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Hooks, Jabs, And Knock-Out Punches

ALESSANDRA TORRE, NYT BESTSELLING AUTHOR

In 2019, New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Probst gave an Inkers Con presentation called “Five Ways to Improve Your Story.” One of the concepts that she covered in this presentation was how to plant quick jabs in each chapter to keep the storytelling sharp, and compel readers to continue, tease the reader with a secret, or drop a fascinating revelation about a character.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of that presentation (minor edits made for readability):

A hook is a promise to a reader. A hook is your title. A hook is your blurb. A hook is your cover. A hook is the first line of every chapter. A hook is the last line of every chapter. When your book is done with the rough draft, and it’s going through editing, take a look and make sure that every single hook is giving the reader something to turn the page with.


Consider the reviews for The Hangman’s Daughter, a bestseller, but the Amazon reviews commented on the incredibly misleading title. What’s my main problem with this book? What does the hangman’s daughter have to do with the story? Readers were pissed because they were waiting for a story about the hangman’s daughter. And the book had nothing to do with the hangman’s daughter. 

Again, if you’re going to promise a sweet Second Chance romance and readers get BDSM in the bedroom, they’re not going to be buying another book from you. So be very careful about what you put out there. And as I always say, a book bought is a beautiful thing, but a book read is a holy thing.

You want to look at your book as a boxing match. No boxer comes in with a knockout punch right away because when your audience is buying the tickets, and they’re like, “I just bought a ticket for a good boxing match, and he just dropped on round one.” We don’t want that. You want to have foreplay. Let the audience anticipate a little, they’re patient, they’re watching the two opponents dance around, find their rhythm, set the scene for the whole match. Then, if nothing else ever happens, but the dancing and the anticipation they’d get pissed again when they may be like, “Okay, we’re bored you know, we bought these tickets for a show.” So again, you need to tease the audience with the hook, then you need to plant some quick jabs into the book to bring them forward. 

Let’s say you open with a gunshot, a sex scene, or a quiet reflection from a character… it doesn’t matter. But the first page has to hook the reader and what kind of writing does that? Your action, your conflict. As I said, rip away your character’s security. 

I’m just going to give you some examples of great first lines because when you drop a first line in a book, it can kind of set the stage for you and you should always be thinking about your first line.

  • Susan Elizabeth Phillips, one of my favorite romance writers in Kiss an Angel, “Daisy Devereaux had forgotten her bride groom’s name.” What do you have here, a marriage of convenience, she set something up right away just from the first line.
  • Nora Roberts Dance of the Gods. “When the sun dipped low in the sky dripping the last of its fire, the children huddled together to hear the next part of the tale.” What are you going to get? It’s a promise of an epic tale, you know that there’s going to be a story coming.
  • Emily Giffen, Something Blue. “I was born beautiful.” You know right away in the first line that sets up the relationship with the heroine, we’re promised to love and hate her right from the first, we’re immediately intrigued. 

Then you plant your quick jabs to compel the readers to continue. And then you give yourself a little breathing room for the reader to take a breath, and get air into the story and settle in. And then you want to hit him with the right hook. 

The right hook is also not the ending. The right hook is your black moment. The black moment is the crescendo of conflict where your hero… whenever they breakup, or they’re forced apart, or they begin to doubt the future of their relationship. It’s their come to Jesus moment. Are they going to be able to make it work? It could be simple, but it has to be epic because this hook is going to set up the rest of your book towards the end and keep them going.

Strip away the last barrier of your hero and heroine during this hook part. And the example I really like to use is Game of Thrones. I want you guys watching TV to start stripping down these scenes as the hook. Queen Cercei is the character we love to hate. She’s been built up as an evil person. She admits to committing a sin and what do they do? They shave her bald; they strip her naked, and then they make her walk miles barefoot and naked into the crowded streets, where all of the townspeople are throwing fruit at her and mud and rocks. I don’t care how much you hate her, it is one of the most brutal scenes to watch because guess what? We are human. And this scene stripped away her humanity, and made an evil character much more than cardboard. And by the time she gets safe in the castle, she has changed. We still may not like her, but we have been able to identify with her in a brilliant way. Do that in your book. Don’t make a cardboard character. Make the hook something that creates a lightbulb moment, and then you can move forward. 

Right hook, jab, blackest moment, and then make it a knockout, and you gain a reader for life. As an exercise, again go through your book and examine your black moment, every book has a black moment. Can you make it stronger? Can you make it better? What can you do to raise the stakes on it?


This post is a transcript excerpt from Jennifer Probst’s Inkers Con 2019 class, Five Ways to Improve Your Story. The upcoming 2024 Inkers Con conference offers dozens of brand new classes, Q&As, author discussions and more! Join us in Dallas or online!


Jennifer Probst is a NYTimes bestselling author of contemporary romance. Jennifer has written two books just for authors on the craft of writing – Write True and Write Naked. She has additional resources on her website – https://jenniferprobst.com/for-writers