Sanity Snippet #8

Let’s talk about hooks.

What first comes to mind? Fishing, no doubt. And now you broadly know why your story needs a hook. Without one, you won’t catch your prospective reader’s attention. Thus, she will never read your book.

H.R. D’Costa, in Sizzling Story Outlines, says story hooks come in a number of shapes and sizes, including: setting, character, origin of material, tone, title, book cover, reputation of the content creator, star power, word of mouth, and irony.

Here’s my first-thoughts about each of these eleven ‘shapes and sizes.’

Setting. The first permanent settlement on the other side of Mars.

Character. Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in the Bourne series. More about character below.

Origin of material. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, tells the true story of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. It obviously isn’t a novel in its purest form (fiction). Although it is based on a real life crime (non-fiction), it’s told in long-story form.

Tone. Per Google, tone “in literary terms, typically refers to the mood implied by an author’s word choice and the way that the text can make a reader feel. The tone an author uses in a piece of writing can evoke any number of emotions and perspectives.” How a novel handles bedroom doors, open or closed, may be the hook for some readers. Some prefer not to read about what happens, others want ever detail.

Title. The book’s title itself may hook the reader. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni, did it for me. Excellent story, and more details below when we look at character.

Book cover. D’Costa calls it, “candy for the eye.” You get the picture. You’ve been in a book store browsing around and been lured in by the photo, drawing, or other depiction on the front cover before touching the book. It might be the bold (or subtle) portrayal of sex. It might be a beautiful country scene, including a snow covered forest with cabin at the end of a long winding road with soft shafts of smoke rising from the chimney. You get the idea.

Reputation of the content creator. Seeing the author’s name can be all the hook a reader needs. Think John Grisham, Stephen King, or Nicolas Sparks. As for movies, the hook may be the producer. You ever heard of Steven Spielberg?

Star power. I’ve already mentioned Matt Damon. What about Julia Roberts? Tom Hanks? Meryl Streep? George Clooney? Of course, all of these are movie actors, but there are those we know from novels. Atticus Finch and Sherlock Holmes to name two (btw, if you’d like to try a great murder-mystery series, look no further than Hulu and Elementary. It’s about a modern day Sherlock Holmes and Watson, as in Joan Watson).

Word of mouth. You know all about it. The importance of a word of mouth recommendation. Hint, I just gave you one.

Irony. As D’Costa discloses, irony deserves a lot of ink. Succinctly, irony is the pairing of opposites, things we would never (or rarely at best) ever considering joining together. Here’s an example: a real estate mogul with a cloudy reputation (to put it mildly) and without any political experience, becomes President of the United States. Now, that would make a hell of a hook for a novel.

Moving on.

A hook is a lure. It’s like a magnet, drawing its prey closer and closer until there’s an inseparable connection.

Let me close with a brief look at the novel I finished reading yesterday: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni. I believe my experience illustrates an important point about hooks. As stated, it was the book’s title that lured me in. But, it’s not what kept me reading. Now, don’t get me wrong. The title, as a theme, no doubt was present throughout the book. However, there were a number of other reasons I kept turning the pages.

It should go without saying but, well, you know, I’m about to say it anyway. Dugoni is an excellent writer. One thing I liked was the minimal description and the short chapters. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t picture (or feel) what Sam was experiencing, but Dugoni doesn’t take a whole page detailing every chink in Our Lady of Mercy’s (the Catholic church just blocks from Sam’s boyhood home) front steps.

As an aside, if you think you like long and tedious descriptions (and explanations), I encourage you to read, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.

SPOILER ALERT. Let’s cut to the chase. It was Sam Hill, the protagonist, who served as the real lure for me. Sam (formally Samuel) was born to Maxwell and Madeline Hill in Burlingame, California (near San Francisco). He was born with red eyes, medically labeled, “ocular albinism.”

The story is told in two time frames: Sam’s youth and his adulthood (through, I think, his early to mid-forties). Of course, you’ve figured out that Sam’s red eyes (that’s where the ‘Hell’ comes from; he’s also called “Devil Boy”) are going to have an overwhelming affect upon his life. And, you’d be correct.

Sam’s story portrays a positive change arc. Thus, he starts one way and ends another. In between are scenes that move you from sadness and sympathy to uncontrollable laughter, with anger and more than a desire for vengence in between. They reveal what any school kid would experience if he’d been born with such a horrendous disability.

But, don’t tell Sam’s mother that her only child is disabled. She is a devout Catholic (recall, Our Lady of Mercy) who from Sam’s birth believed he is her gift from God and is destined for an extraordinary life. And, he is.

In a strong sense, I saw my own mother in Madeline Hill. She was Sam’s number one supporter throughout the story and her life, just like my dear, saintly mother. However, don’t believe Sam’s father wasn’t in his corner. He was, with his wisdom and tough love philosophy. And yes, like my own father.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two other folks who made Sam’s life worth living. His black friend, the athletic Ernie Cantwell, and the girl Sam loved from first site, the unorthodox Mickie Kennedy. Without them, the story would have been far poorer and Sam’s life would have been a bore.

Finally (sorry for such a long ‘snippet’), I encourage you to think about your own book. What type of hook will lure in your reader? Take some time to write down your thoughts.

Photo by cottonbro on

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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