ABCs of Flash Writing: H is for Hook

Posted by on Apr 25, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: H is for Hook

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said.  “That’s how you know when it starts.”


It’s a good first line to a story.  What is painless?  It sounds ominous.

This is the first line to The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway.  I call it a ‘hook’.  This line is intended to hook the reader, make him curious as to what follows.  It worked for me.  I kept on reading.

In flash fiction, we writers don’t have much time.  People who read flash fiction have short attention spans.  They are drawn to it because they are in a hurry.  They want us to get to the point.  So we writers have to be on our toes and get them involved quick. 

All fiction involves conflict and resolution.  It happens quicker in flash fiction.  Some idea or situation has to be put out there to grab attention in as little time as possible.  So what kind of ‘hook’ are we talking about?  It’s hard to categorize.  Anything that leads to conflict or uncertainty can work.  Uncertainty is probably the thing we should go for. 

A short story can lead anywhere.  It is a door that opens, a path in the woods that leads to an unknown place.  Readers want to be led somewhere, but do not want a straight path.  Readers want their brains teased by something that is not straightforward.  They want their imaginations tickled by the possibilities of many things happening.  If they know from the get-go what is going to happen, they won’t go down that road.  They are looking for an emotional payoff at the end of the journey.  If they can see exactly what’s coming, they’re not going to follow us writers.  In the first line, we have to entice them.  It is our job to make them wonder what will happen next.  This can usually be done with just one word.  In the Hemingway example, the word is ‘painless’.   ‘Painless’ does not suggest just the absence of pain, but pain itself.  We are searching for words that are open-ended, not closed. 

It is sometimes a good idea to put a surprising, unexpected word at the end of the opening sentence.  If it is the last word it has more impact than if it goes in the middle of the sentence, or even the beginning.  Think of the sentence as something with motive force, like a train.  Waiting for a train to pass at a grade crossing, we always want that last car to pass.  The last word in a sentence has an even bigger impact than the last car of a train.  The reader’s eyes follow each word to that final one, waiting for the word right before the period, hoping for a jolt to their imagination.  If we can put in something curious, something abnormal, something irregular, we can trigger a stimulus to the reader’s brain akin to a shot of whiskey or the release of dopamine in the central nervous system or a drag on a Lucky Strike just loaded with nicotine.  (These pseudo-scientific ideas are mine alone!) 

In short, the writer and the reader are partners.  As writers, we take our friends the readers to a path that diverges in a yellow wood.  The path doesn’t really diverge, though, does it?  It goes where we want it to, but we give our readers directions.  We steer them gently, but don’t push them.  It is our job to get their brains actively involved in looking to where our path leads.  That is where the ‘hook’ comes into play.  There are no iron-clad rules for writing a ‘hook’, just as there are no rules for being creative.  As writers, we need to play with our opening line till our brains are genuinely stimulated by it.

And if our opening line isn’t a kick in the pants, a double-whammy, a thunderbolt, we keep on working till it is.

Paul Smith is a civil engineer who has worked in the construction racket for many years. He has traveled all over the place and met lots of people. Some have enriched his life. Others made him wish they were all dead. He likes writing poetry and fiction. He also likes Newcastle Brown Ale. If you see him, buy him one. His poetry and fiction has been published in Convergence, Homestead Review, Aji, and other lit mags.