Chapter 5: Writing the Hook

In today’s Journal

* Correction
* Chapter 5: Writing the Hook
* Of Interest
* The Numbers


This is what I meant to write toward the end of yesterday’s post.

“It’s completely up to you. The story you write can have authenticity that you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste, or you can write one more bland, made-up, cookie-cutter story from your conscious, critical mind.”

I sent a second, updated post, so if you got two, keep the second one.


1. First, the book you have been reading excerpts from in this series of posts is tentatively titled Writing Character-Driven Fiction. It will be the first (and the flagship) title under the new umbrella of

Craft Lessons from a Prolific Novelist
The Harvey Stanbrough Writing Guides

2.Yesterday morning I realized I hadn’t said anything about cliffhangers in this series. It is a difficult topic to cover, but it has to be in any definitive book on writing fiction. So I started a chapter on Writing the Cliffhanger.

It will be Chapter 6 in the new book. Of necessity, that chapter (like a few others chapters and appendices I haven’t written or revised yet like Punctuation for Writers and Publishing Options or A Grammar Refresher) will not be included in this series of posts.

Therefore, the chapter on Writing Setting (which you will see next in these posts) is now Chapter 7. So in these posts, I’m skipping a chapter.

3. I also decided to remove the chapters titled It’s All Up to You (now Chapter 12) and Writing Into the Dark (now Chapter 13) from this series of posts though both will be in the final book. I mention this only to update you.

4. When I’ve revised or written all of the chapters and appendices that are not included in this series, I will post an updated TOC in the Journal. In that TOC I will highlight chapters that are not included in this series so you can decide whether you want to buy the book when it comes out.

I anticipate publication sometime in the next 60 days or so. Until the new book comes out, I will leave the “old one,” the one on which this series of revised and expanded posts was initially based, up for sale at all the usual ebook outlets.

5. As I announced the other day, if you purchase that earlier book, and if you email to let me know that, I will discount this new work for you when it comes out. Trust me. With the heavily revised and expanded existing content and with the new chapters, it will be well worth the price.

If you are also a donor, I will send you this book free of charge when it’s published.

Chapter 5: Writing the Hook

I almost included this as part of Chapter 4, but the hook is such an important concept it deserves its own chapter.

I also almost included a section on cliffhangers as a new Part 2 of this chapter. But I will write an all-but-exhaustive look at cliffhangers, so that also deserves its own chapter.

Okay, so to the hook—

Not only does a good hook capture the reader’s interest with the first word, phrase or sentence, but it also is one of your better marketing tools.

The best three things you can do to sell your current story or novel are

  • give it an attractive, attention-grabbing cover appropriately branded for the genre,
  • provide a strong story hook at the beginning of the story, and
  • write enticing sales copy for the description or back cover blurb. (Include No Plot Points!)

For an invaluable resource on how to write fiction sales copy, I strongly recommend Dean Wesley Smith’s How to Write Fiction Sales Copy. It is an inexpensive WMG Writer’s Guide. You can find it at Amazon and probably elsewhere. I recommend buying the paperback version (mine is dog-eared).

And while I’m on the topic, the best thing you can do to sell your NEXT story or novel is write a great ending for the CURRENT story or novel. I’ll cover how to write endings and what an ending actually is in a later chapter.

What Is a Hook?

Whereas the opening is the first grounding scene of the story or chapter or the first enticing, grounding section of a major scene, the hook is the first striking sentence or paragraph of the opening.

Whereas the opening pulls the reader into the story, chapter or scene and grounds him there (makes him feel he is “in” the story, chapter or scene), the hook is what compels him to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next.

A hook is a story starter for the reader, just as it might have been a story starter for the writer.

It is a few words, a first sentence or a first (usually short) paragraph (sometimes two) that grabs the reader’s attention and interest.

Ideally, it’s so well crafted that the reader cannot escape your story or book. More importantly, he doesn’t WANT to escape.

The hook should convey a sense of immediacy, curiosity and-or urgency that gives the reader no choice but to read the next sentence.

As I mentioned above, in addition to the hook at the beginning of the story, each scene should also have its own hook. In a longer work, each chapter and major scene should have their own hook.

And yes, a hook can appear INSIDE a scene or chapter. When used in this way, it is usually the phrase or sentence that comes just after a cliffhanger. Used in concert, the cliffhanger/hook combination creates or enhances tension or suspense.

I will include much more on that in the chapter on Cliffhangers. That chapter won’t be in this series of posts, but it will be in the final book.

Again, the task of the hook is to attract the attention of the reader so strongly that he doesn’t want to put down your story. You might even imagine a hook as being a magnet.

Please note that hooks are very often universal. That is, a great hook in one genre can be plugged into another genre, often with no changes at all, and it will work fine.

The Components of a Hook

A good hook will do one or more of the following, usually with active (or action) words:

  • Convey a sense that the reader is crossing or has crossed a threshold.
  • Convey a sense of intimacy, that you’re letting the reader in on a secret.
  • Convey a sense of immediacy through emotion: intrigue, curiosity, fear, joy, and so on.
  • Pull the reader immediately into the mood of the story (ominous, dark, light, humorous, frightening, romantic, and so on).
  • Hint at the mood or tone of the main conflict in the story, chapter or scene.

The key word in that last bullet point is “hint.” Usually even the writer doesn’t know the actual main conflict until it happens.

Think back for a moment over the last few stories you’ve read.

What about the first sentence or paragraph of the story or novel made you want to keep reading? Compare that sentence or paragraph with the list above. Which of those components did it contain or fulfill?

A Few Ways to Write Hooks

If you have a natural feeling for the language—if you’re an accomplished poet, perhaps, or if your friends often comment on your wit—writing a good hook might be a relatively simple exercise in subconscious thought.

If writing a great hook is not a simple exercise for you, or even if it is, it’s almost always a good idea to begin with Action. You’ve heard that a million times, right?

But many of the folks who spout that wisdom get it wrong. You don’t REALLY begin with action. It just seems like you do. Be sure to include description of the character and the setting along with or ahead of the action. Or both.

Again, if you think back over the bestselling books you thought started with action, and if you read the first bit of the first chapter again, you’ll find there is some description preceding or intertwined with the action. Scenes do not happen against a blank background.

I won’t name names, but of course, there are a few exceptions to this, even among bestsellers.

If a writer is a master at marketing, for example, he might sell millions of copies of a novel that does NOT include enticing hooks or cliffhangers or descriptions of characters and settings.

I would personally not leave sales to chance. I would personally rather entice readers to buy and enjoy my books with great covers and sales copy AND by pulling them into the story when they begin reading. And that’s what I’m trying to help you do here and throughout this book.

Okay, so some ways to write hooks—

One way to be sure you ground the reader is to write the action, then stop and ask yourself,

  • What happened just before the grenade landed in the foxhole and exploded?
  • Or what happened in the few seconds before the car crashed into the building?
  • Or what happened just before Melodie joined Heathcliffe the stable boy in the horse barn?
  • Or what happened just before Suzy shoved your face into your locker door as she passed in the hallway of the high school?
  • Or what happened just before, while balancing between wakefullness and sleep, you heard the sound that caused you to roll out of bed and come up with your pistol cocked and aimed at your bedroom door?

Write that. And be sure to include description of the setting and any significant characters in the scene.

That grounding will make your opening richer, and your story will still SEEM to have started with action.

I received a comment on the chapter about Openings that almost makes me feel as if I’m writing the next segment of this chapter for that commenter.


Because characters do not appear against a blank background, and action does not happen against a blank background. If you’re uncertain what I mean, please stop here and re-read the chapter on Openings.

Most of my more recent Blackwell Ops books begin with action, but if you look closely, you’ll see that each one actually begins with grounding the reader in the setting.

In most of even my earlier novels, the same is true.

That said, seeming to begin in the middle of the action is the best way to hook a reader up front and keep him turning pages. You can do that in any of three ways:

1. Open with a strong narrative.

Preferably a narrative that appeals to the physical and emotional senses of the reader. The physical senses are sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.

The negative emotional senses are fear, trepidation, anger, caution, and so on. (Notice that the negative emotional senses are those the reader experiences when he feels tension.) The positive emotional senses are joy, elation, and so on.

2. Open with dialogue.

Note: This is one of the big differences between writing fiction for film (a screenplay) and writing fiction to be read by readers.

In a film, dialogue is not action. In a film, the action is portrayed visually. It’s essentially the narrative description of the setting and characters in motion that the scriptwriter put into the screenplay.

But in written fiction that’s meant to be read (short stories, novellas, novels) dialogue equals action. I suggest you staple that to the inside of your eyelids:

Dialogue causes the reader to lean-into your work just as much as the scene with the car chase or the scene with Melodie and bodice-ripping Heathcliff or the scene with Suzy being a bully does.

Because dialogue links the reader directly to the characters in the story, it immediately engages the reader and involves him in the story. Dialogue forces the reader to lean-in, to become a character in the story: The Eavesdropper.

But don’t forget that Characters Wear Clothing (a great deal more on this in Chapter 7: Writing Setting). And they talk in a setting.

Don’t write talking heads. Again, nothing happens against a blank background.

3. Write something that appeals strictly to the emotional senses, something so intriguing, so profound, or so well-written that the reader MUST continue to read.

I’ve included several examples of hooks in Appendix A of this book.

Next up, Chapter 7, Writing Setting, Part 1. Talk with you again then.

Of Interest

Launching A Brand In a Few Hours Another way to make money with your writing. And Dean offers a free course on how to use Kickstarter.

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 2100

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future (tentative title)

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681
Day 2…… 3044 words. To date…… 6725
Day 3…… 3375 words. To date…… 10100
Day 4…… 3349 words. To date…… 13449
Day 5…… 4262 words. To date…… 17711
Day 6…… 3153 words. To date…… 20864

Fiction for February……………………. 24550
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 142154
Fiction since October 1……………… 445211
Nonfiction for February……………… 16830
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 48790
2024 consumable words…………… 190944

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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