“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Hooking The Reader
(go ahead and get out your work-in-progress to make this an interactive post)
Beginning is always the hardest. We writers stare at the blinking cursor, the story we want to tell urging us forward, but the challenge becomes finding that perfect first sentence. It's hard to do. Readers take it for granted when they're ensnared from the first word. Little do they know the agony involved in the author's mind as we search for that hook.
With first drafts, I encourage you to simply begin. Write it out from the first word to the last, but then return ready to slice and dice up your masterpiece. I can't tell you how many first chapters I've cut completely in revision. Why? Because they didn't do their job. Yes, they may have smashed open the creative process for me as the author, but in reality they weren't the right fit for the tone or pace I wanted to set for my story.
The key to great writing is being able to admit when you need to hit that delete button and do it without remorse.
As we write, stories evolve and take us on a journey we never expected. Characters change. Plots become layered and intense. With non-fiction or fiction, we may realize we began in the wrong place—perhaps too early or too late. So what do we do? We fix the beginning so it does the rest of the story justice.
I'm a huge movie buff. Not only do I like them for entertainment, but I also enjoy them from the point-of-view as an author. Movies rarely start out with long meandering character introductions or drawn out pans of the landscape that go on and on and on with nothing else happening. No. They begin with a strong hook that pulls us into the tone of the world we are about to enter for a few hours. Perhaps it's a shot of dark alley where a woman is stumbling against overturned trashcans. Maybe it's a scene where a man is sneaking out of window as daylight breaks across a well-manicured neighborhood. Movies get to the point and set us up for the story from the very first "action."
That's what the blinking cursor is for the writer. Ready, set, action! With authors in a world where our books are competing with a million others in the digital age, the pressure is high to capture the reader's attention immediately. Does this mean you need to start with a murder or a car chase or something equally devastating? Not unless the story calls for it. Interest can be achieved without shock value.
First chapters serve the following purposes—setting the tone, introducing characters, establishing the conflict, and laying out the setting. They need to be free of backstory (which I'll talk about later in this book) and devoid of unnecessary descriptions that cause the pace to drag.
This brings me back to that first paragraph, or even the first page. Look at your work in progress now and ask yourself if you've nailed it. If you've revised a hundred times already, I don't care. Be hard on yourself. Read your first page now and ask yourself these questions:
Have you started the story in the right place? If you were shooting this as a movie, would that first scene be compelling? Knowing your story as you do, is the beginning setting it up well? Are the characters being introduced in an interesting way or have you over-described their physicality rather than their personality? Have you established tension on that first page?
If you answered no to any of the above—or even if you shrugged and thought it's 'good enough'—be prepared to hit that delete button and push yourself to a higher standard. I'll tell you right now—shrugging and thinking it's merely okay or fine are sure signs that you can do better.
What about prologues? The publishing industry is forever evolving, as I'm sure you know. Prologues have fallen out of fashion for most genres, except perhaps science fiction and fantasy where a lot of world building is necessary. The consensus amongst agents is that they are a waste of time and an indication that the story has started in the wrong place. Some even view a prologue as the writer being too lazy to pepper backstory throughout the book in a more challenging way. If you have a prologue, ask yourself how you can convey that information differently within the manuscript so that readers can be catapulted into a story that's forever moving forward.
Wow yourself. Yes, I said it. Just between us writers, let's be honest. There are moments when we read our own words and think, "damn, that's good." We may even be a little surprised and wonder how we managed to pull off such a brilliant line. There's nothing wrong with that feeling of pride. If only every line could be stellar, writing wouldn't be such hard work.
Did your beginning wow you? For the most part, we are own worst critics (although I've met some whose arrogance impedes their self-awareness, but, because you're reading a book about taking your writing to the next level, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt). This critical eye can work to our advantage at this point.
“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”--James A. Michener
Why do the first chapters need to establish tension? That's the hook. Intrigue must be established the moment the reader looks at your page one. This is true regardless of genre. Even children's books begin with introducing the problem that the story will conquer.
Today's readers have many choices available to them. They download samples to read and, if yours bored them for a millisecond, they will move on to another choice. That's the reality. This doesn't mean you need to sacrifice quality at all—nor does it mean you need to compromise your story or your literary style.
So let's take a look at your work. What does your first paragraph look like? Does it contain power words that hammer their meaning without supportive adjectives or adverbs? Are you initiating a promise to the reader? If not, revise. Tighten it. Lose those adjectives and adverbs that are indicators that you're not using the correct noun or verb.
Have you intrigued the reader? Is there a sense of the character's inner conflict or attitude? What's the mood of the story? Will your audience be able to immediately know if you're writing a mystery, a drama, a romance, or a comedy? If not, how can you change it? Do you need to begin somewhere else?
As an editor, I've seen many stories that actually begin in the wrong place. This happens because the author had a story to tell, but as the writing commenced and twists and turns unfolded, the story itself changed. That's common and a natural result of the creative process. However, some authors are loathe to cut their original beginning. As I've stated, I've cut many beginnings after writing 'the end' on a manuscript. I've had to go back and completely rewrite the first few chapters so they worked with the finished story. It's also true that sometimes I've gotten it right from the start. Be critical when judging this for yourself. There's no crime in rewriting a new beginning.
It's essential that the reader see something in the main character that they are identifying with emotionally from that first introduction. This doesn't mean spending paragraphs on physical description, which needs to be handled sparingly anyway unless someone has a glaring scar or physical attribute that defines them and sets up the central story conflict. What are their actions saying about them as a person? Are their internal thoughts happy, irritated, angry, scared, conflicted? What are they doing in that place? Why do we as readers care about this person? If we don't know right away, we will never know because we'll stop reading. Interest isn't created simply by a physical description—a hook is based on an emotional connection.
Why should the reader care about your story? Answering that you think they should care because you wrote it and spent months or years crafting it is the wrong answer. Those first chapters---especially those first five pages or so—are your hook.
Here are a few examples of great first paragraphs:
From Perfection by Julie Metz
It happened like this: Henry's footsteps on the old wooden floorboards. The toilet flushing. More footsteps, perhaps on the stairs. Silence. Then the thud.
From Burn by Linda Howard
This was the vacation from hell.
Jenner Redwine sat frozen on the barstool, trying to remember what Bridget had told her and reconcile it with the nightmare that was actually happening. She'd been told that a man and a woman would argue at some point during the evening. The woman, Tiffany, would leave, and the man, Cael, would then approach Jenner. She'd been instructed to appear interested, and accommodating. She was to do exactly what he said, otherwise they would kill Syd, the only real friend she had in this world.
From Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The accused man, Kabuo Miyamaoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial. Some in the galley would later say that his stillness suggested a disdain for the proceedings; others felt certain it veiled a fear of the verdict that was to come. Whichever it was, Kabuo showed nothing—not even a flicker in his eyes. He was dressed in a white shirt worn buttoned to the throat and gray, neatly pressed trousers. His figure, especially the neck and shoulders, communicated the impression of irrefutable physical strength of precise, even imperial bearing. Kabuo's features were smooth and angular; his hair had been cropped close to his skull in a manner that made its musculature prominent. In the face of the charge that had been leveled against him he sat with his dark eyes trained straight ahead and did not appear to move at all.
From Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich
In my mind, my kitchen is filled with crackers and cheese, roast chicken leftovers, farm fresh eggs, and coffee beans ready to grind. The reality is that I keep my Smith & Wesson in the cookie jar, my Oreos in the microwave, a jar of peanut butter and hamster food in the over-the-counter cupboard, and I have beer and olives in the refrigerator. I used to have birthday cake in the freezer for emergencies, but I ate it.
“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”--Stephen King
Hooks Throughout Your Novel
It's not enough to grab your reader's attention from the opening pages. You must integrate other hooks throughout your book that pull your reader deeper into the story.
All stories begin with a promise. Whether it's to find the killer and bring him to justice or to conquer another species to save earth, the initial hook implies a promise to the reader of what is to come. Regardless of genre, hooks are a necessary component to storytelling.
As writers, we pepper various hooks throughout the book, always at key spots, that keep the reader turning the page. Think of them like guideposts on map steering your reader along, perhaps asking key questions or deepening a sense of doom. By strategically using hooks, you are creating that can't-put-it-down-for-even-a-minute feeling in your reader.
There is a sea of books out there and avid readers usually have a large to-be-read list. When they come to a chapter break, they often treat it like a commercial break where they get up to find a snack, let the dog out, check email, or whatever. That's to be expected, but you want them thinking about your book while they're away and getting restless to return to find out what happens next.
You don't want them forgetting about it and never picking it back up.
So how do we do that? By making sure our scene breaks, chapter breaks, and chapter beginnings are as compelling as page one.
The strongest hooks stir emotion or raise questions in the reader that keeps them reading "just one more page before bed." And then another and another. A reaction can be subtle, but it's strong enough to keep the reader compelled to discover more.
Not all hooks resonate the same with every reader, this is true. You as the author can't control that. What you need to keep in mind when placing and constructing a solid hook is the story's promise.
Focusing on hooks forces you to write with intention. This may feel awkward at first as you look through your manuscript and realize there are more revisions to be made. The craft of writing is hard work and there is no secret formula for mastering it. There is only information that you can use to elevate your writing to another level. Writing hooks can feel forced if you're not used to it, but keep tweaking them until they become a natural part of your writing process. Think of hooks as another tool in your writers' toolbox.
When revising, look for opportunities to strengthen your story with well-placed hooks. Look at your scene breaks, chapter breaks, and opening lines of chapters. Do they elicit questions, emotion, or suspense? Do they possess an element of foreshadowing? These are subtle, remember, and your word choices are important.
Examples of some chapter break hooks taken from random books on the shelf behind me:
Last sentence of a chapter break from Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner
When she turned toward the window, I opened my eyes a crack, and I could see her in the lamplight, her secret face, the one she shows only to me.
Last paragraph of a scene break from back roads by Tawni O'Dell
I stood up. My jeans were soaked from sitting on the ground for so long and from tromping through the wet woods. I stared at her, willing her to turn around and see me, to look at me with pity or ridicule or indifference but to at least see me. I was beginning to think I had imagined everything.
Do you sense the emotion? Remember that the key to a strong hook is appealing to the reader's sense of caring. This doesn't need to be overt, in fact it's best if it's simply crafted well enough that the reader doesn't feel like they've been hit over the head. Subtly is best.
Actionable steps for analyzing your manuscript for hooks
- Have you started in the right place? What's going on in that first paragraph? Does it clearly set the tone of the story to come?
- Do you have a lot of adverbs or adjectives? If so, that's a clue that you're using the wrong nouns and need to power up your sentences.
- Is there any backstory at all in the first chapter? Why? Do you need to begin earlier in your story?
- Are your characters relatable, three-dimensional people that give the reader a reason to care about them? Are they unique in some way? Are you presenting them in a way that the reader cares about their fate?
- Is there tension present?
- If this were the opening of a movie, would the audience be captivated or more interested in their popcorn?
- Knowing the story only as you the author can, do your first chapters do it justice?
- Evaluate every scene break and opening sentence of each chapter. Do they compel your reader to keep going? Are you strategically placing hooks like a map guiding your readers where you want them to go? Hooks are writing with intention—what is your intention?
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”--George Orwell
Amber Lea Eastonhttp://www.moxiegirlwriting.com
Amber Lea Easton is a multi-published author of nonfiction, thrillers, and romantic suspense. A professional editor and freelance journalist for nearly two decades, she created Mountain Moxie Publishing Services to assist authors in mastering the writing craft. Her memoir, Free Fall, is dedicated to spreading suicide awareness, has topped international best selling charts, and has been named by Dr. Prem as fourth on the "Ten Most Inspiring True Stories Everyone Must Read" list. Easton is also a speaker regarding parenting through trauma and suicide awareness. To discover more about Mountain Moxie Publishing Services, please go to http://www.moxiegirlwriting.com. For a list of all of Easton's books, articles and interviews, go to http://www.amberleaeaston.com.