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.

I Am a Seven-Month Grief Survivor

Grief is so encompassing that for months my thoughts focused entirely on my dead mate — my soul mate — reinforcing my idea that falling in love and experiencing grief are the bookends of a shared life. When we were together, he was so often by my side as we ran errands, fixed meals, watched movies, talked for hours on end, that I didn’t need to focus on him — he was there. And then he wasn’t.

In the movie The Butcher’s Wife, Demi Moore talks about searching for her split apart. Very romantic this idea of finding your split apart, but what happens when your split apart is split apart from you once more? I can tell you — it releases such a storm of emotion that you feel as if you will never find yourself again, that you will be forever swept away in the tsunami/hurricane/soulquake that is new grief.

I’ve weathered seven months of grief, from the first global storm to the more isolated mists that beset me now. I’m settling back into myself, letting go of the incredible tension that grief brings. We bereft are so focused on our lost one, so tensed against hurtful memories and mementoes, that it can bring on a host of physical problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

I am lucky. I’ve been able to release this tension through walks, through tears, and — at the beginning — through screaming. I have not passed all the landmarks of grief — some people experience their worst pain at eight months, others need two years just to regain their equilibrium, and of course, there are all those firsts that are yet to come: the first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first anniversary of his death — but perhaps the worst of the storms have passed. Or I could be fooling myself. This sad but not terribly painful stage I am going through could be just a hiatus, the eye of a storm, and the forces of grief are gathering themselves for a new onslaught. These months of grief survival, however, have taught me that I will be able to endure whatever comes.

I thought I’d be different after going through such storms of grief, (shouldn’t I be?) but I feel as if I am still myself, or rather, I feel as if I am myself again. I am sadder, of course, and that sadness will probably always shadow any future happiness, which is as it should be. One can never unknow such trauma. It will always be part of me.

He will always be part of me.

In many ways, he gave me life. He made me feel that life was worth living because he was in it. I have to learn to feel that life is worth living because I am in it, and that will be a long time coming. I am still at the stage where I don’t care if I live. NO, I am not suicidal. I am not stockpiling pills or thinking suicidal thoughts. This not caring is perhaps one of the longest-lived stages of grief, one that we bereft only talk about to each other — or our counselors — because it is so often misunderstood by those who have not been in a similar situation. One thing that keeps me going is curiosity about where life will take me now that he is not here for me to love.

Where does that love go when it is no longer needed? I don’t know. I do know that you love someone, their well-being is as important to you as your own, and then suddenly that someone is gone, leaving behind those unfulfilled feelings of wanting to help. Of caring. Of empathy. I still think of him almost all the time, still wish I could put my arms around him and make him well. When I hear a noise, sometimes I think it is he, and my first inclination is to go to him. When I hear or see something that would amuse or outrage him, sometimes I get up to go tell him. But these thoughts and actions are not as painful as they once were.

I have survived seven months of grief. I will continue to survive.

Conflict is Collision

The greatest role of dramatic writing is conflict. The most elaborate plot in the world is useless without conflict to give it tension and excitement.

So what is conflict? Conflict is the collision of the character’s desires with resistance from the forces of antagonism, be they other characters, the environment, the hero herself.

Some writers see conflict as a war between two opposing forces, but it can be more subtle than that — a change in a relationship, perhaps. People cause most of our problems, and interaction with people — connecting, confronting, disconnecting, alienating — shape the true concerns of our lives.

If the conflicts are plausible and appropriate, the reader’s tension level increases, and as the character gets closer to her goal, the tension should increase further because the stakes are higher. Tension created for its own sake is cheap. There must be a relationship to what has gone before; character’s efforts must have meaning.

For the tension to tighten, there has to be a reason why the stakes are higher, and that reason should be tied to consequences. Perhaps a bomb is about to go off, or perhaps the enemy is getting stronger. These time constraints put the hero under pressure, and the consequences of not reaching the goal becomes more dire. That bomb ticks louder and louder, the writer’s sentences grow shorter, and the reader eagerly turns the pages.

That, in the end, is what writing is all about: connecting to a reader. And readers want conflict. So it is up to us to create it in our writing, no matter how much we want to avoid it in our lives.

Our Prose is Immortal Prose — Not

Who decides if your dialogue is meaningless, you or your readers? You may believe that what you are writing is immortal prose, but if your readers don’t agree, then perhaps it’s time to rethink parts of your story. Getting rid of long descriptions is easy — go through the passage, pick out one or two telling details, and scrap the rest. Getting rid of inane dialogue is harder. You know that all the information you are giving your readers is important. The problem is, they don’t know that what they are reading is vital to the story. All they know is that they are bored.

Dialogue is not conversation; it is action and as such must propel the story forward. To keep your dialogue from hindering the action, from stopping the forward motion of your story, it must be in conflict or it must help define your characters, preferably both.

According to Sol Stein, author of Stein on Writing, you should examine every bit of dialogue. Ask yourself the following questions: What is the purpose of this exchange? Does it begin or heighten an existing conflict? Does it stimulate the readers’ curiosity? Does the exchange create tension? Does the dialogue build to a climax or a turn of events in the story or a change in the relationship of the speakers?

Once you have determined that the conversation is conflicted and does propel the story forward, you need to look at every line of the dialogue and ask yourself: Is it fresh, colorful? Is it the cleverest thing the character can say?

Writing is not life. In life, most of us cannot come up with that clever quip when we need it; it comes to mind (if at all) late at night when no one is around to be impressed. Your characters don’t have to suffer from that malady because they have you and your late night epiphanies on their side. You can change their words as often as necessary to get it right.

And get it right you must. Good dialogue makes a reader keep reading. Bad dialogue, no matter how crucial to the story, makes readers go in search of other amusements. Because, face it: to readers, our prose is not immortal, it is simply entertainment.

The Language of Storytelling

Does posting a novel on the internet in order to get feedback help us improve our writing? After being involved in a writing contest for over a month now, I honestly can’t answer that question. I have received hundreds of comments, but there is no consensus. Some people love my story, others hate it. Some think my writing is stellar, others think it is dreadful.

I’m accepting all comments without argument and am planning to analyze them after the contest, but I have noticed that most contestants feel the need to justify their story decisions. If readers say the story is too slow, the writer says to be patient, it will get better. If the reader says it is front-laden with exposition, the writer says it’s necessary for the story. If readers say the conflict isn’t pronounced enough, the writer says it is subtle, but will be apparent later.

It makes me wonder if all this justification is turning us into sloppy writers. If we can explain our motivations as an aside, there is no reason to fit it into the story. A good writer, however, makes her justifications in the body of the work. If she wants the story to move slowly but wants readers to wait patiently for the good parts, she tells them this by foreshadowing what is to come. If the exposition is truly important at the beginning, she entwines it into the story so that readers get the necessary information while she is tweaking their interest. If the conflict isn’t pronounced enough, she bumps up the tension.

Tension is created when questions form in the readers’ minds: Who killed him? Why? How did the killer escape from the locked room? Without these questions, readers have no reason to continue reading, and they won’t. In a published book, there are no margin notes by the author saying, “Keep reading. Things will get better.”

There is truly nothing wrong with justifying our story decisions; we just need to learn how to write the justifications into our stories using the accepted language of storytelling.

(I am a semi-finalist in the Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest. You can see my contest entry here: http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977202263)

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.