Hooked

Every compelling piece of writing begins with a hook, a sentence baited with words so enticing you cannot resist taking a bite. Great hooks are hard to define. Some are an entire paragraph long. Novel readers in the 18th and 19th century saw a lot of these lengthy beginnings. Some are just a few simple words. ("I am an invisible man.") All of them share the magical quality of being irresistable, of making you want to read more. Like pornography, we know them when we see them. Among the many memorable hooks in English, one of my favorites is this:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
(George Orwell, 1984)

You know immediately you are in a place where things have gone terribly wrong. And you know it is April, that cruel and atmospheric month in England. And you also feel urgently that you need to find out why the clocks are striking thirteen. I was eighteen when I read this. I hated books that made me uncomfortable, that suggested the future might be worse than the present. And yet here was a book I couldn't resist, even though it was about to make me very uncomfortable: I had been hooked.

All good writers must learn how to create hooks. I'm interested in hearing what your favorite hook is, dear reader. And why.

For your amusement, here's a link to somebody's idea of 100 great novel hooks. Orwell's hook is eighteen.

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21 thoughts on “Hooked

  1. Let’s try this out: “In the hospital of the orphanage-the boys’ division at St. Cloud’s, Maine-two nurses were in charge of naming the new babies and checking that their little penises were healing from the obligatory circumcision” (John Irving, The Cider House Rules) Yes, that works. On the other hand: “It was Sunday” (Jerzy Kosinski, Being There)

  2. Hmm. “It was Sunday” would probably not entice me. But maybe the next sentence makes up for that. I’m assuming you kept reading, maybe for that reason.

    I like that thing about the little penises. That could get more than a few people interested in what might come next!

    –Bl

  3. First to my mind is always: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

    However, my favourite isn’t a first line but should have been. The hook comes at the beginning of the second paragraph of Peter Carey’s Illywhacker: “I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.” It says so much about the character and so much about his story. I look at it as a direction – while reading, keep all senses engaged and look for the meaning beyond.

  4. Thanks for that link, and your reminder about hooks… I don’t know if you’ve come across it, but there’s a great book about First Paragraphs: Inspired Openings for Readers and Writers by Donald Newlove about that very thing.

    I know there’s a good hook or two in some of the old science fiction I’ve got around here. I’ll have to look one up to add to the discussion…

  5. Hi Kerryn: A great line, and good advice.

    Fencer — That sounds like a fun book. I like reading books about writing. Except sometimes I have to stop because they somehow make me feel like I’ve already written, when I haven’t.

    And how about this for a great sci fi hook: “It was a pleasure to burn.” It makes me want to read Farenheit (oh god, I can’t remember the number) 451? 444? 666? I’d better go look that up. Glad you’re here fencer! –BL

  6. My favourite hook:
    “The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means – it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.”

    The very first lines of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and I was hooked.

  7. “which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.” That’s really good. I’ve never read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It sounds like I should.

  8. Here’s one I like from the opening to John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (a sadly unrecognized and brilliant book):

    “Hunted?
    By wild animals?

    In broad daylight on the Santa Monica Freeway? Mad! Mad!”

  9. This is a good topic… here’s a quote from Newlove on ‘first paragraphs’: “Suddenly a great sentence steals at us like a woman dancing the tango.”

    Of course, there’s “‘Twas a dark and stormy night…” (Isn’t there a competition and a book on that somewhere for the worst opening sentences?)

  10. BL, Thanks for writing another stimulating essay, “Hooked.”
    I didn’t get into this idea of hooks right away since I tend to read non-fiction science books more than fiction. I’ve never understood why I shy away from fiction unless it has something to do with an academic life that was almost entirely math and physics. And here I am a poet. Poetry is math? Hmmm.

    But to the point, I did check for hooks in some of the most important books in my life, necessarily non-fiction.

    First–The Handbook for Boys, copyright 1945 by Boy Scouts of America, noting in its own introduction, “since first published in 1910 (the Handbook for Boys) has been the Country’s best seller, with the exception of the Bible.” This in itself has considerable hookyness, but nothing in comparison to the beginning of its first instructional chapter.
    Chapter 1, What Is A Boy Scout?
    “A Scout! What fun he finds in hiking into the woods! He tells North from South by the stars, or East from West by the shadows.”
    Could there be a better hook for a self-improvement book? I don’t know whether it was the stars or the shadows, but something hooked me into going onward to Eagle Scout and 36 merit badges. Or it could have been the hook my mother attached to my collar and led me kicking and screaming.
    Second, and these are in descending order,– from my freshman math book, Analytic Geometry and Calculus, by Longley, Smith and Wilson (all Yale professors), in Chapter I, Cartesian Coordinates. The Straight Line.
    1. Introduction.
    “A survey of the problems which can be solved by elementary mathematics (algebra, geometry, and trigonometry) shows that although they are large in number they form a rather restricted class.”

    This is a somewhat more subdued hook than appeared in the Boy Scout Handbook, but I did finish the book in one year and got the grades I needed to advance to the hooks in Differential Equations and Theory of Calculus. (Sadly, I can’t find the links to those right now.)

    Third, and actually difficult to rate lower in compellingness with the previous hook in my math book, Elements of Physics, by Smith and Cooper (Ohio State University professors), copyright 1957–

    Chapter 1. Physics and Measurement
    1.1 “What is Physics? In its broadest sense physics is that branch of knowledge which describes and explains the material world and its phenomena.”
    If this doesn’t seem to be hook enough, one is definitely compelled by the second sentence, “In terms of this sweeping definition, all the other physical sciences may be regarded as branches of the basic science–physics, which a century ago was known as natural philosophy.”

    Fortunately, I was swept, after only five pages, to the method for converting 60 miles per hour to 88 feet per second, and in the blink of five years to relativity and quantum mechanics.

    Thanks again for resteering my attention to this most important tactic in writing–a compelling beginning,
    Smokey

  11. Ohhhh, first lines! One of the most memorable for me is as follows, from the Nabokov novel:

    “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tounge taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

    Besides the playful alliteration, Nabokov (and Humbert Humbert) press the name into the readers mind, the adoration, the fixation, everything that HH covets about her. Flat out stunning and a definite hook.

  12. Smokey — I did think, what about nonfiction?, when I wrote this. But I never, ever thought, “what about textbooks?” The hook for me would be that if you didn’t read it you’d have an ugly experience when you took your exams.

    I LOVE the excerpt from the Boy Scout Handbook — “A Scout! What fun he finds in hiking into the woods! He tells North from South by the stars, or East from West by the shadows.”

    it’s so promising!

    Hello Silentseas — You’re right, there’s a lot of pressing going on in that first bit from Lolita, which is so appropriate for Humbert! You get the feeling Nabokov loved writing this. I think a writer’s joy in words and in his story really draws a reader in.

  13. What ? You never ever read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy ? Which planet are you from ? :-)

    That book is one big collection of really good (and funny!) sentences. You should read it.

  14. I’m not sure whether it’s a hook but I absolutely love the line in “The Hitchhikers’ Guide” which talks about a spaceship “hanging in the sky like bricks don’t”.

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  16. Lily, I liked your list of 100 openers. Working in the law as we do, I got a laugh out of 80:
    “Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” —William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)
    I recently came across a quote from Salman Rushdie (I think) on how performers should start with the miraculous or impossible–that way they will have the audience eating out of their hands the rest of the way.
    I think this works for fiction hooks, too. Once the reader wonders ‘how is that possible?’ curiosity lures them along.
    For that reason I liked 29:
    “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)
    Because I wonder, how is it possible to divorce your wife every year?

  17. Hei Lily.

    My favourite hook sentence is this:
    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
    possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

    It immediately catches your undivided attention and keeps it so right to the end of the book.
    Take care and do keep so well.

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