“New Hooks For Old Books: Saving Classics from Obscurity with a Little Rewording,” by Tom Ballard

Aug 2nd, 2023 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

“The hook,” I tell my creative writing students, “is the secret of getting read.” Unfortunately, powerful first-line hooks were nonexistent before the mid-1950s. This is probably why few readers willingly pick up a book published before that decade. Let me illustrate with examples of how once-famous novels could have been saved by inserting a commanding hook.

1. “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)

With hook: “Elmer Gantry was drunk, and a dick.” Elmer being drunk isn’t unique. We’re all drunk much of the time. But we all aren’t dicks, just Elmer and those other people, especially critics.

2. “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

Hemingway broke his own rule on keeping prose simple and direct. With hook: “We got drunk, and drunk again, then again.” Remember Hemingway’s prescient advice to young writers, “Always carry a can opener.”

3. “Call me Ishmael.” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Call me circumcised.” Ishmael, the son of Abraham, as everyone knows, participated in the first mass circumcision. Since this novel is a metaphor for mass circumcision, why beat around the bush? When investigating niche markets, consider the epic circumcision genre.

4. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

Happy families are all alike; every vampire family is moody and hungry.” You’ve named your protagonist (vampires) and their problem (hunger). Sales will soar into the Twilight.

5. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

An opening line that screams, ‘Wake me when it’s over!’ With hook: “It was the best of times—heads rolled!” Cut your prose to the sinews.

6. “Mother died today.” —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)

Mother died today—she was delicious.” Readers never tire of mother/son conflict and the promise of recipes adds relish.

7. “For a long time, I went to bed early.” —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913)

For a long time, I wet the bed early.” This clearly states the protagonist’s trauma and hooks the reader into parental disputes, recrimination, spankings, and a life in the arts.

8. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Nothing to be improved upon. Loins are a hook and a half. (Some scholars attribute the invention of the hook to Nabokov.)

9. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” —George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

Miss Brooke was a looker with loins.” Note the power of a succinct opening, with the punch of loins.

10. “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”  —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

He was a hunk till he was hung.” As with “loins,” “hunks” sell to avid readers with short attention spans, as does the double entendre “hung.”

11. “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth revealing an army of crazed zombies seeking warmth—our warmth.” Vampires, hunks, loins, and zombies—the best characters remind the reader of someone they know.

12. “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.” —James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)

With hook: “Everyone said that John would be a preacher, but he became a badger that lived with hobbits.” Loins, vampires, zombies, hunks, hung, and hobbits—reread your manuscript and substitute one of these power words for every pronoun.

13. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.” —Franz Kaftka, The Metamorphosis (1915)

Entomology is the antithesis of a hook. With hook: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into an enormous loin.”

The lesson is clear: If you don’t supply a pithy hook, your reader is lost. Learn from Nabokov’s loins. Now, you try.


Tom Ballard is a naturopathic doctor and the author of the novel The President is Down (“The best novel I’ve read in decades” – Mark Twain), the screenplay Eco-Agent Man, the play Get to Know Your Duck, and numerous short pieces ranging from crime to humor. He can be found at TomBallardArts.com when not walking his pet geoduck on the beaches of Seattle.

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