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You Can’t Hook a Reader with a Yawn

April 9, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 10, 2011

Hooks. They can be barbed or curved. Maybe both. They can sting if they become embedded in the skin.

What they do is tug at you. Pull you in a particular direction. Compel you to follow.

True for fishhooks and fish as well as for story hooks and readers.

Hooks are attention-getters that cause the hooked one to turn from what he was doing and follow where the one controlling the hook wants him to go.

If the hook is well made and hits the target just right, that target won’t be getting free. No, that target will be following the line to wherever it leads. And the other objects and activities that had the target’s attention won’t have it any longer. Something more compelling will have taken over.

What do you use for a hook and as a lure to capture your reader’s attention? Do you give the reader enough to snare him, or is your hook attractive for only a moment, too weak to grab the reader, too mild to pull him away from other interests?

Do you give him a hook strong enough to pull him into your story? Maybe he only watches as the lure passes by, not intrigued enough to follow.

Is your hook alluring? Does it have what it takes to capture readers? Is your hook designed to catch the readers you want?

Not every lure will capture every fish. Who do you want to appeal to and what have you done to draw attention to your story?

Appeal
What does appeal mean in terms of your books and your genre? What do the readers who’ve picked up your book expect to find between the covers?

A murder mystery should open with a murder. 

Suspense, thrillers and horror should set the reader on edge, get his emotions churning. These books, even from the start, should make the reader uneasy or fearful or expectant.

Romance should introduce hero and/or heroine in an appealing or amusing or lustful way.

Literary novels should introduce an intriguing character, someone readers will be eager to know.

Contrast
Consider writing an opening different from every story you’ve read or heard about. Let your story openings stand in contrast to others. Take a risk—be different.

Compare
Consider using the framework from a story you love. Don’t copy all the opening elements, but analyze something that appeals to you, twist it, and make it work for your story opening. What works for others can work for you.

Engage the reader
Purposely engage readers from the first words, first image, first emotion, first bit of dialogue. You want the reader to bite? Give him something tasty to nibble on.

Story openings, our hook and bait, should not only look good, they should taste good too.

Compete
Write with the knowledge that your book competes with other entertainments in the reader’s life, with the reader’s life itself. This means you make the opening interesting. Evocative. Maybe humorous.

How about hot?

Shocking?

What about quirky or sad? Flashy or tragic or compelling?

Different. Make it different.

______________________________________

No Hook

We’ve all opened a book to find an opening that doesn’t grab us. Why? What’s wrong? Have we chosen a book that doesn’t meet our mood at that moment?

Possibly. Our emotions and the events of our lives can get in the way of our reading enjoyment. But when a reader fails to connect with a story, the fault doesn’t always lie with the reader.

Sometimes the book has failed. The writer has failed. 

A story without an opening hook will not catch reader interest the way a story with a stronger opening will. Story openings without barbs have little power to keep readers interested.

So, what doesn’t work? What kinds of openings fail to hook readers?

A woman lying in bed—daydreaming about her lack of a love life—stretching, yawning, getting comfy, yawning again. She’s pulling the reader into . . . yawn . . . slumber.

Be honest—did you yawn at least once while reading those words? Reading about yawning makes people yawn. It will make your readers yawn.

Not what you want for your novel’s opening, because you can’t hook a reader with a yawn.

Scenes of characters going to sleep don’t make good hooks, not for story beginnings and not for chapter endings. You want to keep the reader engaged and eager to read more, not remind them it’s time for a nap.

Other openings or elements of openings that fail to hook readers? There are plenty.

Mismatched tone. Do you open with humor in a book about death? Is the opening too heavy for your lighthearted hero? Check your tone. A reader can turn away if your tone doesn’t match the promise of the genre or the story’s description.

Poor grammar. Bad grammar also turns away readers. How can you hook readers when they don’t understand what’s happening? Grammar mistakes somewhere deep within an otherwise well-written book are forgiven. Such mistakes at the story’s opening don’t get the same leeway. Make sure your grammar is clean.

Annoyingly repetitive rhythm. Readers will elude your hook if the rhythm of your sentences is unvaried.

The boys stared at the old house with awe. It had sat there abandoned for years. Not one of them wanted to go in.

Learn to combine sentences for variety and try both very long and very short sentences. Vary the number of syllables in sentences; vary sounds and inflections too. Accent words in the middle of some sentences and at the ends of others. Try words with different letter combinations and sounds.

Repetitive sentence construction.
In a way similar to repetitive rhythm, sentence construction that’s unvaried also can repel rather than hook readers.

Hoping to win for the first time, Annie faced down her boss. Dreaming of victory, she leaned across his desk. She felt both fear and exhilaration when his eyes widened. Moving in for the kill, she smiled; defeating her old nemesis would be marvelous.

Confusion
Characters can be confused—the reader shouldn’t be. That is, the reader might not know how to account for everything that’s happening, but he should have a fairly clear picture of what’s happening in the story opening. How can you hook a reader who keeps rereading paragraphs because he has no idea what he’s reading?

Repugnant character. You may have trouble hooking readers if your story opens with a character who’s too repulsive too soon. On the other hand, such a character just might appeal. Know your audience.

Saccharine character. You might have a weak hook if you introduce a too-nice character too soon. Same holds true for a character without problems. Readers want to read about characters dealing with conflicts, not about the perfect people.

Polly’s day had been perfection. The boys had done their homework without fighting, the cable guy arrived exactly when he said he would, and her neighbor returned not only the two cups of sugar she’d borrowed, but she gave Polly a five-pound bag.

Polly had no doubt that the rest of the day [and the week and her life and forever . . .] would be just as uneventful.

Character out of time. A sure way to fail to hook readers is by giving a character from another era the sensibilities and thoughts of a twenty-first century man or woman.

Can you write characters any way you want to? Within reason, yes. But the smart writer will remember that a medieval European peasant would not have the same thoughts of national pride that a British officer of 1802 would have. A woman who was a child in 1905 will not have the same understanding of the world as a woman born in 2005.

Character interests are different. Outlooks are different. Our modern sensibilities as members of our world will not necessarily hold true for another era, country, or social class.

When you introduce characters in your opening, make sure they fit your story time and place.

Too many plots. The introduction of a dozen major plot threads in the first three pages of your novel is not a surefire way to hook readers. In fact, you’re more likely to lose them. Too many options means there’s no single plot thread that can capture the reader’s attention.

Keep plot threads manageable in your opening. Focus the reader’s attention.

Too many characters. Introducing too many characters in a novel’s opening is another way to keep readers from following the bait and hook you’ve prepared for them. How can readers know who’s important? How can readers keep up, especially if you name characters and/or give them physical descriptions and titles?

Readers are meeting your characters for the first time when your story unfolds; everyone’s a stranger. Help readers by keeping the numbers down at the start.

Failure to ID lead characters. Readers may resist your lure if you fail to identify the protagonist, the antagonist, the hero or heroine, or other essential characters in the opening pages.

No, you don’t have to tell them everything or introduce everyone. But tell them something. Give readers someone to latch on to. Encourage them to get involved in the story by giving them a character to become involved with.

Lack of action/event. A story opening in which nothing happens has no hook.

Novels are stories of events happening to characters. Something’s got to occur in your opening; otherwise, you’re writing something other than a novel.

Must there be an explosion on page one? Of course not. But something does have to happen in chapter one. And preferably before the point where the reader regrets picking up the book.

Remember that story is primarily about characters and events. An opening without them isn’t much of an opening. And such an opening may discourage even your fans.

Give readers something they can latch on to. Give them a story opening with a hook.

Write alluring openings.

Too much dialogue. An overabundance of dialogue is a turn-off. But how much is too much?

If your novel opens with dialogue and your characters don’t pause to take a breath or to interact with the setting, if you haven’t given a description of that setting because the characters are too busy talking, you’ve got too much dialogue.

For the opening.

Characters can talk and talk—of course they can—but they should also react to what other characters are saying. Remember to give readers visuals of what characters are doing.

I have no wish to tell you what you can try as a writer. If you want to open with only dialogue for three pages, try it. See what it does for your story. Yet, remember your readers. If they’re bored with talk unrelieved by action or exposition, you can’t blame them for not being attracted by your style. You have to please them; they don’t have to like your work.

Imagine yourself in a restaurant and the couple seated in the booth behind you is having a fascinating discussion about their latest murder. You hear the sound of their voices, the inflections, as well as the sounds of the restaurant. You smell the aromas from the kitchen, feel the bustle of the waiters as they pass by, taste the too salty chicken on your plate. You even feel the emphasis when the couple pause between revelations.

If you faced them, you’d get even more information—their looks, facial expressions, posture, gestures. You’d know if they were leaning toward one another. You’d even know if they gave thought to others in the restaurant.

But if you couldn’t see the couple, didn’t know where they were, couldn’t hear their voices as they spoke, you wouldn’t know if they were serious or joking. You wouldn’t have any context for their discussion. If the words of the dialogue were projected on a white wall in your den, with no explanation, you’d not have the same reaction to those words, no matter how compelling they were in themselves.

Dialogue without other information is insufficient for conveying the multiple elements necessary for good stories and good hooks.

Not enough dialogue. Don’t forget to include in your story opening a character who either speaks or thinks so readers get a sense of who he is or what he wants.

People relate to other people, and readers relate to characters that they can know.

An opening without dialogue might be utterly marvelous. But insight into a character’s thoughts would assure the reader that the world he’s entering is peopled with beings similar to himself, beings who reason within themselves and communicate with others.

How long can you go in a story’s opening before the reader needs to hear thoughts or dialogue? A lot farther than you can go with straight dialogue.

One way to decrease the need for dialogue early in a story? Show a character’s thoughts or emotions through action—an arsonist grinning as his tiny flame grows into a conflagration or a woman smiling through her tears as she runs fingers over her husband’s headstone and reads the humorous description there. Dialogue can be withheld without boring or confusing the reader if character is revealed another way.

Note, however, that the visual of dense paragraphs of narrative without breaks for dialogue can turn off readers. Readers need white space on their pages, and dialogue gives that to them.

Too much description or setting. Overwhelming the reader with too much description before introducing a character or story event can underwhelm rather than hook.

How important is the setting? Is it the most important element of your plot? Does it set the mood? Is it almost a character in itself?

If so, feel free to open with setting and emphasize it. Just keep in mind that readers will be looking for characters and events. How long do you want to keep them from what they want?

If setting is not key to your story, why give it place of honor in your story’s opening? Use setting. But put it in its proper place.

And if you open with weather, be sure there’s a reason for doing so. If the night is dark and stormy and you’ve shared that with readers, make use of the dark and the storm. Make sure weather elements add to the scene and aren’t simply fillers.

Must characters wear raincoats and umbrellas? Maybe hats that hide their faces? Do slick roads lead to accidents? Do thunderstorms frighten the protagonist’s children? Does unrelenting rain after a drought cause flooding?

But if the weather isn’t critical, why highlight it at the beginning of your story? How many readers will you entice with weather words?

It is okay to use weather in your story’s opening if it’s not simply a placeholder for the true story opening. That is, don’t use weather only because you haven’t thought of a stronger opening. Be deliberate about your opening scene—the words, the events, the characters involved, the tone you set.

Bait your hook in an appealing way.

______________________________________

Keep in mind the purpose of the hook—to ensnare the reader, to pull him away from outside influences and toward your story events and characters.

Make the hook appealing. Attract. Cajole. Entice.

Remember that you can’t force the hook into the reader; he’s got to come to the hook. Attract his attention and then beguile him. Make your hook tempting enough to draw him, first to your story and then into it to be pulled along by the power of your characters and their challenges.

Use the right bait.

Lure the reader.

And keep the tension just tight enough that the reader not only can’t struggle free, but won’t want that freedom.

***

Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, How to

5 Responses to “You Can’t Hook a Reader with a Yawn”

  1. Andrew says:

    Never really thought about it this way, but I cause you really can tell what genre you’re looking at by the type of hook the author uses. At least in a lot of cases.

  2. Hi, Andrew. For most stories I find that you really can peg genre from the opening. Mystery, suspense, and horror have a different feel than romance has. Sci-fi usually gives itself away by the unusual setting or action. Westerns are fairly easy to identify. Literary stories often have a more languid feel, even if they’re dark in tone. And a thriller often starts with action of some kind.

    Stories of mixed genre or those of a sub-genre might include elements from two genres, but it’s likely they’ll still lean to one identifiable style.

    Readers come to certain books because of the genre. And since they’re looking for something particular, there’s no reason not to give it to them. With a twist, of course. We wouldn’t want to bore our readers.

    Good point, Andrew.

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