How to Write a Great Beginning Hook

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We have two great resources to help with your beginning hook:

  1. Podcast Episode: Listen to Shawn Coyne, the founder of Story Grid, explain how to write a great opener to your story.
  2. Article: Read Story Grid Certified Editor Savannah Gilbo’s 8 step process to writing a great beginning hook.

Podcast Episode: How to Write a Great Beginning Hook


Article

Nailing your Beginning Hook is the key to writing a strong, captivating story. 

But if you’re like most writers, that’s easier said than done. In fact, the Beginning Hook is the part of a story that’s most often toiled over and rewritten dozens of times

But don’t worry. In today’s post, I’m going to walk you through the key elements that will help you craft a strong Beginning Hook and set you up for writing a story that works.

Before we dive in, let’s go over some basics so that we’re on the same page.


What is the Beginning Hook?

The Beginning Hook is where you’ll to introduce your main characters, the world they live in, and what their everyday life is like. This is also where you’ll want to introduce the main story conflict, establish what’s at stake, and solidify your protagonist’s goal going forward.

In general, the Beginning Hook makes up the first 25% of a story. At first glance, this can seem like a tremendous amount of story to devote to introductions. But if you expect readers to stick with you throughout the story, you have to first give them a reason to care.

You have to help readers understand who your character is at the start of the story so that they can fully appreciate the person he or she will become.

And this important section is where you accomplish just that.

So, now that we’re on the same page about what the Beginning Hook’s overall purpose is, let’s take a look at how to write a great Beginning Hook in your story.


Tip #1: Grab the Reader’s Attention in the First Few Pages

The goal of your first few pages is to grab the reader’s attention and make them curious to find out what happens next. 

And in most cases, you’ll want to open your Beginning Hook with something active.

For example, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, we meet Katniss in her house in District 12 on the day of the reaping. The first thing she does is sneak out of her house to hunt so that her family can eat. Not only is Katniss active in this opening scene, but we also get an immediate sense of what her life is like and what kind of challenges she faces. 

Now,  you might be wondering… Does that mean you have to open with high action? Like car crashes, tsunamis, gunfights, and things like that?

Not necessarily.

You can “hook” the reader’s interest with a great opening line, an unexpected event, a compelling description, a unique narrative voice, a mystery, or some kind of dramatic action. 

As long as there’s something in your first few pages that makes readers think “I want to know more about this,” you’ve done your job


Tip #2: Establish the tone, style, and mood for the rest of the book.

Another thing you’ll want to do in the first few pages is set the tone, style, and mood for the rest of the story.

The goal here is to give readers a clear sense of what they’re getting into so that they can decide if they want to get to “The End” or not.

My favorite example of this is from the opening paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all – I’m not saying that – but they’re also touchy as hell.”

This opening paragraph gives you an immediate sense of the tone, style, and mood you can expect to experience for the rest of the story. You’re either to like it and want to read more, or you won’t.

So, my advice?

Look at your story’s genre and the overall feeling you want readers to have when they read your book.

If you’re writing a funny story, the opening should be funny. If you’re writing a thriller, the beginning should feel suspenseful. If you’re writing a horror novel, the beginning should probably evoke a little bit of terror. You get the idea.


Tip #3: Introduce the Reader to Your Protagonist in Their Everyday Life

Once you’ve hooked the reader and established the general tone of your story, it’s time to slow things down and introduce them to your characters.

So, who is your protagonist? What kind of person are they? What is their everyday life like? What do they believe in? What makes them unhappy? What are their flaws? How do these flaws affect their everyday life?

It’s also important that you establish what your protagonist wants when the reader meets him or her on page one. Is there something that your protagonist thinks will “fix” their life or make them happy?

There needs to be something driving your protagonist from the very start — even if this goal changes later on in the Beginning Hook. This initial goal is what helps the reader connect with your character, and root for them to learn, grow, and change throughout the rest of the story.

For further study, check out this article – 5 Questions to Help You Write Compelling Characters or The Hero’s Journey: Beginnings


Tip #4: Give the Reader Plenty of Context With “The Three W’s”

After you introduce your characters, you’ll want to give the reader some context so that they’ll feel properly invested in what’s going to happen next. That means you’ll want to establish things like:

  • WHERE your story takes place. Does the story unfold on planet Earth or somewhere else? Does your character live in a small town or a big city?
  • WHEN the story takes place. Are we in a specific point in time like the 1800s? Or does your story take place in the eternal present?
  • WHY the reader should care right now. Why does the reader need to meet your character on this particular day? Why not tomorrow or the day after?

Answering these questions will not only help you to start your story in the right place but will also allow the reader to feel grounded in place, time, and purpose.


Tip #5: Limit the Amount of Backstory and Exposition You Share

When it comes to introducing readers to your characters and settings, it can be tempting to fill the Beginning Hook with a bunch backstory and exposition. After all, you want to make sure the reader understands everything else that’s about to happen, right?

That’s true — to an extent. But that doesn’t mean you need to dump a ton of information on the reader all at once.

Instead, I recommend that you sprinkle in backstory and exposition only when it’s triggered by something in the story present.

In other words, the reader should only be told what they need to know the moment they need to know it. Otherwise, what you’re giving them is a whole passage, scene, or chapter of information with nothing to compel them to move forward in your story.

As a quick example, let’s take a look at Chapter 7 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (bold emphasis mine)

“Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, pears, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.

The Dursleys had never exactly starved Harry, but he’d never been allowed to eat as much as he liked. Dudley had always taken anything that Harry really wanted, even if it made him sick. Harry piled his plate with a bit of everything except the peppermints and began to eat. It was all delicious.”

I like this example because you can clearly see how the food in front of Harry triggers this little bit of backstory. It’s relevant to what’s happening in the scene and not something random that’s thrown in to “explain things” to readers.

For further study, check out this article – Too Much Information


Tip #6: Establish Your Protagonist’s Over-Arching Story Goal

By the end of the Beginning Hook, your protagonist needs to be fully committed to the journey ahead. Something will have happened to shake up your protagonist’s life and they can no longer continue on as planned. So, what will they do now? What’s their new plan?

You’ll also want to make it crystal clear why achieving this goal is so important to your protagonist. Personal meaning is what makes people risk their lives, travel great distances, and do things they never thought they were capable of doing. Without this personal connection to your protagonist, there’s nothing to connect them to the stakes of the story and motivate them to go forward.

For example in Me Before You by Jojo Moyers, Lou is hired to be Will’s caretaker. Shortly after, Lou learns that Will’s planning to commit assisted suicide in six months. As Lou begins to care for Will, her goal becomes to change his mind about ending his life.


Tip #7: Introduce the Conflict and What’s at Stakes

At some point in your Beginning Hook, you’ll want to introduce the protagonist (and the reader) to the main conflict in your story. You’ll also want to make it clear what kinds of obstacles your protagonist is about to face on their upcoming journey.

If you haven’t done this in the first few pages, then the global Inciting Incident will bring that first whiff conflict right to your protagonist’s door. It will crash land in his or her life, disrupt all their plans, and set the rest of the story in motion.

And once you’ve set up the main conflict, and what your protagonist is after in this story, you’ll want to give the reader a clear look at the stakes. What does your protagonist stand to gain or lose if they succeed or fail in their goal? What happens if the antagonist “wins?”

For example, in The Silence of the Lambs, we know that other people will die if Clarice Starling and the FBI don’t bring the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, to justice. Both the conflict and stakes are clear for Clarice and Jack as they head into the Middle Build.

By the end of the Beginning Hook, the reader should be heavily invested in your protagonist’s mission, as well as what’s standing in the way of them getting what they want.

For further study, check out this article – How to Introduce Your Story: A Guide to Placing Your Inciting Incident or Stories Need Great Villains


Tip #8: Include a Meaningful Arc of Change Via the 5 Commandments

If you’ve been in The Story Grid universe for a while now, you know that every unit of story needs to include an arc of change. You probably also know that we can achieve this arc of change by including what Shawn calls “The 5 Commandments of Storytelling.”

Since we’re talking about the whole Beginning Hook here, you’ll want to include some kind of irreversible change in your protagonist’s life. This change can be positive or negative depending on the type of story you’re telling.

Take Divergent by Veronica Roth for example. When Tris’ goes to discover her destiny within society, her aptitude test comes back inconclusive (Inciting Incident). Shortly after, she learns that this means she’s divergent, or suited to more than one faction (Turning Point). She then has to decide which faction she’s going to join (Crisis) and ultimately decides on Dauntless, to which she has always felt drawn (Climax). As a result, she leaves behind her home and family to join the new, intimidating world of the Dauntless faction (Resolution).

It’s very clear that Tris has just undergone a massive, and irreversible change in the Beginning Hook. Her life will never be the same, and the stakes are now higher than ever. If she doesn’t make it through the Dauntless trials, she will essentially be left homeless with no family, friends, or resources.

Remember that since this change takes place over the entire Beginning Hook, you’ll want it to occur in the realm of the global value. If you need help figuring out what type of change, or value shift, you should focus on in the Beginning Hook, you can always look to your genre for guidance.

For further study, check out this article – Value Shift 101


Your Beginning Hook Checklist

If you’ve already outlined or written your Beginning Hook, you can use the following questions to make sure you’ve included all these key points.

  • Do you have something to hook your reader in the first page or two?
  • Do you establish the story’s mood, tone, and style?
  • Do you introduce your protagonist in their everyday life?
    • Does your protagonist have a goal when we meet them on page one?
    • Do we know what kind of everyday conflict they’re facing?
    • Do we know why they’re unsatisfied with their current situation?
  • Do you have enough context for your reader to sufficiently feel interested in your character and their story? 
  • Do you include backstory or exposition only where it’s relevant?
  • Does your protagonist develop an overarching story goal after the Inciting Incident comes in and disrupts their life?
  • Have you introduced the main conflict of your story?
    • Are the stakes crystal clear?
    • Is your protagonist on a one-way path toward an inevitable confrontation with the antagonist?
  • Do you have an irreversible and meaningful arc of change in your Beginning Hook?
    • Do you have all 5 commandments of storytelling?
    • What’s the value shift? Does it go from positive to negative? Or negative to positive?
  • Does your Beginning Hook as a question that the Ending Payoff will answer?

Final Thoughts

Writing the Beginning Hook of any novel certainly isn’t easy. 

But if you do the work to build a strong foundation for your story in the Beginning Hook, you’ll be well equipped to write a compelling story that grips readers with an undeniable urge to find out what happens next.

And remember, if you need help crafting your Beginning Hook, you can get in touch with me or any of the other Certified Story Grid editors for help!

Let’s discuss in the comments: What are some of your favorite strategies for tackling the Beginning Hook in your novel? Do you have any tips to add to the list above?



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About the Author

Savannah Gilbo is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. Being a writer herself, Savannah understands the challenges and fears writers face when trying to turn their book dreams into realities. Through 1:1 coaching and developmental editing, she works with writers of all skill levels to combat these fears, and take their stories from an idea or messy first draft to a finished manuscript that works. She's also the host of the Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast that delivers actionable tips, tools, and strategies for writers each week. When she’s not busy creating her own stories, you can find Savannah writing articles for her blog or re-reading her favorite fantasy books over and over again. You can learn more about Savannah and how she helps fiction writers here.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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Comments
Author Savannah Gilbo

5 Comments

Drew Emery (@InlawsOutlaws) says:

Thanks for this, Savannah. It’s clear, concise and ties together with other Story Grid fundamentals that support these principles.

I think it’s tricky in a first draft to nail down everything in this check list without larding on too much extraneous verbiage – but definitely preferable to having left out vital establishing pieces that set things in motion.. Second drafts are great fo, figuring out what is truly essential and what is just enough to invite us to turn the page and find out more. I prefer to trim back rather than to discover, after the fact, that I forgot to put a spark plug in my engine.

What I try to do is to give each of the pieces I’m setting the table with a sense of mystery, an intentional incompleteness, if you will. For example, in peopling my world with various secondary characters, I try to make us wonder about all of them. You can establish a character with one or two key distinguishing characteristics, but if you can do it in a way that also makes us wonder where they’re coming from and where they’re headed, all the better. Easier said than done but it’s what I aim for.

Thanks again. This is why I always look forward to Fundamental Fridays!

Reply
Savannah Gilbo says:

Hi Drew! Thanks for your comment! And you make a great point about not always knowing the answers to all of these pieces in the first draft. I think that’s super common, actually!

What I like about having this sort of “checklist” is that it can really come in handy whenever you need it. if it helps you shape the beginning hook when you’re first starting to write, then great! If you are more of a discovery writer, and this “checklist” can help you come back and revise on draft two, then great!

I think part of what I like so much about some of these Story Grid principles and techniques is that you can pick them up and put them down whenever you need them — and sometimes, for me, that’s different with each story I write, LOL. Anyway, thank you for your comment and I’m glad you’re enjoying the Fundamental Fridays posts!

Reply
dr. bobR says:

great job savannah–could you help me out with a definition of global Inciting Incident — and how it relates to the hook? Some of these vocabulary items invented by Shawn swerve swiftly out of my reach. Rray, wishing for an Emoji

Reply
Savannah Gilbo says:

Hi Dr. Bob! Thanks for asking this! The global Inciting Incident is the first big event that kicks off your story. It shakes up the protagonist’s life for good or for ill. It can occur at different times/places in the beginning hook depending on the needs of your story.

Danielle Kiowski wrote a great article about how to know where to place your Inciting Incident in the beginning hook of your story if you want to read more about that. Here’s the link: https://storygrid.com/how-to-introduce-your-story-a-guide-to-placing-your-inciting-incident/

No matter where the Inciting Incident occurs, it’s always good to have something in the first page or two that will “hook” the reader and pique their interest. This could be a great opening line, an unexpected event, a compelling description, a unique narrative voice, a mystery, or some kind of dramatic action depending on the type of story you’re writing.

The hook doesn’t always happen to or around the protagonist, but the Inciting Incident does. For example, in the movie Jurassic Park, the first scene shows a bunch of park employees unloading a dinosaur that manages to get loose and attack them all. This is the hook, not the Inciting Incident. None of the main characters are present, but this piques the audience’s interest and shows a preview of what’s to come if they keep watching.

I know that some of these terms can be a little “squishy” (as Shawn always says), but hopefully this helps clarify the difference between having a “hook” in the first few pages and the global Inciting Incident. If not, please let me know!

Reply
Peter Spiers says:

Thanks, Savannah. This is very helpful and timely for me. Can you provide a little more explanation of what you mean by “mood, tone, and style”? They seem almost interchangeable but, since you’re very deliberate and mention them several times, I’m guessing each has a separate and important meaning. Pray tell!

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