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Setting Your Hook

By Douglas Owen

What do you think is the best phrase a writer can ever hear someone say about their book? No, not that it needs to be on the bestsellers list, but you are close. The best phrase a writer can ever hear is, “I could not put your book down!”

Think about it. As a writer, your main purpose is to entertain. In order to entertain, you have to give someone a reason to read your story. Once they start, you have to keep them reading. How do you do that? You leave hooks that will draw them into the story, get them vested in it, and give them just enough information to make them want to read more. Whether it is historical fiction or sci-fi, there needs to be something in the narrative that will pull the reader into wanting to finish the story. 

So, when you hear someone tell you they couldn’t put down the book, you must have done your job properly. I heard it several times with some of my writing, and encourage all the authors I talk with to do the same: put hooks in the story right from the start.

Noah Lukeman, writer of The First Five Pages, tells his readers that the book is mistitled. It should have been The First Five Words— Et Al, meaning it is all in the first five. Five words, five sentences, five paragraphs. You have to have hooks to keep your reader reading.

Using this type of approach will make you hear those words more than you do now. So always hook the reader right away with something. If you don’t, it could cause them to set down the work and move on. But when you hear those words from a reader, they ring magic in your ears.

How to Do It 

How you hook them will determine how long you can play out the fight. Don’t net them right away and allow them to flop in the boat through reams of narrative filling in back story. Let them run out some line and pull it in a bit. Give a little and take a little. Throw more chum into the water. 

Think about a book you started to read and just did not put down until you finished it. Now, how did they start it out? Was there a huge line of narrative describing the surroundings with little character development?

Let’s look at a controversial (at the time of its writing) novel by Robert A Heinlein, one of the masters of sci-fi. Starship Troopers hit bookstores in 1959 and became a study of what mankind would do if faced with an unconquerable foe. It starts off with the main character, Juan Rico, taking part in a raid on a planet. Action. Boom! Zap! Blam! Right away, he throws us into action. Small tidbits of information are fed through slams of action. Heinlein does not let up, even in the flashbacks. People are put into impossible situations, are killed or survive, and through all this, he shows how this one trooper takes on the impossible, and somehow lives.

Even if you are not a fan of sci-fi, you could still enjoy the read. To this day, the work stands the test of time. They have made movies of the work and many, even today, argue about it. He hit into a controversial subject that was suddenly the theme of his work: If you don’t fight for your country, why the hell should you be allowed to control policy for it?

But without getting into the theme, plot and breakdown of the message, we need to look at how he captures the reader’s attention. The main way is through action. It is non-stop, interspersed with narrative information to keep the reader informed of the world and what is happening.

Heinlein hooks us from start to finish in this novel, and you need to do the same in order to sell a lot of books. 

Get Ready, Get Set, Go! 

Most readers have a short attention span. They don’t want to spend the first 50 pages trying to get into your book. You have to set something up and go forward from there. Little traps, barbs, hooks, and insights. Some things that readers don’t want to see are: 

  • Dialogue
  • Descriptions
  • Irrelevant Information
  • Too Many Characters!

Dialogue

I’m not saying to stop using dialogue, but remember that dialogue should not be used as the first sentence of a novel. And I would caution against starting a chapter with dialogue as well. Usually, you’ll want to set up your world in the first couple of paragraphs. Paint that picture the reader needs in order to start the draw. It could be the look of a bullet flying out of a gun or how the orc in front of the fighter drooled rivers of saliva. Just make sure you set up who will be the characters in the scene.

Descriptions

I know I just said to use descriptions, but don’t overdo it. Spend just enough time describing something for the reader to get that mental picture. Why would you spend a page describing the way a raindrop falls from the flower petal? Two sentences for something like that would be sufficient, if not overkill. Don’t describe something that will play no relevance in the story. Remember the old adage: if you describe the gun over the fireplace then someone must be shot by it before the end of the chapter.

Irrelevant Information 

This is something many writers provide. Why would I need to know the history of a character who dies right after they are introduced? One writer spent a page, 360 words, describing the character’s checkered past before they were hung. And that was done at the start of the chapter when the character was introduced. There was a whole episode of backstory that was just page filler. Do I really need to know the convict they just hung came from a broken home where the father left him at two years old? No, I don’t. They are not a main character so just let them hang. 

Too Many Characters 

There is a good rule to follow in writing: Don’t introduce more than five named characters per scene. I actually think it is better to not name five in a scene and, if the scene changes, you can introduce more if needed. Think of it this way, how much of the following can you actually follow: 

Jason stared at Gail, wondering if Fred was there to ask her out or if the young man wanted to see his younger sister, Maddie. Jason knew his father, Zak, really wanted to talk to the young man and his father, Mike. But after a long time at the party where they met July, Paul, Francis, Sarah, Peter and Dave, there was a need to see the mayor, Adam.

Okay, without looking above, who was Fred there to see? If your answer was Gail, and you didn’t have to go back to the start of the paragraph to check, then good for you. Most would not remember.

The Plan 

So, you now know what not to do. How can a writer put hooks in their work in order to make the reader want to continue reading? The answer is simple, so please don’t slap a fish across your face when you read it. You want to make them wonder, pivot, become interested, be intrigued, find the unusual, and be compelled.

Make Your Readers Wonder 

Ever start reading something that makes you start to ask questions? That is the wonder hook. A question that you imply to the reader in order to make them wonder about the answer. They keep reading, looking for the answer. It will burn in their mind, cause them to drink copious amounts of coffee in order to stay up late reading, and generally drive them insane—especially if you don’t answer that question. The reader will then talk to others, who will have to buy your book to know what they are talking about, and thus you have a never ending circle of purchases to feed your royalties. 

Here are some of those wonder points: 

  • “Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” —Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novelby Jeannette Walls 
  • “A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.” —The Shadow of the Windby Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Starting At a Pivotal Moment 

If you start your work at a pivotal moment in the story, then you have started a hook. Your reader is more likely to be pulled into the story, because something important is happening, and they want to know the outcome. It will raise their desire to know what happens next.

  • “It was dark where she was crouched, but the little girl did as she’d been told.” —The Forgotten Gardenby Kate Morton 
  • “Christine screamed as another contraction racked her already tired body.” —A Spear In Flightby Douglas Owen 

Interesting Pictures 

Descriptions are your best ally when encouraging a reader to keep reading. Painting a vivid picture in their mind is often a lost art in most of today’s self-published writers, so learn it well.

  • “Last night I dreamt I went toManderley ” —Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier 
  • “She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.” —The English Patientby Michael Ondaatje

Intriguing Character 

Introduce someone intriguing right away. The possibility of learning more about them will drive the reader to keep going until their curiosity is satisfied.

  • “I was born twice: first as a baby girl on a remarkablysmogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” —Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 

The Unusual Situation 

Take something out of the ordinary and place your characters there. By starting a novel out this way, it brings the curiosity out in the reader. They will continue to read in order to find out why they are in such a bizarre location or instance.

  • “They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” —Juliet, Nakedby Nick Hornby 
  • “Last night, I dreamt that I chopped Andrew up into a hundred little pieces, like aBenihana chef, and ate them, one by one.” —The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum

A Compelling Narrative Voice 

Have you ever started reading a book and found yourself identifying with the main character? That is the compelling narrative voice we are speaking of. Usually in the first person, it allows the reader to immediately understand what is happening to the person and why, or convey the confusion they are feeling. 

  • “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” —Water for Elephantsby Sara Gruen
  • “As I begin to tell this, it is the golden month of September in southwestern Ontario.” —No Great Mischiefby Alistair MacLeod

Wrap It Up 

Always keep your reader in mind when you write. Understand what they will want to get out of your work and dole it out in little chunks of discovery. It will make the reader want to keep going, and add so much joy to their experience as the end of the writing approaches. The second best thing you could hear is “I loved the book from start to finish. Didn’t want it to end, but was satisfied when it did.” 

Doug’s Website: http://daowen.ca/

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