Hook Your Readers: 3 Tips to Catch & Keep Your Audience
How do we sell our stories? That is the big question. It is the reason for craft classes and editing and cover design and agents and editors and all the time on social media. And while platforms and covers and algorithms do matter, there is one tried and true way to sell more books.
Write a great story.
And not just any story, but a story that hooks from the very beginning and only continues to hook deeper.
Think of great stories like concertina wire.
The danger of concertina wire is not just in one hook, but hundreds or thousands. And it isn’t even in the thousands of hooks. It is the tension created by the coiled structure. If a person is snagged even a little, every effort to break free (turning a page for resolution) only traps the victim deeper in a web of barbed spines.
Now granted, this is a morbid visual, but y’all are writers and there is a good reason our family doesn’t like us talking at the dinner table.
So I was researching sucking chest wounds today and, hey, pass the spaghetti please?
We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Many new writers finish their first novel, and (I know as an editor) that odds are more than good that I’m going to chop off the first 50-100 pages.
dream killers editors call this the fish head. What do we do with fish heads? We toss them (unless you are my weird Scandinavian family who makes fish face soup out of them).
Often, when I go to do this kind of cutting, new writers will protest. “No, but you need this and the story really gets going on page 84.”
My answer? “Then let’s start on page 84.”
Too many stories fall flat because they lack the barbs necessary for snagging the modern reader who has the attention span of an ADD hamster with a meth habit. Additionally, a lot of us writers fall into bad habits of assuming readers are stupid, that they need all kinds of brain holding to “get” what we are talking about which means we not only lack barbs…but necessary tension.
I will prove readers are really smarter than we give them credit for 😉 …
Hook with a Problem
One morning, on my way to take Spawn to school, as I stopped at my stop sign at a major business highway, a VW van passed at 50 mph and another car pulled out in front. BAM! Car parts, exploding glass, tearing metal, right in front of me. One driver screaming because his legs were crushed and he was pinned. All of this in less than 15 seconds.
Do you think I was hooked?
Did I need to know the history of the drivers, where they were going, what had the one driver so distracted that he would pull out into traffic? Did I need a description of the balmy, normal morning and a weather report? A description of the pale azure sky? Nope.
Now this is an extreme example, but it shows how even in life, we stop everything in light of a problem. A scream, a child crying, someone falling over a curb. We immediately halt everything.
Good fiction always begins with a problem because that is ALL fiction really is. Prose and descriptions and symbol and theme are all various delivery mechanisms…for PROBLEMS.
I cannot count the number of new manuscripts I read where the author spends most of her opening playing Literary Barbies. We really don’t care as much about your protagonist’s flaming red hair as much as we care about that warrant for her arrest. This is drama not a doll house.
Go look at books that have launched to legends and you will see this.
Andy Weir’s The Martian:
I am pretty much f**ked.
That is my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it has turned into a nightmare.
We don’t start the book on Earth or in the astronaut program at NASA. We don’t even start when they land on Mars and hint that trouble eventually will come. Nope. Weir tosses us face first into a problem.
Hook With a Question
I have a mantra that all modern novelists must live and die by.
Resist the urge to explain.
One of the reasons emerging writers get that fish head is they do a lot of flashbacks and explaining and “setting up” the story and they are unwittingly destroying the single strongest propulsion mechanism for their story—curiosity.
If we look at the opening page of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, the opening paragraph has a small character hook but six lines down we read:
The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.
When we craft any story, we are wise to harness the power of human nature. Humans are curious. Heck, we are downright nosey. Imagine sitting at a Starbucks and prepping the computer to write. Two women sit nearby chatting and one has obviously been crying (hooking with a problem). We might eavesdrop a little, arrange Post Its, set out our lucky thesaurus but the second one of the women says, “He would kill me if he ever found out.”
There went the writing.
Then we would be doing “research” 😀 .
Hook with Question and Character
Sometimes the problem or question isn’t so obviously stated and there is a lot left between the lines. We humans love to fill in the blanks, so LET US.
We will use an example from my all-time favorite book Luckiest Girl Alive.
I inspected the knife in my hand.
“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wustof?”
I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but was quickly going humid in my grip.
First of all, this is a great opening line. It hooks, but then it leads to another hook and another and another. The character is testing the blade. Why? A blade being moisture resistant obviously is a plus if you are planning on stabbing someone because less chance of slippage (Stuff Writers Know).
Who is she planning to stab? How is she planning on using the blade? What has her so nervous her hands are going moist?
And on PAGE ONE we realize the protagonist is out looking at knives with her fiancé. Why? That is unusual. China? Normal. Curtains? Normal. Knives? Not normal.
Especially since in paragraph FOUR, we read:
I look up at him, too: my fiancé. The word didn’t bother me so much as the one that came after it. Husband. That word laced the corset tighter, crushing organs, sending panic into my throat with the bright beat of a distress signal.
Don’t Eat Your Own Bait
There are any number of reasons we as writers are failing to gut hook with our stories and often it is because we are falling prey to the very bait that is going to trap a reader. Problems bother us (because we are human) so we feel a need to “lead up to” something bad. We don’t like questions. We want to know…which is why we feel the urge to explain.
Just know that that clawing feeling inside that is driving you to pad the text is a good sign you are probably doing something right. Coil that barbed story all around and no escape until you’re cut free.
A FANTASTIC resource for teaching how to hook (other than me 😛 ) is my brilliant and brutal mentor Les Edgerton and his book Hooked. Read, learn, bleed, cry, grow.
If you’re wondering if your pages are hooking and, if not, how to remedy that? I am running my Write Stuff special. This is 20 pages of INTENSIVE content and line edit with an analysis included all for $55. Only ten slots are available and they fill up quickly, so get one today.
Your time is valuable and expert eyes are incredibly helpful to ensure you’re fixing the right things, or maybe letting you know to leave the pages ALONE that they are FINE. Work smarter, not harder.
Ain’t no rest for the wicked 😉 .
What are your thoughts?
How long do you give a book? I give ten pages max. On audio books I am more generous simply because I am a member of Audible and can return the book. I might give an hour. But I don’t have a lot of time and sure not spending what little extra I have on a dull book.
Does this post make the notion of the ‘hook’ make more sense? Oh, and by the way a book is like crochet, we need to hook through the entire thing. NO LOGICAL PLACE FOR A BOOKMARK.
I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of April, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
March’s winner is Ben Gardner. Please send 5000 words in a WORD document double-spaced Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen at wana intl dot com. CONGRATULATIONS! Thanks for the immoral support by commenting! Here is my gift back to you!
Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!
For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .
The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.
And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get both Plot Boss and Art of Character in the Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND). Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN!
Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming!
Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is May 3rd 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job.
I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.