How to start your book is the most important decision you’ll need to make.
Because no one’s going to read the next sentence (and the next one, and the next one) if they’re not captivated by the first one.
This is such an important decision and skill to cultivate that fiction author Les Edgerton wrote an entire book about hooks, appropriately called Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go.
In the book, Edgerton argues that authors need to put their best ideas and most intriguing words right at the beginning of a manuscript—especially when you’re pitching a book to agents or editors. Remember, he’s writing about fiction, but a lot of what he says applies to nonfiction, too:
“What’s ironic is that manuscripts don’t get rejected because the majority of the story is good and only the beginning is flawed—they get rejected because the agent or editor never gets to the good part to begin with. …If you bury the good stuff, an agent or editor won’t keep reading your manuscript.” – Les Edgerton, Hooked
This is the art of hooking your reader: Making them curious—no, insatiable—to learn more.
Readers are inherently selfish. All of us are. When we’re considering whether to devote our precious time to reading a book or our precious dollars to buying a book, we all either consciously or subconsciously ask the question: Will it be worth my time?
Readers are willing to give you a very, very small chance to prove to them that the answer to that question is YES.
You do that by writing a great hook.
In nonfiction, a great hook answers several key questions for your reader:
There are many ways to write a great hook, but there are five common ways that I like to teach authors. It helps to keep these handy as a menu of options when you’re sitting down to write.
This is the most popular hook—for a reason!
Humans love stories, and stories are a great way to pique people’s curiosity. Consider these phenomenal examples of hooks from two nonfiction books:
“Norman Hall shouldn’t exist. But here he is—flesh, blood, and bow tie—on a Tuesday afternoon, sitting in a downtown San Francisco law office explaining to two attorneys why they could really use a few things to spruce up their place.” – Daniel Pink, To Sell is Human
This is one of my favorite hooks of all time. I don’t even care what’s coming next. As soon as I see that first line, “Norman Hall shouldn’t exist,” I’m already asking questions: Why not? Who’s Norman Hall? Why on earth shouldn’t he exist?!
What makes this hook even more memorable for me is the fact that it’s being used in a prescriptive nonfiction book. Daniel Pink’s goal here in this book isn’t to tell a story; it’s to explicitly teach the reader something new. And yet he uses story to make a memorable point right from the get-go.
Or take this example from Jeannette Walls’s classic memoir, The Glass Castle:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.” - Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
Huh?! You’re overdressed, but your mom is rooting through the dumpster? What on earth is going on?
Here’s another one from a narrative nonfiction book:
“It was the last day, but she didn’t know it. In truth, we never do. Not until it is too late.” – Kate Moore, The Woman They Could Not Silence
These story hooks work well because they drop us right into the middle of the action. This is a common technique called in media res, the Latin phrase for “in the middle of things.” Part of what makes the reader curious is that you’ve intentionally withheld important information, and now they need to figure out what’s going on.
Questions are another useful type of hook, because they force the reader to try to answer the question. It makes the reader curious to know how you will answer that question.
Here’s a great example from one of my former authors, New York Times bestselling author Warren Berger:
“If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?
Back in 1976, long before there was a Google to field all of our queries, a young man named Van Philips started asking the question above, first in his head and then aloud. Philips felt his future depended upon finding a good answer, and no one seemed to have one for him.” - Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question
Right away, the question Warren asks is so surprising and interesting, we absolutely need to know what’s coming next. And notice that Warren uses this question to transition us right into a story. This story doesn’t start in media res, but it’s still an interesting conundrum and it makes us anxious to know what Van Philips did next.
You can also put your compelling question at the end of a little bit of preamble. Here’s an example of how author and book coach Allison Fallon did that in her fabulous book, The Power of Writing It Down:
“Most people go their whole lives without ever truly expressing themselves. We have stories to tell, ideas to share, dreams of the future, and versions of ourselves that want permission to live and breathe in the physical world, but we won’t let them. Instead, we silently coach ourselves to sit down, follow the rules, be more reasonable, tend to our responsibilities, and keep the peace.
What is the cost of holding back what is trying to be expressed through you?” –Allison Fallon, The Power of Writing It Down
Ally’s thoughtful and provoking question forces us all to the realization that she wants the reader to have: You need to start writing. It costs too much not to write.
Over 40% of the book contracts signed in 2022 were signed by authors with little to no social media platform.
That’s a true stat from my own research that I like to use when starting a conversation or presentation. It always catches people’s attention because it disproves something that most authors believe: To get a book deal, you have to have a huge social media platform. But there’s plenty of evidence that shows that’s not true.
Here’s another example from a past author of mine:
“How long have we educated children the way we currently do? Surprisingly, we have separated students according to age, frequently rotating them through distinct subject areas, and assessing specific content knowledge for only a tiny fraction of the time humans have lived on earth—less than half of 1 percent.” – Julie Stern, Learning That Transfers
Notice again how Julie’s first line is a question, followed by the surprising piece of data. She uses this to set up the case for her book: The way we’ve been teaching children doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t even natural. It’s time to change it up.
I love this hook because it’s so underutilized. Readers are so very rarely asked to do something, and especially not before they’ve even read any of the book!
This strategy works particularly well for highly prescriptive to-do books. For example:
“Whatever your time frame, novel planning works best when you let it be messy. [...] To help you get in the right mindset we have a quick activity for you. It’s called Fill This Box With Crap. And the task is, you guessed it, to completely fill this box. With crap. Write anything you like. Make a to-do list from your pet’s point of view. Draw your best friend’s left nostril. Catalog the last five things you ate, and then rank them. Ready? Go to it.” – Chris Baty, Lindsey Grant, & Tavia Steward-Streit, Ready, Set, Novel!
That’s a very obvious and perhaps over-the-top way to ask the reader to do something, but you could also take a much more subtle approach. Ryan Holiday uses this same strategy in a very different way to open his book Trust Me, I’m Lying:
“I call to your attention an article in the New York Times written at the earliest of the earliest junctures of the 2012 presidential election, nearly two years before votes would be cast.” – Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
With a completely different tone and approach, Ryan is asking the reader to come along with him on a journey that begins by taking a look at a particular NYT article.
Here’s how I started one chapter in the new book I co-authored with Daniel Bauer, Build Leadership Momentum:
“Remember playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade when you were a kid?”
We’re asking the reader to remember something, a specific experience, and then we use that experience to make our key point for the chapter.
Hooks are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get!
A perfect analogy is such a delight. If you can compare a complex idea to something relatively simple that the reader already understands, you can make their lives so much easier and help them get unstuck.
Here are the first lines from one of my favorite books on writing:
“This is a book of first steps. Their meaning will change as your experience changes. This book contains the bones of many arguments and observations—a vertebrae here, a mandible there—but the whole skeleton is what you make of it.” – Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing
Klinkenborg actually uses two metaphors—steps and bones—to lead you into the introduction of his book.
Here’s another one:
“One metaphor for race, and racism, won’t do. They are, after all, exceedingly complicated forces. No, we need many metaphors, working in concert… Race is a condition. A disease. A card. A plague. Original sin.” – Michael Eric Dyson, Foreword to White Fragility
I like that the author explicitly talks about the limitations of metaphor here to help make his point. It's like he's writing in response to this article. :)
Finding the perfect first line is one of my favorite things to do as a writer. I like to change it up—sometimes starting with a question, other times asking readers to do something, often telling a story. As you’ve seen in some of these examples, you can also combine many of these strategies.
As with all things in writing, to get better, you have to experiment to find what works, what feels fun and exciting to you.
Here’s my challenge to you: for your next piece of writing, try using all five strategies to create different hook options for yourself. This is such a fun exercise to get you thinking more creatively! I promise you'll find something new and exciting, and you'll get better at captivating your reader from the start.