A narrative hook is a writing technique where the story begins at a crucial point. The hook poses a question in the reader’s mind about how the protagonist got in the mental or physical state he’s in. It poses a question as to what will happen next so the reader will feel compelled to continue the story. The hook can be either a physical event or an emotional one. If a reader picks up a book and can’t put it down, the hook has been successful.
The Question-Posing Hook
“Three days before her death, my mother told me-these weren't her last words, but they were pretty close-that my brother was still alive..."
This first sentence of Harlan Coben's thriller Gone for Good compels a person to read on to find out what happened. Why was the protagonist led to believe his own sibling was dead? Where has the brother been all this time? Has the absentee brother been up to no good? The reader must keep turning pages to find out the secret.
The Immediate Danger Hook
“Twelve hundred pounds of charging horseflesh hit the wooden railings chest high and somersaulted into the north stands. Faces frozen with horror moved in desperate slow motion to get out of the path of the crazed beast.”
The first lines of Cut Throat by Lyndon Stacey hit at imminent danger. A horse has crashed through the gate protecting the crowd and someone is going to get hurt.
The Emotional Hook
“With draft beer and a smile, Ned Pearsall raised a toast to his deceased neighbor, whose death greatly pleased him.”
The first line of Velocity by Dean Koontz plays upon the emotions of the reader by making one wonder what the neighbor had done to make the protagonist feel this way about him.
Should all Suspense Novels and Thrillers Begin with a Hook?
The narrative hook starts with a heart-pounding revelation or action, then goes back and describes how the protagonist got in the situation they find themselves in at the beginning of the book as opposed to building up to that crucial event. A novel that does not use a narrative hook usually begins with some insight into the main character or a description of a setting, then gradually works up to scenes of action.
We live in a fast-paced world. It has become a tradition for suspense books to begin with a quick, page-turning draw-in. Still, if all books started with a hook, they would become tedious. The narrative hook should be used only if it fits in with the story, and over-use should be avoided.
Beware the Empty Hook
A hook should promise what it delivers. If an exciting scene is set up at the beginning it should be resolved satisfactorily, not just used as a way to cheat the reader into buying a story that is otherwise dull and uneventful, or one that contains blocks of action that do not come together to make a cohesive whole.
The hook should be strong enough to draw a reader in, but should not be overly exaggerated or “hokey”. A hook should draw readers in, not drive them away.