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Hooking your readers (In-depth guide)

Hooking your readers (In-depth guide) Hooking your readers (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    Wattpad is looking for stories that are Immediate, Engaging, and Commercial.

    What is "immediate"?

    Immediate means the story gets right to the point. We want the audience invested from the very first chapter. Your first chapter should give them a taste of the reading experience they’re about to have. Whether that’s the heart-stopping first meeting of fated mates or the shocking discovery of a gruesome murder in a sleepy town, your first chapter should make a promise to the reader about the story to come.

    From Chapter 1, your reader should think “This is why I picked up this story.”

    How does this work? By putting the hook in the first chapter.

    The hook is the first major event in your story that sets the tone, establishes the characters, and gives the reader something to invest in. 

    Examples of a hook:

    • A body is found gruesomely murdered
    • The ignored fourth son suddenly becomes king after the rest of his family dies in a mysterious accident
    • The main character witnesses aliens arriving on earth
    • Getting trapped in an elevator with a cute stranger
    • Finding out your new boyfriend is the son of a mafia don

    In all of these cases, the successful hook is emotional and specific and establishes the stakes and tone of the story. These are high-tension, high-emotion moments that immediately grab the reader’s interest and promise them a certain kind of reading experience. Start your story on a note that’s high tension, high action, high emotion, or all of the above. 

    NOT a hook:

    • Waking up and getting ready to go to school or work
    • Background information on the history of the kingdom
    • Explanation of alien biology
    • The protagonist’s normal day in life

    These examples don’t work as hooks because they’re not focused on the present action of the story (the “front story”). Backstory and exposition don’t go in the first chapter; sprinkle them throughout the chapters that follow. While it’s common in a lot of novels and TV shows to show the protagonist’s life before the story, the techniques that work in movies and TV shows aren’t always the best choice for Wattpad. In Wattpad stories, the time available to hook the reader is really limited, so we want to focus on the moment of change where the story starts and not the circumstances leading up to it.

    Choosing an opening: Inciting incidents

    How do you pick the most effective, Immediate spot to open your story?

    Think about the moment when everything changes for the protagonist, the first event that causes the protagonist’s life to go in a different direction. In screenwriting, this is called the Inciting Incident. This is a great place to start your story, especially in terms of Immediacy. This is the event that kicks everything else off and sets the rest of the plot in motion.

    In a rom-com, the inciting incident is almost always the moment when our protagonists meet, perhaps by colliding in a busy hallway and spilling coffee on one another. In a sci-fi story, this could be the moment of first contact with aliens. The inciting incident should match the tone and scope of your story and create the conditions for the rest of the plot to happen.

    Case Study: The Vampire Always Bites Twice

    In this story, we get an immediate sense of what kind of world and reading experience we’re about to have. The opening conveys what is normal about the protagonist’s life by introducing a sudden interruption to it, and the narrative voice and scene details convey the genre (hardboiled/noir with a paranormal twist). The whole scene builds in tension and strangeness until the explosive ending line when the woman dies and the last thread of normalcy in the protagonist’s life snaps, and the story is officially on a roll. The inciting incident comes at the end of the scene (the woman’s death) and kicks off the story proper. By the end of this scene, we know who the protagonist is (Isla the former necromancer), as well as the main problem she’ll be dealing with throughout the story (why did this woman die?).  This is an effective spot to open the story because it’s a moment of irrevocable change for the protagonist. If we started earlier in the story, the opening would be too slow. Later, after the death, we’d lose the impact of seeing the death and understanding the stakes attached to it. This is the sweet spot that invites readers to question and hooks our emotions.

    Case Study: A Match Made in Quarantine, Chapter 1

    This chapter does a great job of introducing us to the characters, their conflict, and the event that changes everything. We open with the conflict between the two main characters that illustrate who they are, what their relationship is like, and why they don’t like each other. Then, right when we’ve gotten a grasp on their dynamic, everything is upended by the Inciting Incident: quarantine. Having the sense of the conflict between them is what makes the inciting incident at the end where they’re stuck together feel exciting and interesting. We know they don’t like each other, and now they’re stuck together for 20 days. Because we have a glimpse of their relationship and who they are as characters, we understand why this sudden change is so challenging for them—and interesting for us.  While this isn’t technically the characters’ first meeting, it is the moment that changes their relationship and sparks their eventual romance, which makes it a fantastic hook and a dynamic, compelling opening chapter.

    Story vs. story world: Focus on the protagonist

    Keep in mind that the Inciting Incident is focused on the protagonist and not the world. If your story is set in the zombie apocalypse, the conditions that bring about the zombie apocalypse may or may not be the inciting incident. If your protagonist is a scientist trying to stop the zombie pathogen from getting out, then the Inciting Incident could be the moment when the beaker breaks and the virus escapes. Whereas if your protagonist is a teenager trying to navigate life in their small town where half the inhabitants already have the zombie virus, the actual apocalypse itself is backstory and the Inciting Incident is something more personal to the protagonist, like finding out their brother is still alive. In both cases, the Inciting Incident is something that drastically changes the protagonist’s life and challenges their assumptions about the world, but the stories they kick off are very different. 

    Determining your Inciting Incident

    If you’re having trouble thinking of an inciting incident, here are some questions that might help:

    • What is the moment when everything changes for the protagonist?
    • What new problem does the protagonist need to solve?
    • What new question does the protagonist need to answer?
    • What event challenges the protagonist’s assumptions about the world and/or themselves?

    It can also be helpful to think about your favorite books, movies, and TV shows. What was the moment that made you want to find out more about the story? That got you invested? Why did that moment work for you, and where in the story was it located? Keep in mind that a lot of popular books might not have the Inciting Incident or hook in the first chapter. While that works for a lot of books and other media, in Wattpad stories, we want to focus on having that hook right up front in the first chapter. 

    Writing the opening

    Okay, you’ve chosen the best moment to open your story. How do you actually write it for maximum Immediacy? Here are some ways to think about writing the opening. These are great elements to focus on to get your reader hooked. 

    Meet the characters

    Who are these people, and why should the reader care about them? Your opening chapter should ideally allow us to meet at least one of your main characters. This should not be a full description of the character and their entire backstory. Think about it: when you meet someone for the first time, you don’t generally give your entire personal history. Rather, this is the first taste of who the protagonist is as a person. This is the spot where you introduce the first of the protagonist’s goals and motivations. What do they want and why do they want it? How does the Inciting Incident affect them? Focusing on goals and motivations allows your reader to get to know the protagonist in an effective and dynamic way that simultaneously creates investment in the plot. 

    Example:

    The door creaked open halfway. Grayson Kester, alpha of the Moon’s Edge pack, paused and said something indistinct to someone behind him. His voice was deep and rumbling, full of command, but strangely pleasant. Had he sounded so pleasant when he’d given that fateful order?

    The width of a door separated Jade from her revenge. 

    It opened the rest of the way, and Grayson stepped into the alley. Jade leapt, knife at the ready, lunging for his heart. But Grayson whirled and caught her wrist effortlessly in his huge hand. Her grey eyes met his red ones. And Jade’s world collapsed as her soul cried out in ecstasy. 

    Grayson Kester, the man who killed her parents, was her fated mate.

    The focus of this sample is establishing Jade’s character. In the space of about 200 words, we learn that she’s a skilled werewolf hunter, and she’s out for revenge on the man who killed her parents. We learn her goal (kill Grayson) and her motivation (revenge) as well as a hint of her backstory (dead parents), but not the whole thing. Jade’s goals and motivations are upended when she realizes that Grayson is her fated mate, which kicks off the story. Based on what we’ve learned about Jade, we know this is going to be a real struggle for her, which creates interest for the reader. 

    Focus on the action

    What’s happening in the scene? Keep the focus on the present action of the scene, not what has led up to it. Keep the exposition to a minimum—only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening. 

    Example:

    The front door of the boarded-up house creaked open with a shuddering groan. Cordelia and Annabeth slipped inside, stifling their nervous giggles in their hands. But their giggles quickly died away. The house reeked of rot. Cobwebs clung to the corners of the room and furniture was overturned, as if someone had been searching for something.

    A portrait hung over the sooty fireplace, of a woman in an elegant gown. Annabeth stepped closer.

    “Annie, be careful,” whispered Cordelia. 

    “Don’t be such a baby,” retorted Annabeth, who was five minutes older than her sister, and never let her forget it. She touched the woman’s face with her fingertips, just to bug Cordelia.

    The dim lighting cast strange shadows on the portrait. “It looks like its eyes are moving,” said Cordelia. 

    “It’s called trompe-l’oeil,” said Annabeth. 

    “Annie–”

    Annabeth sighed and turned to leave. But before they could cross the threshold, the wall began to rattle. They whirled back to look at the portrait as it began to shake, and noticed for the first time that the frame wasn’t hung on a hook—it was nailed to the wall. And the wall was beginning to come apart, shedding plaster as a hand reached out from the painting, clawing at its frame.

    In this example, we focus on the action: the sisters breaking into the house, and the painting coming alive. There’s no explanation of how the house came to be abandoned, who the woman in the painting is, or what Cordelia and Annabeth did earlier that day. The only backstory in this example is the fact that Annabeth is older than Cordelia, and it’s introduced as part of a concrete present interaction between them to give context to their dynamic. 

    Amp up the emotion

    The event you’ve chosen should matter to your protagonist, and we need to see how and why it matters. If the event doesn’t matter, or your protagonist is bored, that’s a sign that you may not have chosen the best inciting incident. When you’re writing, focus on the emotion by using descriptive language to create an emotional experience for your reader. 

    Example:

    Lacey walked into the cafe, and everything stopped. The sounds of the bustling coffee shop faded away, and all she could hear was her heart pounding. He was dead. She kept the death certificate in a drawer with her lease agreement and passport. Yet there he was, casually scrolling through his phone, sipping an espresso. Antonio.

    He looked up. When his cool green eyes finally met hers, a wave of electricity pulsed through her, and her shock turned into fury. She wanted to scream at him, pound her fists against his chest. She wanted to hold him and never let him go.

    Antonio rose smoothly and intercepted her as she floated automatically to the cash. He guided her to sit and pressed his lips against her trembling fingers. His breath was so warm on her hand.

    "Ciao Bella,” he said in that silky, familiar voice. He looked at her with a mix of fear and hope. “I need your help."

    In this example, we open with a moment of huge emotional upheaval for our protagonist, Lacey. Someone she cared deeply for and thought was dead is alive, and asking her for help. If we’d opened the story earlier, say the day before, we might get a sense of Lacey’s sadness, but it would be muted, unmoored to any specific present event. If we’d opened later, after Antonio had already reintroduced himself to her, we’d missed out on this big moment of emotional upheaval. This is the moment of maximum emotion in this part of the story, so that’s what we’re focusing on here. We don’t know exactly what the circumstances were that made Lacey believe he was dead, nor exactly what their relationship used to be, but we don’t need to in order to understand her emotions here. The focus on Lacey’s emotion makes it real to the reader, and the inclusion of a couple of relevant, illustrative details (like the fact that she keeps his death certificate) helps round out the picture and create a compelling opening.

    Establish the conflict

    What’s the problem the protagonist is faced with? If that problem originates in the world around them (evil warlord trying to take over the world, murderer on the loose) that’s an external conflict. If the conflict is mostly about how the character feels (like they don’t fit in, that they’ll never love again), that’s an internal conflict. Your story should ideally have a combination of external and internal conflicts, but it’s normal for a story to tilt one way or the other. For example, a mystery can have an internal conflict about how the detective feels burnt out from the job, but the external conflict of solving the murder is more important and drives the plot. Similarly, a rom-com can have an external conflict about the characters having to pretend to date to throw off the tabloids, but the internal conflict about whether the leads can trust themselves and each other enough to fall in love is the main conflict of the story. Your opening chapter should introduce us to the main conflict in the story, which is ideally set in motion by the inciting incident.

    Example:

    Alaina straightened her blazer and picked a stray thread off her sleeve before pushing open the glass door to the boardroom. She’d spent the morning in her car lip-syncing to Beyonce and psyching herself up for this meeting, and she walked in with confident steps.

    Around the table were three white men in near-matching grey suits. None of them were wearing ties, probably to make them seem more down-to-earth and less like the property development vultures they really were. Of course, they were all still wearing their Rolexes.

    The man closest to her got to his feet. He had stunning blue eyes and a superhero-chiseled jawline.

    “Ms. Alvarez,” he said, “a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m Jack Carrington, senior counsel.” His hand was warm and dry, his touch firm enough to remember but brief enough to create interest, and he punctuated it all with a stunning megawatt smile.

    Alaina gave him a smile of her own, full of sharp teeth. “Come on now, Jack,” she said. “Don’t you remember me?”

    And she watched his face fall as he realized he’d walked into negotiations with his high-school ex.

    In this example, we open with the external conflict between the main character Alaina and the property developers. We don’t know exactly what’s going on yet, but we know this meeting is important because Alaina had to psych herself up for it, and we can tell by the way the property developers are described that she doesn’t like them. With the external conflict established, we then encounter a twist at the end that reveals the internal conflict: Alaina and Jack are exes. This changes our understanding of the external conflict, making it feel more intense and personal, and indicates what kind of journey our lead characters are going to go on. 

    Hint at the stakes

    A conflict does not have to be world-shatteringly big to matter (not every story is about the end of the world!), but it does need to matter intensely to the protagonists. The stakes are why the conflict matters to the characters, and thus why it matters to the readers.

    Example:

    “C’mon man, come on,” Joe shouted into the back of the restaurant. The line cook finally handed him the takeout bag and Joe grabbed it with one hand, updating the app status with the other: on the move. The delivery app promised 40 minutes or less, and if he got another demerit on his profile he was going to be demoted. Again.

    The timer changed from orange to red. Joe cursed under his breath as he hurried back out to the car and flung himself into the driver’s seat. As soon as he jammed the key in the ignition, the sound system roared to life at max volume. But instead of his favourite satellite radio dubstep station, it was a deafening rush of static. He cursed and fumbled to turn the volume down as he tried to pull into the street one-handed. But the volume wouldn’t go down.

    Strike Team Alpha, confirm frequency, said the static.

    Frequency confirmed Control. Strike Team Alpha in position.

    They weren’t words, but they congealed in his mind like language. Joe almost froze in the middle of the intersection. A driver behind him leaned on the horn. Joe had the presence of mind to flip the driver off, but it was almost automatic.

    Commence Earth invasion strike in t minus fifteen minutes.

    Well, shit. He was definitely going to miss his delivery window.

    This example plays with the stakes. We open in a high-tension moment for our protagonist, Joe. He’s not sitting around bored and waiting for his delivery, he’s actively trying to get things done faster. The stakes are right up front: he’s going to be late, and it’s going to cost him. This time pressure creates tension in the scene and a sense of frenetic movement that is further amped up by the strange transmission. In a couple of sentences, the stakes escalate from “late food delivery” to “invasion of earth,” but it works because the tension has been building for the entire scene. In the very last line, we return to the mundane stakes of Joe’s life (the late delivery) in ways that personalize the conflict and tie everything together, as well as indicating the story’s tone: funny and a bit irreverent. We’ve set up the stakes, and what they mean for the character, and indicated how the story is approaching those stakes, thus indicating what kind of story the reader is in for. 

    Keep it relevant

    Central to the idea of Immediacy is relevance: making sure you are giving your reader the most important, interesting information about a scene. Every element of your chapter should work together to convey the story to the reader; everything should be relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. While it seems like it should be helpful to the reader, imparting a ton of information can actually impede the reader’s ability to understand what is going on and what the important information in the story is. It’s like a forest: if the trees and underbrush are really dense, a traveler can’t see the path through. We want to make sure the reader can see the path, and part of that is trimming back areas that are too closely packed. 

    Relevance is also about emphasizing what’s important. If something is really important, spend more time on it: describe it more in depth, give the characters more of a reaction to it, or spend longer in the moment. What you focus on enlarges, so what do you want your reader to think about the most? 

    Avoid exposition and backstory

    Exposition is when you summarize and explain things to the reader, sometimes called “telling.” Telling can be a necessary part of writing when you need to skip over stuff quickly, but it should be used for things that you want the reader to skim over, not linger on. Generally, things you explain through exposition have less impact and emotional resonance for the reader. In the opening chapter, when you’re really trying to hook the reader’s emotions and get them invested in the story, it’s best to avoid exposition or explaining as much as you can, and instead focus on showing the reader a high-impact moment that helps them get invested in the story.

    Similarly, backstory is everything that happened before the beginning of the story (the Inciting Incident). The history of the world, your protagonist’s childhood, how they came to be where they are, all of that is backstory. Generally, if it comes before the Inciting Incident, leave it out of the first chapter. You can drop hints or make allusions to backstory events but don’t give the whole explanation. It’s much more effective to tease your reader with a bit of backstory to create interest.

    Avoid holding back the hook

    Cliffhangers are a great way to keep your reader engaged, but you have to hook them first. If your first chapter is a build-up that cuts off before the hook, you risk losing your reader. If you want to use a cliffhanger in your first chapter, you can cut the chapter at its most climactic moment; where you’ve introduced the hook but haven’t yet allowed the characters to react to or process it. Review the examples in this module: a lot of them end with a climactic moment that sets the hook but leaves the reader wondering what happens next.

    Key takeaways for writing your opening

    Focus on emotion, action, relevance, and stakes.

    Avoid backstory, exposition, lead-ip, and digression.

    Your opening chapter should answer the questions: what, who, how, and why.

    These are the big questions that drive your story and create reader engagement. Download our worksheet, "What, Who, How, and Why", created to help you make your story immediate.

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