The reader is left asking - what the heck happened?
Stupid. Maybe I am stupid. Stupid for doing this.
The opening to my book, Stupid. It is meant to make the reader wonder what the speaker is about to do.
Hooks, they make the reader - in a very short amount of time - wonder, what is happening or want to know more. They grab attention and hook the reader in, just like a shiny spinner on a fishing line.
Readers are curious. Backstory isn't going to cut it. Action, intrigue, mystery, and the unexpected will get them from the words Chapter One all the way to the end of that same chapter, and on to chapter two.
Surprise your reader, make them question, make them wonder with the first few lines of your work, be it short story, novel, play, or what not.
But hooks aren't just for openings. Hooks are for EVERYWHERE!
Okay, maybe not everywhere but use them to keep the story moving forward. If you can add a hook at the end of a scene, or in a transition, or at the beginning of the next scene, go for it. Hooks are like conveyor belts for the reader, keeping them rolling from one scene to the next.
But one of the most important places to use hooks is at the end of chapters. Readers tend to put down books at the end of chapters and go and live their lives. Sometimes they don't pick those books up again. Writers don't want this. So by putting a hook at the beginning and end of ever chapter, writers keep the reader up all night long.
One of the best criticism I ever got was from a parent who was upset I had kept her daughter up until two in the morning because she wouldn't put Boiled Cat down. Another kid also hid that same book under his desk during school. I love this kind of feedback. It means my hooks were effective. Hooks bring the reader into your story, hold them there, keep them turning pages, and make them finish.
Keep back story sparse (0nly sprinkled as needed) in the first few chapters, and don't get deep into it until at least chapters three to five, lest you lose your momentum, slow the pacing, and ruin your hooks.
Be creative with your hooks and don't use the same one over and over again. I remember one story where they kept talking about the main characters mother. It made me want to know the first time they used it. I still wanted to know the second time. By the fourth time it was a running gag between me and my friend who was reading the same book. "But what about Zane's mother?" We would call out. And when they finally revealed the truth, it wasn't anything spectacular or earth shattering.
So be creative, but make sure, like anything, your hook either pushes the plot forward or develops the character in a new, unique, and important way.
Hooks - they are an amazing tool for writers, so make sure you use them.