Finding your story ‘hook’ is crucial to engaging readers quickly into your memoir. What is a hook? A hook is really the door that opens to your story – the hinge that opens that door, if you will.
Memoir is such an intimate genre, a reader wants to know whether they can sit and trust and stay with you (listen to your voice) for the length of a book.
The hook is crucial to drawing in your reader and motivating them to keep reading.
The key thing to remember with finding your story hook is that it always involves a contrast or something unexpected about the driving desire of your memoir.
I’ll never forget interviewing an ambulance paramedic named Andy years ago for a news story. Andy said the hardest part of his job was getting the most important information very quickly so he could decide on what medication or assistance someone needed – particularly if the patient was elderly. Just like a reader, he needed to make a snap assessment, very quickly.
This is how a reader decides if they’ll keep reading – it can be seconds or minutes. No, writing isn’t saving lives, but our decision-making processes (whether to keep reading or to give someone a certain medication) function in exactly the same way.
Just Andy would ask when the chest pain started (he’s trying to make a split second assessment of whether or not it’s a heart attack, for example) and the wife might go back and reflect one what day they were watering the roses, which led to the purchase of some tea, which led to Jenny’s brother Tony coming over… and he’d had a busy day what with going to the shops and thing…anyway Andy was just wanting that one key fact, urgently weeding out the unnecessary ‘back story’ (ie. working very hard to get to the key issue of the story): what time did the pain start?
Finding your hook can take as much work as it did for Andy to get his vital information – but once you have it, you’re plunged into the story and everything just moves much quicker from there.
Finding your hook takes removing all that back-story and just focusing on what is relevant to the central crisis or dilemma we’re going to explore in your memoir.
TIP: A reader wants to know whether they like you (the narrator), whether they can relate to your story, and whether or not the story is interesting enough to keep reading. They want to have a taste of your style, they want some questions raised, they want to be excited, and they want a taste of your writing voice so they know whether they like it enough to commit to your whole book.
Here’s how to find your story hook:
- Set up the story to come and provide some context (not too much)
- Plunge the reader into the central action of your story and raise some questions
- Make your story relatable, and throw a few odd details in for extra intrigue.
1: Set up the story to come and provide some context
WILD by Cheryl Strayed is an excellent example of setting up the story and context in the first page. Note how everything she chooses to share about her life relates to the reason she is in the wilderness.
I let out a stunned gasp, though I’d been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then I’d come to know that anything could happen and that everything would.
My boot was gone, actually gone.
I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it…. I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too.
Strayed ‘hooks’ the reader into the story via that harrowing scene with the boot.
By beginning the book midway through the journey with that key scene, the reader knows straight away who and what they’re dealing with: an emotional journey about a hike, about loss, about grief. We also know she’s young and this is quite an unusual story.
2: Plunge the reader into the action and raise questions in their mind
Using Strayed’s example above, we also know a few key details about the narrator, but not too much – just enough to know why we should want to keep reading. We are left with so many questions, and there’s something very striking and immediate and odd about her predicament from the get-go.
Use your inciting incident to find your hook, otherwise known as a catalyst event. If you’re having trouble finding your hook, begin midway through the story in the heart of the action, where the biggest conflict and questions were raised.
I admit finding the hook can sometimes feel difficult, because we’re so personally attached to our back-story, to all the things which led up to the inciting incident, the catalyst event, etc. I wrote 10 000 words of ‘backstory’ about my life, before I could even start the first chapter of A Letter From Paris. It was hard to let all that extra (unnecessary) detail go. Sometimes it takes talking the story through to get to your hook. It wasn’t until I’d workshopped the story with a fellow writer that I realised the hook wasn’t who I was, or who dad was, but that a pile of letters found in a French attic 30 years after he’d died was key to the hook.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion has a great example of synopsis crafted with a hook according to these rules:
When Joan Didion’s husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack, a partnership of 40 years ended in a second. Just days before, the couple had seen their only daughter fall seriously ill. Despite the unshakeable reality of her husband’s death, Joan Didion’s thinking was far from down to earth – she found herself, for instance, keeping his shoes in case he returned. Slowly she realized that behind all the ritual and words lay a simple, aching truth – that she longed to perform an impossible trick and bring him back. This is the story of a year spent wishing; a year of magical thinking.
Note that with a great hook, (which is just another word for ‘engaging storytelling’), it’s all in the order that you release the information. If the synopsis (above) had started with the final sentence
This is the story of a year spent wishing; a year of magical thinking.
how much slower we’d engage with the story. But she’s started with the key catalyst for the memoir – no long descriptions of their relationship, simply nine words:
a partnership of 40 years ended in a second.
There is an odd detail thrown in (she kept his shoes in case he returned), and it’s an entirely relatable situation: who hasn’t lost a loved one? Who hasn’t gone through the sad confusion of mourning?
[If you look at the first page of this stunning memoir, she starts with similar words – again, no backstory to the man who just died. Life changes fast….These were the first words I wrote after it happened… You already know it’s about a relationship and a loss, and she hasn’t even described him.]
WRITING TIP: If you’re struggling to know where to begin or find your hook, start with the catalyst event for the journey of your story, and then only write what is relevant to that particular event. Find the most unusual aspects to the story.
Why was this inciting event so important to your story? Why did it matter? Shorten it, sharpen it. Remove anything irrelevant to the biggest action or conflict of your memoir to find your hook.
So, for example, if your memoir is about a health journey (recovery from cancer), begin with the diagnosis, and only give enough back story or details or information so that the reader can see how and why that was such a life-changing moment.
- Only include what is relevant to the most important action of your story.
- Don’t include backstory or autobiographical details which have nothing to do with the catalyst event.
- Ask yourself – how does this relate to the biggest action of the story?
3: Make the reader identify with your predicament
Give us your biggest source of conflict, or a huge dilemma that you need to get out of (say a crisis or question) and throw in a few odd details to make it even more intriguing. Use something that everyone can relate to: those moments we’ve all had where we had to make a decision, say, in love or at the Doctor’s office or with a child or on the street. This is where your universal theme is going to get personal and detailed -and you have to dive deep.
- Start with a scene where you were given a choice (related to the chief action of your memoir)
- Explore your catalyst moment in terms of how you looked, felt, where you were at in the world (working, living, physically behaving, etc., whatever is most relevant to the chief questions in the reader’s mind) and shorten and sharpen that to just one sentence.
- Remember that your ‘hook’ is not the entire content of your story! Your hook is the intrigue that will set the journey up for the reader, and help them decide whether or not they want to go on it with you. Make it as sharp and exciting as possible!
- I include templates for all of this in my signature program: 90 Day Memoir.
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