How can you hook the reader?
Let's get right into it and begin with page one of your story, manuscript, novel etc.
Most books I've read about writing agree: the writer must begin the work of grabbing the reader's attention in the first sentence. And if the first paragraph has failed to entice the reader to continue, the project does not stand a chance of getting beyond the slush pile in any publisher's office.
In my role at work, I often read and review new project ideas, book proposals and new manuscripts, and seeing so many projects, I want something to tackle me on page one. So I firmly agree that the writer must demonstrate his or her ability right away, or my red flags start to go up fast.
But I am talking about more than simple writing ability or good grammar. How really does one go about crafting a story, a chapter, an entire novel or even just a scene, so that the reader cares enough about the characters, the plot or the fictional world to continue reading? I have heard some say that sharp opening dialogue is the key to getting the reader to relate to the characters and thereby garnering their interest. Some writers use humor. Others will begin with an interesting symbolic metaphor or a particularly poignant bit of internal character commentary.
I don't think there is a single correct way to go about it. But how much grace do you give a book before you decide it's just too dull to be worth your time? Here are some thoughts on hooking an audience that fit this discussion:
In a blog post over at The Swivet about Joss Whedon, a writer ridicules Whedon's new show "Dollhouse" for starting too early in the story and for making fans of the show wait until episode 7 before the show "really gets going".
I haven't seen the show, so I can't comment on Whedon's storytelling in this particular case, but the point of this post is a good one. If you can't hook your TV viewer in the first 60 minutes of a TV show, should you really be making that particular show? Or did you start it in the wrong place? The writer posits the idea that if novelists haven't hooked their reader by page 60 of their novel, then the book won't find an audience.
60 pages? Seriously? If a book bored me to snoring, I don't think I would give it 6 pages!
If literary agent Noah Lukeman is correct, we writers have even less than 6 pages. In his book The First Five Pages, Lukeman writes that he is always looking for reasons to reject a query, proposal or manuscript. Essentially, he can make a decision about a book within the five pages of a manuscript. Wow.
I, for one, don't mind waiting a couple episodes for a show from someone like Joss Whedon. But I'm no Joss Whedon (nor a bestselling author), and so I think it's my responsibility to hook my readers on page one (with which I'm still fumbling a bit).
Here is the simple lesson I've been learning, and relearning lately. Less is more. Writers must create a heightened sense of mystery or wonder or curiosity fast - on page one, if possible. The rest of the story should be all about how that mystery or sense of curiosity is solved or satisfied: one small, tantalizing piece of information at a time. This is what I've got today.
Meanwhile, what kinds of things have you done to HOOK the reader in your writing? Do you agree with Lukeman that writers have five pages, or do you think 60 pages is reasonable?