Every great thriller has a terrific hook. A hook is the reason readers first consider picking a thriller off a shelf at a bookstore, or ordering it online. A hook is also the reason why they keeps turning page after page, to see what happens next.
If you want to write a memorable, compelling thriller, you’re going to need a great hook. Let’s look at what hooks are, and determine how writers can design one to make their thriller stand out from the crowd.
Hooks, Big and Small
There are two types of hooks in storytelling. One is what makes your thriller unique and compelling; the other piques readers’ interest, and keeps them turning pages. We are going to focus on the latter hook, but it is important to understand the former as well.
For the “big” hook, writers have to determine something unique about their thriller when crafting their premise. For instance, “a detective races against time to solve a murder and stop a killer” is a cliché that’s been told and retold in books and film for decades. However, the 1949 film D.O.A. took this jaded premise and built a hook that made it brand new. In the film, a notary public played by Edmund O’Brien has been fatally poisoned, and only has a few days to live. He races against time to find out who killed him and why. That very premise made movie fans line up to see the film.
Let’s look at the little hook now, and examine how you keep readers turning pages, or filmgoers glued to their seats.
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Crafting a Great Hook
When it comes to making a great hook, the key to remember is the earlier the better; you want to engage readers as soon as possible, so that they want to keep on following the story as it unfolds. Here are some techniques writers use to make this happen.
Give Readers a “Sneak Peek”
One way to hook readers early on is to provide them glimpse of some dramatic situation that is to come. This technique, sometimes called foreshadowing, is used “to build anticipation in the minds of readers about what might happen next, thus adding dramatic tension to a story.” In the aforementioned D.O.A., the opening scene has protagonist Frank Bigelow walking the long hallways of a police station, stopping at the desk of a homicide detective:
Bigelow: I want to report a murder.
Detective: Where was this murder committed?
Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.
Detective: Who was murdered?
Bigelow: I was.
That little peak at an unusual story was enough to keep views watching for what comes next, and made D.O.A. a memorable example of 1940s film noir. Similarly, thriller writers who can show a little bit of the action to come up front have a better chance of keeping readers engaged until the last page of the book.
Get into the Moment
You can effectively hook readers by starting your thriller at some critical moment in a story. The very first sentence of Stephen King’s fan favorite novel The Gunslinger reads “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” That sentence introduces two classic protagonist/antagonist archetypes, a conflict, and makes readers want to continue reading to see what the story is all about.
When you are beginning to write your story, look closely at your premise. Will it allow you to start at some major event that shapes what follows? If you can remain true to the premise by starting your story at some key moment of action, this technique may work for you.
Another way to keep readers engaged is to introduce a unique or compelling character that readers want to learn more and more about. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity opens with a bullet-ridden, amnesiac protagonist who has incredible fighting skills he doesn’t understand, and microfiche with bank account information surgically implanted in his hip. Not long after he is introduced, mysterious assailants begin trying to kill him.
The Bourne Identity’s compelling protagonist kept readers turning the pages of Ludlum’s thriller, as Jason Bourne attempted to find out who he really was. As you craft your own thriller’s premise, you should similarly look at the characters you are developing. Are they interesting enough to keep readers engaged? If not, consider doing a little more work on character development before you begin writing your story.
A compelling thriller needs to get readers engaged early, so they have a stake in whatever comes next. A great thriller will have a hook built into its very premise, making it unique and interesting. Writers should also consider the techniques discussed here – foreshadowing events to come, beginning the story at an exciting and pivotal moment, or introducing compelling characters – as they work to craft their own effective hooks. These techniques, and others, can help your thriller stand out from the pack, and keep readers engaged until the very last page.