How To Hook A Reader

Young man fishing at sunset

When used correctly, hooks are one of the most powerful ways a writer can keep a reader flipping pages well into the night. However, the majority of writers end up using them incorrectly. It’s important to realize why.

Hooks are the kind of tool that won’t hurt your writing if they aren’t used, but will help it greatly if they are. Do you want to propel your readers from one chapter to the next? Isn’t one of the most obvious signs of a great book the fact that you can’t put it down?

Nothing can propel people through a book like an engaging story – there’s no way around that – but combining an engaging story with a good hook means that even if it’s 4am and they have work tomorrow, readers will keep telling themselves ‘just one more chapter’ until the sun comes up.

The problem is that writers often confuse good hooks with something more akin to a one-line marketing ploy. Think about how often you’ve read a chapter that starts like this:

“He didn’t see it coming until it was too late.

It was a warm day outside, and he strolled through the park slowly. The sunlight lit up the individual blades of grass and cast tree-shaped shadows down the sloping lawn. A light breeze blew through the…”

Do you feel cheated? A little. Do you see straight through the fast one the writer just tried to pull over on you? Probably.

Unfortunately, this is what most hooks look like today. A gimmicky one line opening meant to carry you through one or several pages of boring exposition until the action picks back up. I know I’ve done this plenty of times, and I bet a lot of you have too. There’s nothing wrong with that, we didn’t know any better. But a hook is so much more than a one-liner.

A real hook sets the tone for the chapter. An intense first line, if followed by a slow scene, disrupts the audience’s stream of reading. An intense first line followed by an intense scene is fantastic. Our hooks are a promise – they tell the reader what to expect.

If you can keep the intensity up for several pages, by all means give us an explosive first line. We’ll probably read that chapter in the blink of an eye and enjoy every page of it. If your scene isn’t action packed but is emotionally intense, start with a first line that shows the strengths of emotional tension. We should enhance the strengths of our chapter, not make them up.

And perhaps just as important, don’t limit your hook to just one line. A hook can continue for a paragraph or a page. A hook can continue for an entire chapter. For as long as you can keep the intense style of writing up, keep it up. The same goes for end-of-chapter hooks: a cliffhanger isn’t just a final line that reads, “And then the lights went off.” A cliffhanger is a paragraph or page that sets us up so well that we need to find out what happens after the lights go off. An intense line that seems random doesn’t give us enough time to become invested in the outcome, and it just feels cheap. Spend time to develop your closing hooks – your readers will notice the difference (and find themselves finishing your books twice as fast).

To wrap it all up, a one line hook that sets false expectations for the chapter won’t keep someone reading. But a hook that flows so strongly into a scene that the reader can’t even find a natural place to pause will make sure he remains stuck in place, unable to stop himself from flipping the pages even if he can smell dinner burning in the next room.

For more information on hooks, there is a great chapter on them in The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

What do you think? Do you often find single-line hooks that are out of place in a particular scene? Have you used them yourself? Can you think of a time when an opening line was more like an opening paragraph or page, and you simply couldn’t stop yourself from reading the entire chapter?

What We Forget While Writing

There are plenty of things that we forget about while writing. Plenty of important details that slip our minds. At first you might think I’m referencing that time you forgot to pick your child up from school because you were writing a particularly engaging chapter, but I’m actually talking about things we forget in our actual story. I’m talking about things that pop up in our lives on a daily basis that, because they aren’t remarkable, we don’t think to mention.

I’m talking about:

  • Weather
  • A phone call from a friend
  • Needing to go to the bathroom
  • Needing to eat
  • Having to blow your nose or sneeze
  • Tripping over your own feet
  • Losing power
  • Having your car break down

And the list goes on.

That’s not to say these things should always be in your book. I don’t want to hear about it every time your character has to pee, or munches on some M&Ms. But if they perpetually munch on M&Ms, that’s a trait. Or if they have to go to the bathroom when they’re about to walk into the interview room, that’s a problem (though you might generally want to leave that part out). You get the gist of it. 

These things are often overlooked, but sometimes they are perfect for your story. You might be wondering how things can possibly get any worse for your character (and I assure you they always can) – what if there was a tornado? Or hurricane? Or a lightning strike that caused a power outage on the whole block? What if they were too busy to take their car into the shop when the check engine light came on at the beginning of the book, and then thirty chapters later it breaks down at a critical moment? These events, used correctly, can add tension and drama.

It’s hard to remember the things you always forget while writing (you’re welcome for that amazing piece of insight), but it’s worth it to try. It’s worth it to spend some time reaching far and wide in your mind, trying to figure out what’s missing, what you can add, how you can be more creative. Think of a problem that’s unique to your situation, something readers wouldn’t expect, some wrinkle in the situation that hasn’t been beaten to death by other writers. Cast your thoughts as far out as you can before reeling something back in. The added elements of your story are something that people will notice and appreciate.

What do you sometimes forget while writing that would be a good addition to a story?  On the flip side, what part of everyday life is boring or awkward and shouldn’t be mentioned?

How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

chicago-skyline-fireworks-thinkstockHow do you keep working towards your goals all year long? How do you stay committed day in and day out? How do you make sure you’re always moving forward, so that when you look back at your year you see 365 days of progress, and the sum of all your efforts is more than you could have imagined on any one of those individual days?

Getting bogged down in the individual days of our writing journey is something that a lot of writers struggle with. There is no instant gratification when it comes to writing. You don’t write, finish, edit, and publish a book in any short amount of time (unless you’re from the movie Limitless). As with fitness, writing success is gained from working in very small chunks, day in and day out, accumulated over time. This goes for pacing through the word count of your book, pacing through your personal journey of mastering the craft, and pacing through building up your collection of completed stories.

It happens slowly. But it still happens.

One of the hardest things to deal with is losing perspective. It’s so easy. You’re sitting on your couch, it’s 8pm, you told yourself that you’d write from 9-10:30 tonight and then go to sleep so you can get 7 or 8 hours of rest before work tomorrow. But tonight it turns out that the Washington Wizards, your favorite team, are playing in Central Time and the game doesn’t start until 8:10, won’t finish until 10:30, and by then you’ll be too tired to do any real work. That’s fine, because it’s not a big deal to skip one day of work.

Me? No of course I’m not talking about a situation I’ve been in before. Definitely not.

This is what it looks like to lose your bird’s eye view of your life, to lose perspective. No, it’s not always a huge deal. But it can be.

Losing perspective is why we’re so good at making New Year’s Resolutions, and so bad at following through. On January 1st, it’s easy to look at the year before you, decide what you want in life, figure out how to get there, and make promises to yourself. But two weeks later you aren’t looking at where you want to be in six months, you’re looking at whether you want Chipotle or Five Guys for dinner.

So how do you do it?

One way to do it is to trust yourself. No that’s not a platitude. I mean it literally. Trust yourself. Trust the serious decisions a past version of you made when he (or she) was looking at your future. Trust this past-you when reading the daily goals he wrote on January 1st – the goals that told you to write an hour a day, every day, even if it meant forgoing sleep. Trust him when he told you to eat healthy, to exercise, to follow your dreams not just in your own head, but in your daily routine. It’s hard because the easiest rules for us to break are rules we’ve laid down ourselves at some point in the past. But if your priority is your own future, those are the rules you should hold the most sacred.

Another way to do it is to keep a journal. If you want to make it sound less fun, you can call it holding yourself accountable for your days in writing, because that is what you’re really doing. When you sit down and write about yourself for 5-10 minutes every day, the goal isn’t to write a list of random things you did. ‘Woke up. Ate breakfast. Drove to work. Had an okay day. Came home. Wrote in this diary. Wrote that I wrote in this diary. Wrote that I…’ That isn’t the point.

The point is that when you write about your day every day, you realize what’s important. What did you really do today that mattered? What are you proud of? Those are the things you’ll end up putting on the page. ‘I spent quality time with my kids – it was amazing. I love them. I worked on my book for an hour and I’m so excited about the way the character of Christine is developing. I took an online course and learned something really important. I went to the gym. I ate healthy for all three meals. I’ve never felt better in my entire life. I’m happy.’

Writing in a journal is something that I’ve personally done on and off, and I can tell that I’m more productive, and generally happier, when I’m writing in it. Whether it’s the journal that helps make me happy, or that I just write in it when I already am happy, is something I’m unsure of. But I think it helps keep me accountable for my day and my goals. It’s even fun to go back and read sometimes. It helps you keep from getting lost in the middle months, in the slow days after you’ve just eaten a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream and don’t feel like working until next Monday.

It’s important to get lost in some things, like a party with friends, time with your significant other, or the actual act of writing itself.

Getting lost in an entire day is dangerous. Always try to remember how important each and every day is as a piece of the ladder you’re building to where you want to be. It’s true that the ladder may never end, but by keeping perspective and hitting the goals you’ve set for yourself, not only will the journey, and your life, be more fun, but you’ll go farther than you ever would have if you’d stopped on the first rung.

What about you? How do you keep perspective? How do you follow through on your dreams and desires? How do you take a January 1st New Year’s Resolution all the way to the stroke of midnight at the end of December?

If you’re interested, here is a great article on the benefits of writing in a journal, from improving your mood to improving the voice and style of your prose – Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary.