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Tips for writing short stories — Hooks: What are they and how do you use them?


I know it sounds obvious: The “hook” is the opening sentence or paragraph of your story and it is supposed to draw your reader’s interest, get them reading and, hopefully, keep them reading.

Novel openings, or “hooks,” might be a paragraph or two long and involve setting a scene and/or setting up the background to the story. But short stories are — remember? — SHORT, and have little time, space, or patience for lengthy scene setting or background information.

Here’s an example of a short-story hook:

“She licked the sweat that was beading on his upper lip. He smiled again. It was another one of those days.”

I’m not asking for feedback on this hook. But, as always, I welcome feedback on anything I writer here, or on comments anyone makes here. I simply offer that to let you think about what might be going on, what you might do with the two characters there, and how you would develop this into a story.

Most of all, I want you to see a couple of things about “the hook” and how to use it.

1. Some action or person involved paints an immediate picture. In this case, I intended to grab your interest with the verbs: licked and smiled. What pictures do those actions raise in your mind? What would you expect to happen next?

2. That immediate mental picture should be strong enough to stimulate the reader to further mental pictures. When you reader reaches the point of wondering what happens next, he will continue reading and your hook has worked.

3. The hook is ambiguous enough to allow for more than one story line. For example:

Story One: There is sexual tension in the scene and it turns into something about the relationship between the man and woman.

Story Two: The man is being held captive by the woman and the two turn out to be mortal enemies.

Story Three: The man is holding the woman captive and the two turn out to be mortal enemies.

Story Four: The two of them are actors in a school play. The man has hidden feelings for the woman which develop as the story goes on. It’s sort of a romantic comedy.

Really, though, all that’s pretty much off the cuff, so my ideas haven’t really developed. But you get the picture: The hook grabs your reader without giving away anything, really, about the nature and purpose of the story.

One last thought about hooks: Finding the “real” hook for your story can be frustrating. One little trick I’ve used successfully is to try for my best “hook” sentence or paragraph, and write as tightly as possible a gripping, “grabber” scene or two. Then I pick the point of greatest action or tension in the scene, rewrite as necessary, and make THAT the opening sentence or paragraph of my story. Very often, starting your story in the middle of a scene or middle of the action, gives you the best hook.
[tags]short story writing tips, finding and using “hooks” in your story, writing tips at garyspeer.com[/tags]

2 Responses to “Tips for writing short stories — Hooks: What are they and how do you use them?”

  1. Marian says:

    But, as always, I welcome feedback on anything I writer here, or on comments anyone makes here.
    Does anything look odd about this sentence? … anything I WRITER …

    I was looking for ideas about writing hooks, but that stopped me short. If readers are to trust your expertise, little overlooked errors such as this, are a bit offputting. I don’t mean this criticism in a hurtful way. I see that the post is very old, so it no longer matters, but I tend to be mouthy about such things. Thanks.

  2. Gary says:

    Thank you for catching that mistake. No excuses, I simply typed that in a hurry, as I do with too many of my blog posts, and failed to proofread it carefully. Sorry about that!

    Gary