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For many stories I have seen, written or otherwise, a fight or some intimate moment is used to hook the reader. It is done A LOT, if not every time. Does a hook have to be in the beginning? Are hooks even needed?

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3 Answers 3

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Hooks can be:

  • book cover
  • blurb
  • book or story title
  • author name
  • editor
  • publisher
  • reviews
  • advertising
  • film adaptation or movie right sales

All these can signify to the reader that the story or book is worth reading.

A new Stephen King novel will sell no matter its first sentence. I have numerous books (and music records) that I only bought because I loved the cover. I do trust some publishers or editors to select quality books and buy books published in certain series without thinking. If the blurb contains angels, dead children or other things that put me off, I don't buy the book. I did not want to buy Divergent when I read its beginning in the book store, but now that it was made into a movie, I bought it and will read it. And so on.

A hook in the first sentence or paragraph is most necessary for new books by unknown authors. The more quality signals accompany a text, the less gripping can the story beginning be.

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You should open your story by creating a question in the reader’s mind that can only be answered by reading onward. Conflict is a popular way to start, because it raises the question “who’s gonna win?”

But the conflict doesn’t have to involve fistfights and explosions. In the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, the narrative question is “who is going to marry this fantastically wealthy single man who just moved into the neighborhood?” That’s a perfectly effective hook (especially for Austen’s original audience—think of P&P as the Regency-England precursor to The Hunger Games).

And if you do open with a violent conflict, but the reader doesn’t give a damn who wins or loses, it’s a bad hook. And if you open with a good hook, but then switch to twenty pages of boring exposition that has nothing to do with it, you will lose the reader in spite of the hook.

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Books of the last, say, 75 years are set in what's called in medias res, in the middle of things. The story starts where the plot starts, more or less.

But back in, for example, Victorian novels, it was much more common to give the entire life story of the protagonist. The really exciting part of Jane Eyre is when she goes to be a governess for Mr. Rochester and all the events which happen as part of that, but the book starts when Jane is a child.

So technically speaking, no, you don't need a "hook" per se, and you don't need to put it in the beginning. But if you don't, your book will feel old-fashioned. That may be a feature rather than a bug, if you're doing it deliberately.

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You should not confuse the continuing success of so called "classics" with their inherent appeal for today's readers. Jane Eyre is read today because of its fame. In this it is similar to any bad book written by a celebrity, or endorsed by a religion (the Bible), which sell and get read despite their awful writing. I'm not saying J.E. is a bad book, just that its quality is not its selling point, and that in fact it might not be such a success if it were the first novel of an unknown writer today. Thinking you will create a bestseller if you write in rhymes, because Shakespeare did, is naive. –  what Apr 30 at 11:39
    
@what Well, yes and no. Patrick O'Brian wrote his Master and Commander novels in that godawful 18th-century circumlocution, and they did very well. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 30 at 16:22
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[Chatty] This would seem to imply a cultural expectation of beginning with backstory (so lacking such would tend be off-putting) and perhaps a greater patience and commitment to reading the whole than some modern audiences with more reading choices (and even more entertainment options), an individualistic consumer culture, and conditioning from the Web and commercial television with remote controls. Being able to use the other hooks in what's answer offer some freedom to not immediately please the reader (e.g., not mentioning gender or class when the readers' worldview is centered on such). –  Paul A. Clayton May 5 at 14:45
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I wonder if we can view the first sentence in Jane Eyre as a sort of hook: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." It does induce curiosity. Why is it impossible to take a walk, and why is taking a walk so important that you would mention it in the first sentence? I haven't yet read JE, but now I'm hooked. –  what May 7 at 7:26
    
Also, yes, @PaulA.Clayton. There was a time when people read everything that was published, because not much was published. Jane Eyre is no longer quite that time – the vast majority of publications of that time are just no longer known to us, but there was a lot more than JE –, but certainly compared with today the volume wasn't quite so overwhelming. –  what May 7 at 7:32

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