Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Can You Hook the Reader?

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?


etwriter said...

I've always thought the First Sentence rule is useful to get writers to begin the story in the right place. But I have seen a melodramatic opening line/paragraph/chapter treated as a kind of license to meander through the next five pages or chapters.

Five pages (adjusted appropriately for manuscript length) seems like the right size to introduce a setting, character, story hints and above all, the writer, to the reader.

Robert Treskillard said...

I think all the rules apply: The first sentence rule must get the reader hooked so they read those first five pages. The first five pages must hook the reader to get them reading the first 50. The first fifty better deliver, or else the book will be put down and forgotten.

Everyone's too busy now-days to waste time on a boring novel.

My problem (and the problem of many others) is that I have a prologue, and so I have to "hook" the reader twice ... back-story and the main-story. I also know that many skip the prologue, so I have to start chapter 1 assuming they're not hooked yet.

LisaBit said...

Maybe I'm just too nice, but I give books 100 pages before I decide to put them down. Maybe its an artifact of reading far too much epic fantasy, but there are so many good books out there that take time to get going. Fellowship of the Ring is the classic example, but there are many more modern examples as well: Glass Books of The Dream Eaters, Kushiel's Dart, even A Game of Thrones to some extent. Hell, Kushiel's Dart actually takes more like 120 pages - the first time I read it I stopped at my 100 cut off and only picked it up again a year later after a friend pestered me to death.

That said, the flip side is that I'm less likely to buy a book in the first place if the first page or so doesn't impress me. Of course given the size of my stack, maybe I should be a bit more discerning... ;)

The Ninth Dragon King said...

This is quite the conundrum: I've never bought (or didn't buy) a book base on the first line, paragraph, page, etc. To me it has always come down to the summary (whether on the back or inner flaps of the sleeve) of the story; that's what I view as the hook. If I find it interesting, I'll get the book and start reading without much thought at how it all begins.
On the other hand, I'm very critical of my own novels and I do abide by the first line/first page rule. And there was one instance when I changed the beginning of a story to a whole different timeline because I didn't like/think that first page was good enough.
It's tough, especially for a unpublished person trying to break in 'cause granted, there has been many brilliant books that didn't have the best of beginnings, and now more than ever, publishers are less likely to have faith on a manuscript and keep reading for just a bit longer. As Noah Lukeman says: he's always looking for a reason to reject a manuscript. Mean perhaps, but that's the industry now and we have to deal with it.
On the subject of "prologues" I see it as an opportunity to give the reader something tantalizing that would make them want to find out more even if the "actual" first page isn't as neck-grabbing.

Alexander Field said...

Edward (etwriter), I agree, that first sentence rule can be abused if one is not careful - or if the writer takes far too much license with that idea. And five pages is my rule as a reader of new proposals, so obviously the hook must be planted by then!

Robert, ultimately I agree - the whole book MUST deliver. But a HOOK is more than simply good prose, right? I think the hook has to be deliberate. And speaking of the prologue issue, I have the problem as well! : )

Alexander Field said...

Lisa, I'm with you - if the first few pages don't deliver SOMETHING interesting, even something small!!, I'm done. I want to know though, after you picked up Kushiel's Dart again, did you finish it?? And was it worth it? What kept you going? Was there a hook of some kind buried in that 120 pg lead up that drove you on?

Pink Ink said...

There have been times I have said to myself, I'm just going to peek and see what the first line is like. Some books suck me right in from the get-go, and it's always an amazing experience.

I'd love to have that same effect with MY stories.

When I tuck in my kids in bed, I check out the first lines of their books to see if I could learn something. Esp. kids books, the beginning paragraphs have to be compelling!

Alexander Field said...

Dragon King, yeah I hear you. Publishing these days is more competitive than ever before. My thought is, it is my job as a writer to remove every hurdle for agents, publishers, AND readers - why not! I want the reading experience to be the best it can be. And I agree with you, if you're going to use a prologue, make it part of the hook...right?

PinkInk, that's so true isn't it! Kids have such short attention spans - what a great idea. And yes, I always admire the writer who can very quickly pull me into a story, just like that. That's a rare talent, and a joy to read!

Samuel D. Smith said...

This is a great post, and it makes me very scared.

I like the idea of the free first sentence, the chance to do something different, even poetic. I think what's most important is what comes right after that.

Also, I wake up in cold sweats over the beginning to my novel.

Not really. But kind of. Thanks for bringing back the trauma, Alexander.

Samuel D. Smith said...

I forgot two things:

1. I think your point about deliberation is key. Does that have to do with pacing? I don't like it when a book is just so crazy at first that it has an unnatural pacing. But I worry that my novel doesn't have enough "spice" except for an interesting opening scene (in the prologue) and then as the book begins to climax in the last third.

2. I love the new blog look.

Valerie Comer said...

Great new look, Alex!

I ran a workshop last year at Forward Motion on hooks, and all we looked at was the first 250-300 words. That's enough to know whether or not you're intrigued or not. Or read some of the opening page contests some of the agents run on their blogs from time to time.

My eyes glaze over pretty quick on most of the entries. Then I get to try to apply what I've learned in my own writing, and grabbing the reader in the first couple of paragraphs is hard to do

Really hard.

Keanan Brand said...

A few years ago, at a local writing retreat, a friend and I hosted a mini-session and a contest, both called "Hooks, Lines, and Sinkers". The hooks part is obvious, but the lines part concerned dialogue, and the sinkers concerned clunky writing or overwriting.

The contest entries were hysterical; the winner of the "sinkers" was a page-long run-on sentence that told an entire story.

But I digress. This is supposed to be about hooks.

A couple of my favorite books open simply: "A horse, he came to understand, was missing" (The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay), and "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" (does this one even need a citation?). Both are fantasy, both are adventures, but they are vastly different in style and in content. Both sucked me in to the story.

In journalism, I was taught to never open an article -- even an interview -- with dialogue, a rule I was known to break; in a story, however, it works i.e. "On a post. In a pond," the seemingly bland opening line of Blaggard's Moon by George Bryan Polivka (which I'm reading for the upcoming CSFF Blog Tour -- good story), which describes an uncomfortable and ultimately deadly form of pirate punishment.

One of my favorite books, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, opens with a line that must have seemed intriguing when I was ten but now makes me wonder why I kept reading: "When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me."

In The Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander -- an awesome writer of childrens' literature -- each book opens with an interesting hook:

1. "Theo, by occupation, was a devil" -- Westmark.

2. "Spring in the Carla River valley was a matter of opinion" -- The Kestrel.

3. "King Constantine IX of Regia had been killed three times and was bored with it" -- The Beggar Queen.

If the hook is whiz-bang, then the rest of the story should live up to its opening line (or be better than that line, as in the case of Where the Red Fern Grows), lest the reader be disappointed and not finish the book.

As a writer, one of my greatest fears is follow-through: Can I live up to my own greatness? (laugh) I can set up an intriguing scenario, but can I maintain it? Can I go the distance? My files and notebooks are full of good ideas and interesting lines that lead absolutely nowhere.

Keanan Brand said...

I forgot to add this opening line from The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox: "After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper." The book starts near the end of the story, then travels backward, but the twisty storytelling is excellent, one of the best books I've ever read; a modern novel written like an homage to the great novels of a century or two ago.

Kerani said...

For this reader, if I'm not hooked in the first page to page-and-a-half, I don't finish the book. I have had my attention peeter out at about 50 pages, but that was when I quit reading - I actually lost interest long before.

And I have had anticipation, what-on-earth-will-happen-next?!!!?! drag me on to finish a book even when I've been v. underwhelmed by style, characterization, etc.

For this writer, it's hard. I want to set up the story and lay out the scene, instead of just going ahead and telling the story.

A bit of advice that I've heard is to write out the story, and then cut out the first fourth/chapter/three pages, so as to start as deep into the story as one could go. I'd be interested to know if other people have tried this, and if it's worked for them.

Alexander Field said...

Keanan, I too have heard some of the maxims of the 'lead' in journalism. Funny how these rules get passed around like scripture. And what a great idea to check out some first lines in favorite books! Here are FIVE from randomly selected books on my shelf:

1. "I saw something. I saw something out of the corner of my eye."
- Ghost, Alan Lightman

2. "Elantris was beautiful, once."
- Elantris, Brandon Sanderson

3. The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself."
- Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

4. "Maman died today."
- The Stranger, Albert Camus

5. "'We are both busy people, so let's cut the small talk.'"
- Number 9 Dream, David Mitchell

Wow, they all seem to be rather short, poignant hooky lines, don't you think?

Kerani, you make another good point. If a writer can play the hook for all its worth, it almost doesn't matter if his or her style or writing isn't top shelf...so really, mastering the hook (throughout, not just in the first line) might actually be more important that gorgeous prose. Good observation!

Alexander Field said...

Hey Sam, thanks for coming by. Sorry about the night sweats and trauma! As for the pacing question, I have the same issues with my novel in progress. I guess I'll be cutting something or adding in some new conflict to stir the pot!

Valerie, I'll have to check out some of the opening page contests. 250-300 pages is about a page of copy - but that's a great idea. Maybe we should run an opening line contest, easier to write, fun to play around with and should be fairly easy to judge...and learn from! : )

Valerie Comer said...

The gal who co-facilitated the workshop with me wasn't convinced at first that under 300 words was a large enough segment. We ran six recent novels in various genres through Nancy Kress's criteria in *Beginnings, Middles, and Ends* to get the participants warmed up. Then they posted their own and we applied the criteria to them. We all learned a lot. Notably, how important it is to start out strong.

Funny, we called ours Hook, Line and Sinker also, because we were looking at more than the first line.

Eve said...

I think the first 5 pages is essential. (at least to me as a reader).

That being said, I wonder how my book measures up. It's hard to have a good perspective when you're the one writing it.

Alexander Field said...

Valerie, that's impressive that you've led a workshop on this topic...and yes, I've read Beginnings Middles and Ends, in college, great book! Very practical.

Eve, I agree. It's always hard to judge your own writing...especially when some days it reads like the next bestseller, and other days it reads horribly, like the worst drivel on the rack! I can easily swivel between those two poles!

Cami Checketts said...

I make my ten-year old give every book fifty pages, but I rarely follow that rule myself!

I've read and re-read Noah Lukeman's book, but I agree with Eve, it's tough to judge your own work. Thank heavens for ruthless critique partners.

Thanks for the great post,