Arguably the most important of the three tasks the opening scenes of your story or novel need to do, the hook is also the easiest. After all, you have a plot, a story in mind, or you wouldn’t have a story, right?
I like to say that a story can be reduced to a very simple structure. A character has a problem. The character takes action, usually wrong action, to try to solve the problem. The wrong action complicates the problem. (At this point, lather, rinse and repeat for the length of the novel, but a short story usually only has time to do this once.) The character learns from mistakes and takes right action, which resolves the problem.
Now, most characters have an outer problem happening in the world around them, and an inner problem caused by their own natures. Often, the inner problem prevents solving the outer problem, and frequently mirrors it in some way. This is advanced plot structuring, and a whole series of articles on its own, but that’s the basic idea.
It’s very important to me that your characters have agency, meaning that they take the action. The problem is not solved by someone else acting on or around the characters, or by uncontrollable forces in the outer world – the characters have to make their own mistakes and solve their own problems. That’s where the conflict in the story comes in.
However, all this weight of plot structure needn’t be supported entirely by the first few scenes. Especially in a novel length piece, the whole story conflict doesn’t have to be revealed in the opening chapter. It’s also important to establish a status quo, a normality that is being departed from by the story conflict. But – and this is important – in order to keep my interest, the viewpoint characters need some conflict to draw me on through the first scenes and into the novel.
This needn’t be a problem – it could also be a mystery, a puzzle, a question. If you can write your first few scenes and find at least one question that I might ask, then if your character is engaging and I’m not completely lost in the world, I will almost certainly want to read on.
Who tampered with Uncle Weasel’s last will and testament? Can Georgia catch the eye of the cute guy in her biology class, and why does her best friend Andria seem to be eyeing her in turn? Where did I put my special necklace that lets me appear to be a normal human instead of a green-skinned elf of some kind? Where the heck did all these zombies come from and why are they trying to eat Daniel’s face?
Here are some longer, novel-style examples. Assume these are the opening paragraphs. All in first person, just for giggles. And they’re designed to give enough worldbuilding and character viewpoint to brace up the hook, but with the focus mostly on the hook.
It started with the wasps. I really hate wasps.
Bees are kind of classy. The hive mind concept intrigues me, and they are fuzzy and kind of beautiful, and they won’t sting you unless you make them. Wasps are bastards. They’ll sting you just because you happen to be bigger than they are.
Even when I’m a ferret, I’m still bigger than they are.
Hey, not all shifters are big, sexy predators. Wolf and Bear and Tiger Totem would have you think otherwise, but there are fish totems and hawk totems and badger totems and antelope totems. They just don’t make as much noise. It’s been that way since the beginning, which was long before the splashy headlines and the counterculture. My grandmother likes to tell me stories about how emos and bodymods would come up to her in the streets and thank her for being the new hated minority, and we kids today don’t know when we have it good. Whatever, Grandmother. It’s still not good.
When you have to wear a collar and tag in the city, so the copsmarts can find your body after you’ve been beaten and left for dead, it’s still not good.
I looked up from the body, and there were two of the damned things sitting right on the sand, while the rest of them wheeled overhead. Nasty feathered things with their naked heads, like pimples on stalks. I gotta have a talk with that priest. Except it might not be safe. He’s the kind who can talk a donkey down the mine even when it smells bad air.
I stuck my shovel in again. Every time I did it, half the sand I was digging out slithered right back into the hole, and more splinters stuck themselves into my palms. But Joe deserved this. His horse I didn’t mind leaving on the ground where it lay, and his gun was already in my backpack next to mine, but I wasn’t leaving Joe to the vultures. That’d be adding insult to injury, after I shot him and all.
Goddamn that priest anyway.
Arising from black dreams, I flung myself out of my side of the bed, tripping over a trailing edge of blanket. I stumbled toward the bathroom, eyes half open in the dark room. Groping hands blundered into a door, closet, bathroom’s on the left? Lived in this house for six years and still can’t find the—ack! The bathroom light came on blindingly. I stumped in, closing the door to avoid waking Susan, came within an ace of pissing in the sink, turned around and lifted the lid. She’d installed a carpety lid cover, horridly tacky. Was this some sort of pointed commentary about me leaving the seat up?
I turned around after flushing, and contemplated myself in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. An ordinary guy in his thirties looked back at me, long rumpled salt-and-pepper hair falling to the shoulders, bright blue eyes in a pleasantly craggy face, mostly hairless chest leading down to a slight potbelly and a pair of disreputable polka dot boxers. Just a guy, blearily blinking at himself in the middle of the night.
There was only one problem with this. It wasn’t what I look like. Not at all.
Hopefully these will raise some questions in your mind, and additional character work and setting establishment in following paragraphs will make you want to read on. The first example kind of raises questions about the world building mostly – what’s all that Totem stuff about? – but also leaves you hanging about the wasps. The second example is strong on setting, less so on character information, but leaves you wondering why and how a priest would talk someone into shooting someone they liked. And the last one is all mystery – how did this guy wake up in the body of someone else?
Setting a hook needn’t be about showing off the main problem of the intended story right away. It needn’t even be as flashy an example as these have been. It can be as simple as someone dealing with the loss of a relationship, or the fear of something ordinary, or even a problem like lost car keys. But it needs to be some problem the viewpoint character has, or some mystery they need to solve, and it is supported by strong characterization and scene-setting. These three tasks together, done well, can draw any reader into any story.