Being a Better Writer: Hard and Soft Hooks

Hello again readers! Once again, I must apologize somewhat for the lateness of this post. I found myself sleeping quite late once more. Personally, I’m speculating is has something to do with the healing of the ribs. Maybe it means they’re healing quickly.

Anyway, without diving into news about Starforge or Fireteam Freelance or Axtara, today we’re just going to dive right in and talk about story hooks. Hard and soft. If you don’t know what a hook is, then this is a post that you won’t want to miss. And if you know what hooks are, or even recall some time ago about six or so years back when I wrote about them before, it can’t hurt to get a refresher, right?

So let’s dive right in and talk about hooks.

First of all, let’s talk about what a hook is. Since we’re not talking about actual fishhooks here (attempts may be made to grab readers through such methods, but I have a few questions about the actual effectiveness of such an attempt). No, when a writer or an author refers to a hook, they’re not talking about a shiny bit of curved metal designed to catch fish, but a metaphorical hook designed to catch readers, one they place right in the opening of their story.

I’m certain you can see the similarity. A hook is designed to catch a fish and keep it on a line, a story hook is designed to catch a reader’s interest and keep them turning pages. Pretty simple and straightforward concept, really.

Well, yes and no. While it is a straightforward exercise to tell a writer “Have something in the opening of your story that grabs the audience’s attention” there’s a wide range of execution in how to do this.

For example, whatever you choose as your hook (hard or soft) should be related to the story, and not, oh … say ,,, something made up like a dream sequence with no relation at all to the rest of the story.

No joke, I’ve seen that happen before. A story that opens on action and adventure … only to end with someone waking up and nothing from that dream is relevant to the rest of the story. It was just a false hook to draw the reader in and trick them into thinking it represented the rest of the book.

Since we’re talking about hooks, don’t do that. Your hook should represent the story to come, not something completely different.

But what should your hook do? Ideally, as a hook you want it to make your reader ask questions. Questions they can only answer by reading further into the book. Let’s have a look at two examples.

The first is a softer hook (and we’ll come back to this soon), from the opening of Mistborn:

Ash fell from the sky.

That’s a pretty simple opening line, all things said and done. But what effect will it have on the reader? What sort of questions does it make the reader ask? Ash falling from the sky is an unusual occurrence to be sure, so many readers are going to push onward past that opening line asking why ash is falling from the sky. And from there, they are only going to be reeled in as the next few paragraphs infer that ash is coming down like snow … but no one finds this strange or odd at all. In fact, they find it ordinary and normal.

At which point most readers are going to be wondering something along the lines of “What is going on here?” A question which can only be answered by, naturally, reading further.

Now, I called this a soft hook, a phrase I’m sure many of you blinked at, so let’s talk about that for a moment. First, I want to point out that there’s no hard “one way or the other” divide between a soft opening and a hard opening. There is, like in many other things, a gradient that varies a bit from person to person. But a soft hook is one that doesn’t grab the reader by the shoulders and yank them forward, but rather reels them in with “What’s going on here?”

Mistborn, for example, opens with that ash falling from the sky over a field of farmers, and treats it as completely normal. To a reader, however, it’s not normal, so they start reading further first to confirm that it is normal and then to figure out what’s going on that makes it normal.

Let’s use an example from film. Here, with the opening to the classic film Jurassic Park.

This is, I would say, a soft opening. It begins with trees moving, not exactly something bombastic, and then cuts to workers in hard hats watching and waiting. But, like with Mistborn and as with most soft openings, the audience will quickly start noting differences that raise questions and pull them in. Why do the dock workers look nervous? Why are they sweating? And then as the scene pulls back … why are they armed? What is in that crate that the forklift is carrying?

Of course, those of you that have seen the film know that things escalate. And that’s fine. By the time the cage is thrown back and the audience learns the answers to those questions, they’re probably already hooked simply by asking what all that was for.

You can do this with a lot of openings to books and films. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, for example, opens with “the very ordinary” Vernon Dursley going through a day that has “weird” occurrences constantly cropping up that infuriate him. A very “soft” opening that keeps the audience going because once again, it raises all sorts of questions (even the opening line of “quite ordinary” is written to be strangely suspicious).

Soft openings work like this. They grab the reader not with bombastic displays of action or in-your-face moments, but with subtler questions (though obviously, that doesn’t mean they cannot become something much more obvious, such as in Jurassic Park when the cage goes wrong). Soft openings reel a reader in so that they don’t realize they’re hooked, they just keep reading because hey, this is curious!

So what about the other end of the spectrum with a hard opening? Well, one way to put it would be that a hard opening doesn’t ask any questions, but rather leaves the audience no doubts. For example, let’s look at this opening line from Monster Hunter International:

On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.

BAM. There you go. Wondering about how this book is going to open reader? No need. We’re going to start with the protagonist throwing their boss from the 14th story floor. Oh, don’t worry, he was a werewolf at the time.

Yeah, this is a hard hook. Rather than settling for the reader asking and wondering “Hey, what’s going to happen?” this kind of hook throws itself at the reader with the premise from the get-go and basically says “You’ll either like this or you won’t.”

Marvel films often start with this kind of hard hook. Like with this opening scene from Captain America: Civil War.

There’s no question about what you’re getting into with this opening scene. Compared to Jurassic Park, where the shots are frames to make the audience question what’s going on, it’s hard to mistake any of the intent of this opening. This is a secret base of some kind. These people are armed. When the scene ends with an assassination, well … it’s hardly a surprise to anyone in the audience.

Another way to look at it is like this: If a soft hook opens with a delivery of a mysterious package that may or may not be a bomb, a hard hook opens with a bomb going off. Something that’s literally explosive. Something that looks the reader in the eyes and declares “Readers, if you read this book, this is what you’re in for.”

Granted, the book still has to deliver on that. More than one book with a hard hook has failed to satisfy its audience because the hook didn’t reflect the rest of the book. If you start with a hard hook promising something … you’d better deliver on it.

Granted, this applies to soft hooks as well. You should deliver on them. But hard hooks seem to fall into this trap a bit more, as some readers seem to be following the pattern of “Well, I got them to purchase it, and that’s good enough.” But even in works that aren’t sold, I’ve seen writers drop a hard hook with some wild action and then yell “Surprise! That was the climax! Now we flashback to a slice-of-life story!”

Don’t do this. While a hook is designed to engage the reader and draw them, having a story follow after it that doesn’t live up to the expectations of the hook is like using the wrong line strength with the wrong hook: You get the fish, but the line snaps. AKA, the reader puts the book down in disappointment. And probably leaves a pretty low review reflecting their disappointment with the title too.

Now, a reminder that this is a spectrum. Hard and soft hooks are both still hooks, and there’s a vast range there of “Is this hard or soft?” where many readers could easily argue one way or the other because the hook is just sort of in the middle. But it’s still there, and that’s the important bit. The hook pulls readers in, gets them invested in the story so that they keep reading and (hopefully) take your book to the front counter or the checkout cart.

So then, with hooks being a vital part of getting your audience drawn in, how does one go about writing them?

Well, the first thing you should consider is what kind of story you’re selling and what sort of hook might sell it best. Note that you can leave the hook for last if you’re not sure; plenty of writers do! Write the whole rest of the story and then come back and work on your hook if you like! Then look at the story and ask yourself what sort of hook will both pull the reader in best while also serving as a representation of the story itself (so that the story stays true to the promise of the hook).

Do you open with a literal bang? Or with a creepy, eerie mystery? What serves your story best while making the reader ask questions or think “Yes, this is what I want!”

If this sounds difficult … that’s because it is. Knowing what sort of hook will draw your audience in means knowing your audience and what they enjoy. If you don’t know your audience yet, however, don’t despair. Just make some educated guesses. If you’re writing a war-torn romantic drama about someone torn between two soldiers now on opposite sides of a brutal war, but it is a romance, not an action novel, maybe don’t start it out with a hook for something that’s an action novel, but something that promises romance and gets the audience interested in the characters. Reception of a letter that could imply someone has died, or an alert that the city needs to evacuate. Something that is interesting while still relating to the story you’re about to tell.

How will you know when it’s worked? You’ll know. You’ll know when readers say things like “hooked from the first page” or your Alpha Readers tell you what a strong start the opening was. Of course, you can always ask them, and from there build more feedback to work with.

So, recap: Hooks are the opening moments of a story that draw your audience in and entice them to keep turning the pages. Like a fishhook, the goal is to catch the attention of the audience and not let it go. But there isn’t just “one way” to do this. Hooks can be soft, slowly reeling an audience in by making them ask questions and note odd things that are going on, or the can be hard, grabbing them by the shoulders and saying “Guess what!? Here’s what you’re getting if you keep reading!”

Both work. Both exist on a spectrum as well, allowing you to tailor that hook to your needs. But remember that a hook should always represent what the rest of the story will be like, what it will involve. Do not make a hook that doesn’t relate to the rest of your story. It’s a lot of work, and you can even wait until the very end to work on your hook … but don’t neglect it.

Good luck! Now get writing!

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