Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Getting Your Hooks Into Readers

Any writer who's been at their craft a while knows the importance of an opening hook--that little piece of dialogue, action, or tension that raises a question in the readers' minds, enticing them to read just a bit more. It's vital to grab the readers' attention from the first line, and deliver enough on the hook's promise to keep them reading into the next chapter.

But a full-length novel asks for a commitment of time from the reader--let alone a series (I have a bad habit of writing series). How then, to keep the reader engaged over the long haul from chapter one to the dénouement?

Once again, hooks come into play. The trick this
time is not so much to hook the readers with the first line so much as it is to hook them again with the last line of the chapter. Which chapter? All of them. Every chapter should end with something that makes the readers want to turn the page and find out what happens next.

And, of course, that's the last thing you want to tell them on the next page. Admittedly, this is hard to do with limited first person point of view, but for sake of argument, let's say you're crafting a novel in third person with multiple viewpoints. Your first chapter introduces the primary character and essential conflict, and leaves the reader with a question at the end. Chapters two and three can then be used to introduce additional characters and conflicts with their own embedded hooks. By chapter four, you may want to revisit the first character again and answer the question raised in chapter one, but if you've done your work well, you'll now have a series of questions in chapters two and three that will keep the readers engaged and turning the pages.

Layering hooks and subplots thus forms the essential structure of the effective novel, that combination of conflict/crisis/resolution that leads to additional conflict right up until the final, epic climax where all conflicts are resolved...

...unless, of course, you're writing a sequential series. In that case, you can end the book with a hook that'll keep the readers clamoring for the next installment. Just be prepared to deliver on it (or face the wrath of some impatient readers!).
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  1. Excellent advice, Michael, though not easy to follow! Layering hooks and subplots is hard work. Trouble is, the deeper you get into your novel, the more unconvincing is the opening hook. At least that's what happens to me. I've found time and again that I had to revisit the opening chapter in the light of the rest (once it was written). Very annoying...but inevitable, because, you're absolutely right, everything depends on that opening hook or no one will buy your book!

  2. Terrific post, Michael. After a couple of stand-alones, I'm writing my first series. I'll have to keep pluggin' those hooks in!

  3. I just did a talk on this very thing at our local writer's group the other night. My points were - A good hook does 3 things: 1. It raises a question in the reader's mind. 2. It gives some interesting information about your character. 3. It doesn't make a promise that it fails to fulfill in a timely manner.

    Great post, Michael.

  4. Good post, Mike.

    You know who's really good at this? Fantasy author Jim Butcher. I've noticed that the last paragraph of each chapter is crafted to pull you into the start of the following chapter.

  5. Those layers are always the sign of an author who knows what he's doing. Anyone can write a story that offers nothing but face value, but when those layers of plot and theme start multiplying, that's when I'm hooked!

  6. I love planting those little clues too, and ending the chapter right as you're about to find out