Definition of Hook
A narrative hook occurs at the start of a story and is meant to “hook” the reader so that he or she keeps turning pages. The best hooks are just the first sentence of the book—something so gripping that the reader must keep going. Some hooks, however, last for the first paragraph or even the first page or two. It is usually easiest for an author to hook the reader by starting the story in the middle of the action, which is known as in media res.
Common Examples of Hook
Hooks are a common concept in music just as in literature. Just as a literary hook is meant to catch the reader’s attention, so too is a musical hook meant to catch the listener’s ear. Hooks are common in twentieth and twenty-first century popular music. A musical hook can be in the melody or rhythm; the hook must be easily remembered for the song to become a hit.
Here is a short list of catchy hook examples in recent pop music (note that the titles of each song happen to be the main words of the hook, not coincidentally):
- “She Loves You” by The Beatles
- “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
- “Stop! In the Name of Love” by The Supremes
- “Dancing Queen” by ABBA
- “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor
- “YMCA” by The Village People
- “Stayin’ Alive” by Bee Gees
- “Beat It” by Michael Jackson
- “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice
- “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond
- “Mmm Bop” by Hanson
- “Hey Ya” by Outkast
- “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson
- “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
- “Happy” by Pharrell
Significance of Hook in Literature
The definition of hook as a literary term has been acknowledged since the time of Aristotle. Not all literature begins with a hook, and the trends in how to write a hook have changed over the years. Though many examples of hooks begin in media res, as explained above, not all hooks are based in action. They can also present a character or group of characters with interesting traits, a thematic opening statement, or a mysterious and intriguing setting. A good hook will not only create interest, but also set the mood, tone, atmosphere, and create expectations for the reader. It is important that a good hook be pertinent to the book at hand, and not just surprise the reader for the sake of surprise.
Examples of Hook in Literature
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
The prologue to William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet is a good example of a hook from a work of drama. The prologue is spoken by the chorus, and does a lot of work in a short amount of space. This hook sets the scene, presents the chief conflict and the main characters, and even provides foreshadowing to the final tragic conclusion. Though in a sense this prologue “spoils” the ending, the audience will watch the play wanting to know how the events come to pass, and why exactly our star-crossed lovers take their own lives.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)
Any work of literature can open with a hook, even a poem. Walt Whitman’s long poem “Song of Myself” is an epic exploration of his own being and his place in the world. The first stanza, excerpted above, provides a good hook and foretaste of what’s to come. Different devices that Whitman uses throughout the poem are on display here, especially the use of repetition. This stanza gets the reader interested in the way Whitman will explore his own identity.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The opening few lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are a subtler hook example. Fitzgerald does not drop the reader in media res, but instead provides the theme and atmosphere of the upcoming text. This opening is a sort of moral that comes at the beginning, rather than the end, of the story.
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.
(The Stranger by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward)
Albert Camus opened his classic work The Stranger with a famous first sentence: Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Matthew Ward translates this to “Maman died today.” The simplicity of the statement and brevity of the following sentences is surprising to the reader; there is a tone of apathy that is very important to the work as a whole that Camus establishes from the first line.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)
Gabriel García Márquez’s opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude is an amazing hook that does a lot of work all at once. We find out a huge amount of information just from the first sentence, including the name of a chief protagonist, the fact that later on he will face a firing squad, and that he once lived in a village that did not have ice. The paragraph goes on to develop this surprising and somewhat mysterious fact by explaining that, “The world was so recent that many things lacked names.” This sentence alone creates an expectation of the magical realism that is to come.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
(1984 by George Orwell)
One of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, George Orwell begins his dystopia of 1984 with the above hook. The fact that the clocks are striking thirteen is just odd enough, while not being completely strange, that we are interested to find out what about this world is different from our own.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
(Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides)
Jeffrey Eugenides’s contemporary novel Middlesex concerns the life of an intersex man who is thought to be a girl when he is born. The novel is concerned with identity of all sorts—the narrator is a Greek-American whose family chases after the American Dream, and he struggles with who he is in many different ways. The fact that he opens by saying “I was born twice” immediately catches our attention because it is such a rare concept for most readers.
Test Your Knowledge of Hook
1. Which of the following statements is the best literary hook definition?
A. The height of the action following a period of exposition.
B. An exciting conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends.
C. An opening of a story meant to catch the reader’s attention.
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2. Which of the following would not constitute an example of a hook?
A. A long paragraph of backstory and exposition.
B. An intriguing description of a compelling character.
C. Dropping the reader into the middle of the action.
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3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Every piece of literature begins with a hook.
B. Trends in how to write a good hook change over time.
C. The concept of a hook is completely different in music than it is in literature.
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