Writers hear a lot of talk about grabbing the reader’s attention on page 1. Editors, agents, and publishers aren’t likely to look at your manuscript if you don’t grab their attention right away, and if they don’t look at it, they won’t publish it – and if they don’t publish it, no one else will ever have a chance to put it down because it just didn’t grab them.
So it’s a no-brainer that you need to get that reader’s attention right away. And the only way to do that is to hook them immediately – which is why this part of your novel is usually called the “hook”.
Some hooks, of course, are better than others. It is generally agreed that you have until the end of the first paragraph to sink that hook, but that in itself can be a problem. If the first paragraph is too long, or poorly constructed, the reader might not even last that long. So I say, Bait the hook.
What Does That Mean?
Everyone who doesn’t live in Manhattan probably knows what a fishhook is, and has probably heard of using worms or other live bait on that fishhook. But what does that have to do with writing?
Well, if you are fishing and you drop a naked hook in the water, you might catch a fish. I mean, a fish with a hangover, who isn’t swimming too straight, may swerve into the hook and “gig” himself by accident. But more likely you need to put something on that hook to make the fish notice it, something attractive that the fish just can’t resist. Like a worm, or a cricket. Then the fish will deliberately swallow the bait, and the hook will be embedded. Then all you have to do is reel him in.
As a parallel, the hook in a novel or short story might be very well constructed, but if the reader is distracted or in a hurry he may not read it all. You need to add something to make it more attractive, something that will force him to read the entire hook.
You need to bait the hook.
How Does That Work?
Here is an example of a (pretty good) hook without any bait:
The tour bus lay on its side at the bottom of a small ravine, its back broken. One lift jet lay several yards away; two others appeared damaged. A blackened hole gaped out of the engine compartment. Peering down, Victoria Lincoln could clearly read the name on the side: CONFEDERATE TRAILWAYS.
This is the opening paragraph of The Fighter King, and it serves well enough to excite a reader’s imagination and start him asking questions. A wrecked tour bus…with lift jets? And the bus company is Confederate Trailways? There should enough stimulation in those 51 words to pique most readers’ curiosity. It’s a pretty sure bet the reader will continue for at least one more paragraph.
Now here is another hook, this one with bait:
Cpl. Bruno Turner felt like killing somebody.
This is the opening sentence in The Fighter Queen. The entire hook goes like this:
Cpl. Bruno Turner felt like killing somebody. One of the prisoners on that shuttle would do, if the damn thing ever got here. The heat, the frustration, his own shame at never seeing combat – somebody needed to pay.
The bait is the first sentence in the paragraph. It is so dramatic that you are guaranteed the reader will finish reading the hook. He may spit the hook out, but he will read it first.
The bait is even more dramatic if it stands alone, if it is a paragraph unto itself, as in this hook from A Vow to Sophia:
Adam Pedersen was about to commit treason.
Or this one from Star Marine!:
Rico Martinez could almost hear himself sweat.
Each of these pieces of bait are exactly 7 words, but they bait the hook nicely.
You don’t just have to use a worm. You can use more than one kind of bait, if you wish. Maybe a worm, a cricket, and a piece of glittering wire, whatever strikes your fancy. The more dramatic the bait, the better the hook. Here’s an example of compound bait from Starport:
Tyler Unruh didn’t really want to die.
But if he did, no one would miss him.
Life was no longer worth living.
Tyler gripped the wheel with hands like claws as the convertible raced through the mountain pass. Tears streaked back from his eyes, drying in the violent breeze as he tried to hold the straining monster on the road.
Three separate sentences, building on one another, set up the hook so that one almost has to swallow it. You don’t even know what the story is about, but you already know something big is happening.
However you set it up, make that first sentence (the bait) so compelling that the reader just can’t look away. And make sure the rest of the hook lives up to the bait. Finally, write a novel that doesn’t disappoint. Do all that, and you just may hook yourself a sale.
John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.
He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.