Let's talk about hooks.
A hook is a sentence at the beginning of a piece of writing that grabs the reader's attention, metaphorically hooking them in like a fish on a line. Hooks are common in popular fiction, but uncommon outside of it, and are neglected by every kind of serious writer.
That's unfortunate, because coming up with good hooks is one of the most important skills a writer can develop.
A Bad Example
To illustrate what I'm talking about, let's dive right in and look at two story openings. One is from a "serious" work, and one ... well, it isnʼt.
"Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff's dwelling. 'Wuthering' being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house ..."
Chances are you recognize this quote—and anyway, the first two words give the game away. It's one of the first paragraphs from Emily Brontë's famous novel, Wuthering Heights, perennial favorite of high school English teachers and nobody else.
What does that paragraph actually say? What idea is it trying to get across? Scroll up, read it again, and donʼt let your eyes glaze over this time. Iʼll wait.
Still confused? Let me help you out.
That quote says: it was windy.
I am not saying that Brontë was a bad writer. Obviously it's unfair to judge a 19th-century work by modern standards. But make no mistake: by modern standards, this is an absolutely terrible thing to throw at your readers on the first page of a novel.
Most people are going to start skimming as soon as they hit the words “significant provincial adjective”, and that's not because theyʼre too stupid to appreciate fine literature. It's because the paragraph uses several dozen words to communicate a thought that could have been communicated in three.
It's not even a particularly interesting thought, either.
A Good Example
Contrast this with the very first sentence from the crime novel The Hard Way by Lee Child:
"Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man's life change forever."
The critical reception to Childʼs books has always been chilly. Heʼs been accused of every sin a popular author can commit—wooden characters and dialogue, unrealistic plots—but people are still buying his books.
Why? Openings like that one.
That single sentence has been quoted in dozens of “how to write” classes and books. Itʼs probably made him more money than most authors earn in a lifetime. Itʼs a hook. It makes you want to keep reading.
Wuthering Heights is a classic, and The Hard Way is a thriller most commonly read on airplanes, but if you're writing for a modern audience (and barring the unlikely possibility that you have a time machine in your garage, you are), you want to emulate Child, not Brontë.
People in the film industry often say that the first ten minutes of a movie are the most important. When it comes to writing, the first ten seconds are the most important.
People who've bought a ticket to a film are committed. A slow start might exasperate the audience, but itʼd have to be a real disaster for people to start walking out. On the other hand, if your story has a boring opening, your prospective reader is going to put it down and read something else.
What About Nonfiction?
This doesn't only concern you if you're an aspiring novelist. Journalists, bloggers, technical writers, and academics are all people who should be worried about their hooks.
Writing is communication, and to be an effective communicator, you need people to want to pay attention.
For whatever reason, many writers have the feeling that being entertaining means being low-brow, even pandering. It's only writers who have this feeling. Verbal communicators—professors and business presenters and public speakers and so on—are expected to make their lectures interesting. We don't look down on them for that. But many people seem to feel that inaccessible writing is rarified, more "literary."
Let's talk about academic writing for a minute, because itʼs about as far from fiction as itʼs possible to get. There are leading journals that are barely read by anyone except for the dozen or so people who are actively employed by that journal (and sometimes not even by them).
This isn't a healthy or normal state of affairs.
Another Bad Example
Letʼs look at the introductions to two historical papers, published in The Journal of American History (Vol. 98, No. 4, March 2012). Here's the first one, a paper about ... well, itʼs probably about something or other:
"Given its origins in studies of the U.S. Southwest, much borderlands scholarship has focused on the communities that abut--and transcend-the U.S.-Mexico border. In recent years historians have turned their attention to the U.S.-Canada borderlands as well, inspired by the richness of southern borderlands studies and by the transnationalizing of U.S. history movements. Their increasing interest in northern borderlands has, in turn, encouraged more comparative analysis."
“Meat in the Middle: Converging Borderlands in the U.S. Midwest, 18651900”
Did you read that paragraph? If you answered no, then congratulations, please pat yourself on the back. If yes, I need you to follow my instructions very carefully. First, turn off your computer. Then make a fist and then punch yourself in the face.
The appropriate response to a paragraph like that is to stare at it blankly for five seconds, then go do something else. Life is too short.
Breaking It Down
What's so bad about this intro?
Most of it is outright unnecessary.
Everything before the first comma could be removed without doing much violence to the paragraph's flow or meaning. The coinage "transnationalizing" is guaranteed to put off anybody who hasn't spent most of their adult life knee-deep in academic jargon, but that's almost beside the point, because that sentence could have terminated with the words "as well" and been better for it.
The buzzwords “comparative analysis” are every bit as bad as “significant provincial adjective.” The author mentions the “richness of southern borderlands studies." Does her paragraph make you want to explore the richness of southern borderlands studies?
Out of courtesy, I havenʼt named the author of the above paragraph, but you can find it in the journal. This example isn't particularly unusual. Journals are full of papers like that.
Another Good Example
People who are immersed in academia, where bad writing is the norm, can have trouble even imagining an alternative. That means that when somebody goes against the grain, itʼs all the more striking.
Let's look at the introduction to another paper from that same journal, the very same issue.
"The runners set out before dawn. Traveling east from the rushing falls at South Natick, Massachusetts, they swept over cold earth and under mid-autumn stars, silhouetted by headlights cutting into the dark. By the time they reached the river, the sun had risen just high enough to illuminate an astonishing sight."
Christine DeLucia, “The Memory Frontier: Uncommon Pursuits of Past and Place in the Northeast after King Philip's War”
Do you see the difference?
Of course you do. The first article starts by blandly summarizing the current trends in its area of scholarship. The second article starts by telling a story. The papers have comparable bodies, but their openings are night and day.
It's hard not to get a whiff of fear from the first paperʼs introduction: the fear that, if it tries to be entertaining, it will not be taken seriously. The first author bought into the fallacy that, because she was writing for a high-brow audience, her writing could not be exciting and provocative. The second author didn't.
Whose paper would you rather read?
And whether you're writing a blog post, a novel, an academic paper, or a press release, which author would you rather be?