The Narrative Hook

“Did I ever tell you about the two-headed pig we had on the farm when I was a kid?”

My dad loved to tell stories, and he always launched them with a one-line zinger.

One day as we were driving home from our bi-weekly trip to Mr. Schuster’s barber shop, he delivered another one: “Did you know that Mr. Schuster has three bullets inside him?”

Then there was this gem: “Have you ever wondered why people stay away from the Round Prairie Cemetery after dark?”

I’m sure my father never heard of the term “narrative hook,” but as a storyteller, he certainly knew how to use it to engage his listener. He was savvy enough to know that he wouldn’t engage his young son with a line like, “I’ve heard that the price of soybeans is expected to increase five percent next year.”

If you’re a storyteller trying to break into this tough business, the narrative hook is one of your best friends. Readers don’t know you. To keep them turning pages, you need to sink the hook early and deep.

There’s no “right way” to do it. The narrative hook can be a dramatic or shocking scene, or an intriguing opening scenario, or a captivating character. The only requirement is that it engage the reader so firmly that he has no choice but to keep turning pages. Tedious prose won’t do it. A rambling narrative without direction or purpose won’t do it. Most of your readers won’t care about the price of soybeans. You’ve got to engage the reader with something that stimulates his mind.

Below are examples of strong narrative hooks from some of the authors I’ve helped over the years. The first is from Secrets of the Amulet, a fantasy novel by Brian del Rio:

Camnin rattled the canteen above his open mouth as he panted raggedly. Blood trickled from the cracks in his parched, flaking lips. Begrudgingly, the canteen surrendered what little water it had left.

Those 32 words do a great job of setting the stage for the opening scene of this novel. The reader is placed inside the head of a viewpoint character and knows immediately that Camnin is in dire straits. In addition, the quick and artful prose (Begrudgingly, the canteen surrendered what little water it had left) promises the reader that this will be an entertaining, quick-paced novel. Anyone who can read that opening paragraph without feeling the urge to keep reading should check his pulse.

Melissa Garcia launched her mystery novel Chasing Demons with this:

The first body washed ashore Saturday morning. It was discovered in Abalone Cove in Rancho Palos Verdes by a group of fishermen who had thought the decomposing corpse was a marine animal.

Even though Melissa’s opening paragraph is omniscient narrative without a specific viewpoint character, it does a great job of telling the reader that this story is going to be about multiple murders. Again, she has accomplished a lot with a few words, giving the reader a reason to believe that this will be a fast-paced mystery novel.

The words that launch your story don’t have to represent fast action or high drama. Take a look at this opening paragraph from Pat Montandon’s memoir Peeing on Hot Coals, scheduled for release in April 2014.

The old yellow bus, its rusty bumper dragging, kids pressed against the smeared windows, huffed and puffed from the curb in front of the school before I could reach it. “Wait!” I hollered as loud as I could, and ran panting after it on my skinny legs, blond pigtails flying, until my sides hurt so bad I couldn’t run anymore. But the bus snorted on, stirring up choking black exhaust and whirligigs of dust, even though snotty J. T. stuck his white-coated tongue out at me from the back window and could have told the driver to stop.

Nobody has been murdered or is on the verge of death, but Pat nonetheless manages to engage the reader by putting her inside Patsy Lou. This little girl has been left behind. What will she do? The reader will keep turning pages to find out. This opening paragraph also displays Pat’s quick, entertaining writing style. Nothing dull and tedious about this.

People do get murdered in Jeff Millhollin’s just-released novel Brakus. But it’s the quirky main character that makes this novel different from the standard suspense novel. With that in mind, Jeff launched the novel directly from the main character’s head:

Every job came down to this moment, when the planning and the preparation gave way to fear and exhilaration, when he could feel his heart in his throat, when his blood was sick with giddiness.

Are you curious about where the story goes from there? Or how an accomplished burglar deals with debilitating OCD? Buy the novel and find out.

The foundation for Brian Spatola’s science fiction novel Reset is its future setting, so he immediately takes the reader onto that stage with this opening:

The sins of technology had crept up, little by little, masked as progress and hidden by a perceived convenience. As the tiny machines did more and more for humanity, calculating away diabetes and heart disease, erasing infection and obesity, they became more unnoticed and unquestioned—and more dangerous. The very technology that was supposed to cure humankind of its sickness had become the affliction, a cancer that ate away at the beautiful creation of Man.

That was why Mika Novák had to go through with his plans no matter what.

I usually counsel writers to open their story firmly in the head of a character, but Brian packs so much information into that short opening paragraph that the reader won’t even notice that it’s omniscient viewpoint. If this kind of narrative went on for several pages, then it would be more of a challenge to keep the reader engaged. But after that single short paragraph, Brian immediately introduces Mika Novák to the reader with words that will coax the reader to go deeper into the story. What are Mika’s plans, and why is he so desperate to carry them out?

Here’s the most important takeaway from this blog post: Give some serious thought to how you launch your story. An opening paragraph that engages the reader and starts building a sense of anticipation will keep him reading. A dull, vague, uninspired opening will give your reader an excuse to return your book to the rack or dump it from his e-reader.