters are the bait.
Conflict makes an effective hook
because it drives the reader’s curiosity: What’s the conflict about?
What’s at stake? And most importantly, what's going to happen next?
"What happens next" is paramount
because it reveals your characters. After all, a story doesn't move
until the characters move it. Nothing happens next unless the
characters start making choices and taking actions.
Nothing happens until they face that
Want to know a secret? The best way to
turbo-charge your novel's opening is to combine conflict with
choices and actions that reveal your characters for who they are:
Nothing shows what somebody is really made of like watching them
respond in a crisis.
Here are four steps to creating a
killer opening hook:
First, find the conflict. Find the
moment in time nearest to the beginning of the story when there is a
high-point of conflict. Don't worry if this is in chapter three of
your draft: Good news, you can cut chapters one and two which are
probably just boring setup anyway. Presto, that's two less chapters
you have to work on in revision.
If your exciting moment happens before
the book opens, consider pulling the opening of the book back to
that moment even if it means adding a chapter or two to bridge
between that opening and the rest of your story. When the result is
a compelling, character-based hook, it's totally worth it.
Second, look at who is in the scene.
Who is involved in the conflict? Who or what are they facing? What
do your protagonists need to accomplish to overcome the conflict, or
at least to escape the scene? Now ask yourself how they would set
about accomplishing that task. Would they charge right in? Would
they act, but only reluctantly? Would they try to talk someone else
into dealing with the situation?
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010
Put your protagonists in a crisis, and
force them to show their true colors. If your antagonists are also
in the scene, do the same thing for them. Find those choices and
actions which are consistent with each person's goal, personality,
Third, create opportunities for the
characters—and especially your protagonists—to display their
personalities and abilities in action. If your protagonists are
driving the scene, you're probably already doing this. But if your
scene is driving your protagonist, if they're watching events unfold
without attempting to alter them, then you've got a problem. When
your characters don't act on their goals, readers will wonder why
not. Make your characters drive the scene.
Fourth, make readers care about your
characters. If you've done steps one through three right, you'll
have set up the novel's central conflict, gotten the story rolling,
and shown readers who they're supposed to care about and why. But
you still have to make them care.
Care comes from feelings of sympathy
or empathy, so show your characters facing difficult obstacles, ones
which push their abilities. Easy challenges lack drama; giving
characters tasks which are old-hat to them doesn't show much about
Consider failure, too. Don't be
afraid to make the challenge too difficult. Letting your
protagonists fail in the opening scene can be wonderfully dramatic.
It shows readers how your characters respond to failure, which is
itself deeply telling as to what kind of people they are. Do they
beat themselves up about it? Do they brush off the failure as
though it didn't happen, learning nothing? Or do they pay attention
so they can do better next time? Readers love to root for the
underdog; a great way to portray your protagonists that way in your
opening is to let them fail at something significant.
The slushpile is full of manuscripts
that have no hook at all. Ones that open with some of the most
boring situations imaginable: People waking up in the morning,
walking down the street, going about ordinary, day-to-day
activities. Don’t do that. Somewhere in your plot is a conflicted,
pivotal event that gets the main storyline going. Find it, and put
it on page one.
The slushpile is equally full of
manuscripts that open with conflict but haven't baited that hook
with the story's characters. These manuscripts resolve the conflict
without showing anything meaningful about the characters. As long as
you're putting conflict on page one, make your characters face it
Novels that don't have a great hook
will never escape the slushpile. How does yours stack up? You've
cast your line. Your hook is in the water. But if you want an
agent or editor to bite, you'd better be using your characters as
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Jason Black is a freelance
book editor who actively blogs about character development. He
recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers
Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at