Want to hook a reader? Start with a hook.


I CAME IN during the early morning hours and found the Muse reading the opening of my novel, Secrets of the Dead:

Even the late October sky wore black to her funeral. The gathering storm clouds hung like a flannel shroud above the graveyard, ominous and foreboding, not unlike the face of the stranger who stood ramrod straight just behind a mound of red clay that would forever remove the young woman from her place on earth.

His eyes, as hard as cracked marble, never left Ambrose Lincoln.

Lincoln dismissed him with a glance.

But he burned the man’s image deep into his brain. He didn’t know why. But he wanted to remember the man even if he never saw the stranger again. Not quite six feet tall. Square chiseled face. Pencil mustache. Sloped shoulders. A scar that could easily be mistaken for a half moon carved just below his left ear. A nervous right eye, or was it just lazy? A suit as black as the sky. Perfectly tailored. A raincoat to match. If the man had a gun, it was well hidden. Lincoln had no idea why he even thought the stranger might be carrying a gun.

He frowned, took time to read the paragraphs again, and tossed the manuscript pages on my table.

“Not bad,” he said.

“Would it make you read on?” I asked.


The Muse sat down heavily in the aging leather chair beside the back door, leaned back, and watching the dark of night fade to gray.

“It could have been better,” he said.

I nodded.

Whatever is written can always be better.

“Got any ideas?” I asked.

“I know what makes the perfect hook,” he said.

“Tell me.”

“You have two choices.”

“What are they?”

“Begin with a crisis that leads to a decision.”

I nodded.

“Or begin with a decision that leads to a crisis.”

“Sounds simple enough,” I said.

“It isn’t.”

“Writing never is.”

“Let’s take a look at your opening,” the Muse said.

“It has a crisis,” I said.

The Muse grinned.

“How do you figure that?”

“The woman’s dead,” I said. “We’re at a funeral.”

“That’s no crisis,” the man said. “We don’t even know how she died.”

“How about the man with the gun?” I said. I was feeling defensive now.

“He looks like he has a gun,” the Muse said. “We don’t know whether he does or doesn’t. Even if he is carrying a pistol, he’s not threatening anyone.”

“So the opening falls flat.”

“As flat as a flitter.”

I sat down beside the Muse.

Now I was watching darkness turn to gray.

My side of the room was darker than his.

“What should I do?” I asked.

“It’s not difficult to fix,” he said.

“I’m listening.”

“Go to the bottom of page two,” he said.

I did.

“Now read.”

I did:

Ambrose Lincoln looked once more and for the last time into the face of his dead wife.

His eyes glanced from his mother to his father. She was wiping away tears with a white lace handkerchief, and he was standing strong and straight, his arms folded in defiance, his jaws clenched.

They were family.

They were his family.

He could not remember ever seeing any of them before in his life.

The face of his wife was no more familiar than a face on the cover of a second-hand magazine.

“That’s the hook,” the Muse said.

I arched an eyebrow.

“If Ambrose doesn’t know them, then why is he at the funeral?”

The Muse shrugged.

He waited for me to answer.

I didn’t have one.

“If Ambrose doesn’t know them,” he said, “then who are they?”

He laughed, shuffled the manuscript pages, straightened them, and set them aside.

“Now you have a crisis,” the Muse said. “You have a genuine crisis, and it demands a decision.” He yawned. “You got me hooked,” he continued. “I don’t know if the story is good or bad, but I’m willing to read long enough to find out.”

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Too often we learn things when it’s too late. The great thing about eBook publishing is that I can go back in and correct the mistake.

  • There is nothing more stationary than a funeral – which makes it extra-hard to use it as a starter. Possible – everything is possible (mention the good job the undertaker did on the bullet hole?) – but harder. We don’t know the people, so it’s hard to care about them. So you have to shove in backstory too soon…

    In writing, everything is hard – until you figure it out.

    You have a great idea there, Caleb: you don’t have to be limited to going back and changing the book description or the cover when you want, but if something isn’t selling right, and you figure out that what it needs is a new beginning, nothing is stopping you from giving it one. Can you imagine that freedom in a traditionally published book?

    The best part: if Amazon lets people know there is a new edition and they get it automatically, those people have already read the book and won’t mind or notice your new beginning because they already know the story, and likely don’t remember the old beginning, so they won’t be irritated if they re-read it.

    Great idea.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It’s a brave new world out there, Alicia, and we’d better take advantage of it. Freedom and revisions are everything. Because it’s messed up once doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

  • Darlene Jones

    Love this post. And what a great hook!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Darlene. Making mistakes is not as critical as failing to go back and catch them.

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