30 July 2023

Setting the Hook

Stone Age Fish Hook
Photo from Wikipedia

In his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short fiction book, Twice Told Tales for Graham's May 1842 magazine issue, Edgar Allan Poe had this to say about the beginning of a short story: "...If his very initial sentence tend not to be outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step..."

Even though they spoke and wrote English in those days, they sometimes wrote and talked a little funny as compared to today's use of words. To me, Poe was writing about hooking the reader, or getting the reader interested in your short story by the wording of your very first sentence. Of course, if you care to wade through all the words Poe wrote for that review about 180 years ago, feel free to Google said review and come up with your own opinion.

Poe was referring to a narrative hook, but several of us have started a short story with dialogue and if done interestingly enough, the story start can also be done that way. And, if you can't set the hook in the first sentence, then the hook should be placed no later than the last line of the first paragraph.

Think about the situation. If you open a magazine or an anthology and start to read a short story, which is going to encourage you the most to continue reading, a plain, boring, no excitement opening or one which makes you wonder what's going to happen next? That what will happen next is the hook and that hook is what pulls you, the reader, further into the story being told. And, if it work this way on a reader, then imagine how this hook works on an editor who receives 100+ submissions a month. How far do you think that editor will read on a submission if the story doesn't grab their interest early on? It is a shrinking market out there for short stories these days and therefore tough enough for a writer to avoid a manuscript rejection without making this common error.

Rob mentioned in one of his recent blog articles that I had critiqued one of his short stories and had suggested that the story's beginning was boring. He then changed the opening to imply the possibility of future violence. The story subsequently sold, which may or may not have been a result of setting the hook early. A couple of weeks later, I critiqued a story from a different author. Same problem, but the author had already wondered about his opening and was considering rearranging the order of his story to start with an event closer to the action (an early hook). Both of these authors had multiple acceptances from AHMM and EQMM, yet somehow the setting of the hook in the opening had slipped by them in the writing process. You can bet I will be more careful in my own story openings now before I hit the SUBMIT button on short story manuscripts.

Damn, I shouldn't be reminding you people about setting the hook early. You all are my competition for this shrinking short story market.

Oh well, too late now.

Have a good one.


  1. haha! grin - competition, indeedy. Actually, I don't look at it that way, Leigh. My take is that no reader reads just one book, just as no publisher publishes just one story. Still, this post is a very good reminder that the we're competing with Youtube and TicToc so you've got to grab readers quickly.

    1. EEk! Sorry RT. I thought it was Leigh's day and messed up. Melodie


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