TAP013: How to Write a Great Story Hook for a Novel
Happy Monday, Writers!
In this episode, I wanted to discuss the first plot point in a story, which is the hook. I originally was going to record an episode of the Ordinary World plot point. But, a few minutes before I was going to record, I realised that I needed to discuss this plot point first because it’s what encourages the reader to start and to continue to read your story.
TAP013, Plot and Story Structure: The Hook
Before we get started, I would like to point out that this episode will contain a few minor spoilers from the Thriller Novel, Sanctus by Simon Toyne. So, spoiler alert! If you had this book on your to be read list on Goodreads, or wherever it is that you keep your to read list then know that I will be spoiling the hook and opening scenes. And I’ll probably continue spoiling parts of the novel through this plot and story structure mini-series that I’m doing with my podcast.
The Story Hook in a Nutshell
In a nutshell, the hook is the opening moment. Or in story terms, the opening scene. It’s usually the very first thing that happens in your story. It can often be the first line and kicks off this story plot. Think of it in terms of a series of dominoes. The hook is the first domino in a series of dominoes to fall over. It triggers everything else after that. Usually, the hook introduces character, setting, and theme. I know this one’s super obvious, but it needs to hook the reader into the story. I guess it contributes to the name of the plot point, the hook.
The Story Hook is
The hook is that moment that starts everything. Without this hook, the events that unfold don’t affect the life of the protagonists. Nothing happens without this very first moment. It’s the very first thing that happens.
The Story Hook Never Comes Easy
Be warned the hook is usually one of the hardest scenes in the story to write. So, don’t panic if it’s not right the first time. When I started writing my thriller novel Immunity, back in 2014, I outlined the story and chose a story hook. Two years later I’ve added several scenes in front of the original story hook which now creates a better first read.
I did this because I understood the main reason for a hook. It’s to entertain, create intrigue, and set the story in motion. This original story hook that I created back in 2014 is still in my story. As I continued writing the story, I realised, “Oh, I need these things to happen because I need to explain how James got to this point.” I felt that it was important to explain to the readers how he got there because I started the book in action. As I look back, I now know this original hook is the inciting incident. I didn’t set up my characters ordinary world and create the story hook. So, I added several scenes. The novel is a thriller, so the scenes are quite short. I added up an extra 2,000 words to the novel at the beginning.
So, let’s take a look at the hook from Simon Toyne’s, Sanctus.
I’m going to unpack the scenes leading up to the introduction of the protagonist’s ordinary world, so you can see first hand how a reader reacts to his story hook. I love Sanctus’ story hook because it’s what got me hooked on the trilogy. This particular story has a good example of a story hook. Showing you how a story hook is supposed to look, is a better alternative to me telling you.
The story opens with a monk waiting in a cell. The monk has just climbed to a new position in the secret order where he’s learned their terrible secret. You get a sense that the secret has been hidden from the rest of the order and the public for many many years. This secret was so bad that the monk was horrified and couldn’t serve with the order. As a result, the monk was waiting in the cell to be killed.
After hearing movement outside the cell which the monk seemed to know with certainty was the order coming for him. He describes the order is quite secretive, and they will go to any lengths to keep this secret. After hearing movement outside the cell, he unties his belt from his robe. This belt is made out of thick rope. It’s not quite a belt. It’s just like a The monk manages to squeeze him out of a narrow window of his cell into the cold night. The monk is several levels above ground. At this stage, you don’t know how high he is, but you do get a sense that he is quite high off the ground.
What can we learn from the scene?
The author created a rich and vibrant world. Toyne made the setting of the first scene, which is a cell, seem quite real. As you read the scene, you feel like you’re there with him. Toyne went into that amount of detail. The scene also creates a sense of mystery which leads you to ask a few questions. What is the terrible secret that he learnt from the religious order? What is the monk planning next? You can guess what the monk is planning next, but you don’t know. You think, “is he going to do this? What is he going to do? Is he gonna throw himself over? Is he gonna try and escape?” You don’t quite know what he’s going to do once he’s outside the window. It’s easy to speculate, but not knowing is what drives you to read the next scene in the book.
In the second scene, nine floors down another Monk is washing blood from his hands. He is the Abbott. The start of this scene is quite jarring because this blood was clearly the result of the Monk’s initiation into this order and learning this secret. So there was bloodshed involved. Another monk of the same order enters the room and tells him that brother Samuel (who’s the guy from the previous scene) has escaped his cell. He also reveals they had searched the Citadel’s outer grounds looking for a body assuming the prisoner had jumped, but the body was not found.
Then another monk, Brother Athanasius, alerts the Abbott that Samuel has climbed the Citadel and was 400 meters high. The abbot for some reason remains certain that the secret is safe and they will catch brother Samuel. So obviously, this is something they’ve done before. We also learned that Samuel is climbing the citadel which they also describe as a mountain.
What can you learn from this scene?
The author introduces the world of the religious order and its ancient rituals, laws, and politics. These rituals seem quite archaic. They’ve been doing things that are practically medieval for a very long time, even in the modern age. A few questions are answered which cause you to ask more questions, and a further layer of mystery is created. You’re left wondering why brother Samuel is climbing up and not down to escape. You can guess, but this leads to you ask another question about the secret surrounding the sacrament. How bad is this secret? Is it really this bad?
Scenes Three to Five
In the third scene, you see that Samuel is climbing the Citadel’s rock face. And you get a sense that he’s done this before. He’s no amateur climber. So, we get a sense that he’s had a life beyond the religious order which also indicates his age. He’s most likely middle-aged which is quite young, someone to be a monk.
In the fourth scene, Samuel struggles to climb the Citadel with the strong winds and the changing surface of the mountain. The wind has eroded the top part of the citadel, creating a smooth surface. Samuel reaches the top of the mountain as well at the end of that scene.
In scene five, we see a really short scene. Tourists arrive in the city. At this stage, you start to see the city from the point of view of the tourists. And, you get a sense of the grandeur of the Citadel.
In the sixth scene, Samuel sits at the top of the Citadel and struggles with his faith. He is haunted by the knowledge of the sacrament. At this stage, he mentions a prophecy revealing what would happen if the Sacrament is shared outside of the Citadel. The prophecy does explain why this new knowledge is most likely going to result in a death sentence. The prophecy also explains why Samuel is now outside now trying to escape and not get caught. Brother Samuel also ponders sharing the knowledge to the outside world. As he’s pondering this, the monk starts to see the prophecy in a new light and realises his next course of action. And it’s at this stage you begin to think, “no, there’s no way that you’re going to do this. This is absolutely crazy.”
What can we learn from these particular scenes?
The author sets the scene of the outer city. The city surrounding the Citadel is called Ruin. You see the Citadel from the perspective of a tourist. As a result, suspense is added to the story by the tourists entering the city. You now know that at some stage Brother Samuel is going to have an audience. You also see that Samuel is in a crisis of faith. This crisis is fascinating because we get a sense that to reach this particular position within the religious order he has to be there for many years. Brother Samuel has been serving at something for many years. He’s now learned a terrible secret that’s caused him to re-evaluate everything he knows about the deity and the order he serves.
What can we learn about story hooks from the way Simon Toyne has written this first four percent of Sanctus? These early six scenes do take up the first four percent of his story. I would like to point out that your Story Hook doesn’t necessarily need to be an epic thing that’s drawn out over a certain percentage of your story. Sanctus is written in this way to add suspense and create a page turning effect. These first six scenes are quite short, and you do flip through them quite quickly. The scenes featuring Samuel were probably written together and then broken up to create a sense of suspense in the editing and revision phase. That’s what I’d sort of did with immunity. I wrote a scene then chopped it up to create the hook of my story.
Essentially the hook of your story should leave your reader asking, “what next?” And turn the page, but at the same time introduce your story’s world, characters, and be a catalyst for the story. Your story hook needs to be that moment that starts the story in motion.
Without the story hook, the story probably wouldn’t happen.
Without this particular moment, nothing is set in motion, and that’s how your story hook needs to be. Especially if you are writing in the thriller genre.
I hope you found this session on the story hook really helpful. If you have any questions about the story hook feel free to ask them below, in the comments section. I do pay attention to the comments, and if you do have a question you would like me to answer on the podcast, feel free to ask it below as well.
Thank you for listening, reading, commenting and sharing with such enthusiasm.
I’m Amelia. I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Missing, the first book in the James Lalonde series. On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process. Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.