How to Hook a Reader

The age of writing long descriptive passages (or even short ones) at the beginning of a novel has passed. Today people want to be drawn immediately into the story without wading through such excess. An editor might look at the first five pages before tossing aside your manuscript, but potential customers will give you a mere twenty seconds to draw them in. Once you have caught their attention, they might read a little further, and perhaps they will even buy the book. They certainly will not wade through five, ten, fifty pages until they get to “the good part.”

That “good part” must be right up front, especially if you’re a first-time writer. That’s all you have going for you — the ability to get off to a fast start and capture the reader’s attention. Your name certainly won’t do it; no one knows who you are yet. Your credentials might help, but only to establish your credibility after a potential reader has been hooked. And they will never be hooked by your ability to turn a clever phrase.

So what will hook the reader?  A character. Always a character. No one reads a book for a description of the weather, a place, or an issue. They don’t even want a description of the character. They want to meet him, to see life through his eyes, to bond with him. They want to know what he wants, what his driving force is. And they want to know who or what he’s in conflict with.

Without conflict, there is no story, but without a character for the reader to care about, there is no story either. Character and conflict are inextricably combined, and together they create the tension necessary to sustain a story. I know you think it’s okay to let the tension rise slowly, which it is, but the tension level at the beginning must be high enough to let the reader know something is going on.

I rewrote More Deaths Than One four times, and each time, the story fell flat. It wasn’t until I realized I’d spent too much time describing things or had Bob alone meandering through much of the story that the book took on life. I gave Bob a love interest, a server he met at a coffee shop.

More Deaths Than One begins:

“What do you think of a guy who embezzles from his own business?”

Bob Stark recognized the voice of the graveyard shift waitress, the attractive one with the black hair. He glanced up from his contemplation of the scars on the laminated plastic table and saw her standing by his booth, gazing at him, her eyebrows quirked. She seemed to expect a response, but he had no idea what to say. 

This isn’t the real hook, it’s just enough to capture your attention so I can reel you in for the punchline.

Reviewer Sheila Deeth said, The first three pages of “More Deaths than One” have to constitute a serious contender for the best opening scene of a novel. Two main characters are introduced, a garrulous waitress and a taciturn hot-chocolate customer. They meet. She talks, a lot. He reads the paper. “And Lydia Loretta Stark was dead. Again.” With two such immediately real and appealing characters, and a line like that, I’d challenge anyone not to want to keep turning the pages.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

On Writing: Muddling Through the Middle

Novels generally have a three-part structure: beginnings, middles, and ends.

Beginnings connect the reader to the main character, present the story world, establish tone, introduce the opposition, and compel readers to move on to the middle.

Endings wrap up all the strands of the story, give the outcome of the final conflict, and leave a sense of satisfaction and resonance.

Middles develop the confrontation between the main character and the antagonist, deepen character relationships, keep us caring about the main character, and set up the final conflict.

Middles keep the main character and the antagonist in conflict. If one or the other can simply walk away, there is no reason for the reader (or writer) to muddle through the middle. Duty can be the adhesive keeping them in conflict (a detective needs to solve a case). Moral obligation can be the adhesive (a character exacts revenge or a mother fights to save her child). Physical location can be the adhesive (a blizzard makes it impossible for the characters to leave a place).

Middles have a rhythm of action, reaction, more action, and how these beats are controlled determines the pace of the novel. Lots of action, little reaction gives a breathless pace. Little action, lots of reaction slows the pace.

Middles should have a sense of suspense, a sense of death hanging over the main character (can be physical, psychological, professional, or moral), and a sense of increasing risks and rising stakes.

Here are a few questions to keep in mind as you muddle through the middle of your novel:

What adhesive do you use to keep your characters from being able to walk away?

How do you vary the rhythm of action and reaction to create the pace of your novel?

Does your novel have suspense, some question to be resolved, something that will keep readers paging through the middle?

Do you have a sense of death hanging over your main character?

How do you keep increasing the risks for your character?

How do you keep raising what is at stake for your character?

Finding a Beginning to a Novel

The search engine terms that bring most visitors to my blog are “the origin of the grim reaper” and “the moving finger writes,” but occasionally people come looking for something specific about writing. Lately, it seems, people are wondering how to find the beginning of a novel.

A character’s life, like any life, starts with either a gleam in the parents’ eyes or a birth, depending on your religious and political beliefs. And all stories, taken to their logical conclusion, end in death. Somewhere in that spectrum is the story you want to tell, and since all stories are about change, the novel should begin as close to the moment of change as possible.

The one exception to this rule is that if your story will need flashbacks, you should move the beginning further back on the spectrum in order to show these scenes as they are happening. Flashbacks, no matter how interesting, stop the flow of a story; because they are in the past, readers have no stake in their outcome. Making your flashbacks part of the present gives them an immediacy they would not otherwise have.

Most new writers (and many professionals who should know better) begin with a weather report, long passages of description to set the scene, or even the character’s ancestry. If you feel comfortable starting one of these ways, do so, but keep in mind it is only a temporary construct until you figure out where you are going with your story. As you write, you will find ways of inserting the necessary information elsewhere in the book, and will be able to delete it from the beginning of your novel. Despite what you might think, readers do not need to know who your character is before you begin the tale. They need to be thrust into the story so that they can find out for themselves who your character is.

So, start your novel with something happening, with a moment of potential drama, with a conversation. Many books begin with violence, which is a sure way of catching readers’ interest. At the very least, they will find it more exciting than a weather report or a description of your extraterrestrial world. And so will you. The more excited you are about the story you are writing, the easier it will be for you to write. Because, as you will find out, beginning a novel is simple; finishing it is an entirely different matter.

Hooking a Reader

The age of writing long descriptive passages (or even short ones) at the beginning of a novel is long past. Today people want to be drawn immediately into the story without wading through unnecessary verbiage. An editor might look at the first five pages before tossing aside your manuscript, but potential customers will give you a mere twenty seconds to draw them in. Once you have caught their attention, they might read a little further, and perhaps they will even buy the book. They certainly will not wade through the first five, ten, fifty pages until they get to “the good part.”

That “good part” must be right up front, especially if you’re a first-time writer. That’s all you have going for you — the ability to get off to a fast start and capture the reader’s attention. Your name certainly won’t do it; no one knows who you are yet. Your credentials might help, but only to establish your credibility after a potential reader has been hooked. And they will never be hooked by your ability to turn a clever phrase.

So what will hook the reader?  A character. Always a character. No one reads a book for a description of the weather, a place, or an issue. They don’t even want a description of the character. They want to meet him, to see life through his eyes, to bond with him. They want to know what he wants, what his driving force is. And they want to know who or what he’s in conflict with.

Without conflict, there is no story, but without a character for the reader to care about, there is no story either. Character and conflict are inextricably combined, and together they create the tension necessary to sustain a story. I know you think it’s okay to let the tension rise slowly, which it is, but the tension level at the beginning must be high enough to let the reader know something is going on.

A practiced writer knows how to adjust the tension by temporarily letting up on the main conflict and interjecting intermediate conflicts, or even adding inner conflicts to shadow the outer ones, but all conflicts must be somebody’s conflict. For example, you might be concerned about war, but seeing a specific soldier dealing with his experiences makes you care, maybe even makes you cry. And you will want to know what becomes of him.

That’s what hooks a reader.