Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Please Hook Me. Seriously.

Okay, now that I've got your attention, let's talk hooks. In journalism we might call these leads, but the general concept is the same. Those first few lines are essential in catching your reader's attention, whether you're a novelist or a student writing an essay.

One of my favorite first lines, in my book About Last Night, started like this: It had been the best and worst sex of her life. As Lindy Brooks sat up in bed she wondered how she could have done it.

The opening continued like this: Wait. She knew how...the real question was why.

Talk about immediately establishing conflict and character.

Now while we aren't necessarily teaching our kids how to write romance novels, we are teaching them how to write. As an English teacher I often wish someone would write me something interesting. Admit it to yourself — as much as we love teaching English, grading essays often sucks. It's like everything we teach goes out the window. The kids simply do what they want and by the end of the first paragraph of the first essay I'm dreading reading the rest of the stack. Same for creative writing. The kids start with some long, boring paragraph, satisfying their need to set the entire story up, but instead they dehydrate the reader, making him thirst for real prose.

I often ask my students, were you bored writing this? They usually say yes. To which I respond, then your reader is bored too.

So how can writers fix boring prose? From the very get-go the opening must rock. It must jump out and grab the reader. It must sing. Now I'm not going to be picky about when in the writing process you get around to writing the hook. I've been known to come up with the first line and it's the first thing I write. I've been known to write an entire essay or letter or novel and then go back to that first paragraph and add the hook. Neither method is wrong. What matters is that by time of publication you have the hook.

Unfortunately, the idea that a bad hook is better than no hook is also erroneous. For it's not enough to have a hook, you must have the right hook. This is why it's essential to teach hooks and when and how to use them.

One of the easiest, and thus most overused hook, is the rhetorical question lead. I'll be honest. These make me cringe. It's not so much the "yes" or "no" answer, but it's rather that the wrong question turns off the reader. Rhetorical questions need to make the reader think. A bad question would be, "Have you ever gotten a speeding ticket?" or "Have you ever eaten ice cream?" If the immediate thought is who cares, this is stupid, then it's a dumb question, and as I tell my kids, contrary to what they've heard, there are such things as dumb questions. An example of a good rhetorical question is something like, "Would you stand naked on a busy street corner for $25,000, all the while knowing people will be putting pictures of you on the internet?" This at least gets the reader interested in the moral dilemma — and amazingly enough I had plenty of juniors in my class that were like "heck yeah." Imagine this hook used on an essay about reality TV. Much better than "Reality TV is..."

Another type of hook that works well is the staccato or sentence fragment lead. These are often quick and easy, which makes them also often overused. Still, they are a step up from the question lead. Here's an example of a staccato lead for an essay on "A Retrieved Reformation" that I saw from one of my ninth graders: Safecracker. Lover. Hero. In O.Henry's short story...

As writers develop, they will begin to break away from these basic hooks. They might try an anecdote, which is a short story or summary of a situation that captures the reader's attention. On the topic of "What is the most essential trait to achieve anything?" one of my juniors started something like this: Two men enter the ring. After a bloody battle only one will walk out. While this may sound like a horror movie, it's actually a common occurrence every Saturday night....   The student went on and wrote about mixed martial arts matches and two of the most successful fighters and their shared trait of strength. I loved it. Anecdotes can be as descriptive as the student wants. They can use a lot of imagery, or very little. The key is that the reader relates to the opening.

Another way to start the essay is by using a quotation. To do this type of hook, however, the quote really must work with the essay. It usually helps if the quote is well known, or at least said by the subject of the essay. Teach your students to almost always avoid clichés.

Another type of hook is the dramatic statement, which is what I used in this column. The dramatic statement can shock, intrigue, or it can include an emotional solicitation designed to make the reader feel an emotion.  The key to this hook is that when you start with a remark or opinion, it must be designed to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Starting an essay on change with a statement like "People can change" is lame. Starting an essay with something like "By Saturday night at least one person in this classroom will be a millionaire" will make me sit up and take notice.

Finally, there's the validation hook. This often has elements of the dramatic statement/emotional solicitation. The validation hook validates why your topic is important by giving a fact or statistic. Here you tell the reader immediately why the subject needs attention. Be careful though. You must convince the reader to keep going without being mundane. Telling the reader, "Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce" isn't really a strong opening line. This hook really requires careful word choice. Saying "One in two marriages fail" is much more powerful.

A good hook is essential to a great opening. And sure, I have seen plenty of great hooks and great introductory paragraphs, and then the rest of the essay falls apart. That's a topic for another time. At least the essay got off the ground with a bang — and the reader read past the first paragraph because he wanted to read on, not because he must.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.