Sunday, July 18, 2010

How To Hook Your Reader

Contributed By Cindy A. Christiansen

There's nothing more important than a perfectly written beginning. It is necessary to grab the attention of the reader and hook them so they won't put your book down.

You can accomplish a great beginning with four easy tips:
1. Establish who, what, when, where and why.
2. Ascertain what kind of story you are writing.
3. Let the reader care about the character(s).
4. Set the tone of your book from the beginning.

Let's take a closer look:
Fiction writing is no different from any other writing. You must answer all of the "w" questions right up front as much on the first page as possible without being obvious. Let's look at each one:

WHO: Give the character's name right up front to establish from whose point-of-view (POV) the story is being told. In first-person that is "I". In third-person you want the name to reflect the time period, the personality of the character, and the tone of your book. Think about how you want the reader to relate to the character.

In my current work in progress, my heroine's name is Lizzie Cantrell. I point out in the story that Lizzie is not short for Elizabeth but that her mother named her after Lizzie in the play, Rainmaker. She is an artist looking for adventure. The hero, however, is Phillip E. Van Dyke. He insists that his employees call him Mr. Van Dyke, and if they call him Phil, he is extremely upset. Seriously injured, he is determined to keep people from getting too close. By having everyone use his formal name, he believes he can keep his emotions locked away.

Choosing the right name can greatly impact how your readers relate to your characters.

WHAT: To establish a relationship between your reader and your character, you need to suggest what the character is trying to gain or lose based on their goals. In the story above, Phillip keeps pulling up his turtle-neck. I suggest there is something wrong, but I don't give it all away yet. You need to suggest what is going to happen and make the reader curious to find out.

WHERE AND WHEN: Let the reader know up front in as little detail as possible where your book is taking place and what time period. You don't have to state the precise date, however that works in some cases. In contemporary novels, any detail about modern conveniences is usually sufficient. If you are writing a historial, use a known event, war, or invention that will signify the time period.

WHY: Again we don't want to give the story away, but this is where you reveal what drives your character and why. You just need to give a clue as to why they are pursuing what they are to let the reader know more is to come.
This may sound complicated but it's not. Here is an example from "A Novel Approach" by Kathy Jacobson that shows all of this important information in just a few short sentences:
Liz had nothing against sleeping with men, but she never again wanted to be married to one. After three years of freedom, even Jeff's wealth didn't look like a good trade-off. She smiled at him across the breakfast table and handed back the diamond ring she'd almost cracked a tooth on.
"It was clever of you to hide this in my muffin, but I really can't accept it."

Here's the summation: Who - Liz. What - she's declining a marriage proposal. Where - her breakfast table. When - three years after her divorce. Why - she prefers her freedom over wealth. Everything in one neat little paragraph. Wow!

The next important part of a beginning is starting with an important action when the character's life changes. A good resource for understanding this is Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient taken from his book, "Characters and Viewpoints." This will affect your beginning in different ways. For MILIEU it would be when the character enters the new environment. If you are writing an IDEA story, you want to start with something that affects the question being asked. When writing a CHARACTER story, you would concentrate on the character's emotions concerning the change in environment. With an EVENT story, you begin with the event that pushes the character into a new adventure.

Don't start your book with the character's back story. Begin with the circumstances that changes the character's life. Back story is very important and can be added throughout the book in interesting ways, but starting out with the character's life story is boring to the reader and you will lose them.

You do, however, want to have your character performing some natural task to make your reader identify with them. Then take them on the journey. If you throw them into the middle of the action too quickly, the reader is confused about what is happening, who the character is, or why they should even care.

Make sure you give the reader a reason to relate or like your character. You can accomplish this by making sure your character has goals and their reasons for their choices are clearly stated, especially that first scene. Make sure your scenes are well thought out according to POV. Remember that if you switch POV you lose the tension in the scene. It is important to stay with the opening character long enough for the reader to bond with them.

Choosing your genre will help determine the tone of your book. Is it suspenseful, humorous, or gory? Your writing needs to reflect that. Even your synopsis should reflect the tone of your book. The editor needs to know you can project the same tone that the book will be written in.

Well, that's it. It sounds simple enough and really it is. It takes some thought and practice, but it can be done. Given these four tips, you will write a book that will hook your readers and keep them turning pages. Good luck.

***Cindy A. Christiansen is a multi-published fiction writer. Visit her at:


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Great tips and checklist!

Unknown said...

How true, about the name and the reader I mean. Cantrell is the name given to a character in one of my favourite children's books and I was immediately there. I'd have warm thoughts about her.

Daneil Fletcher said...

This is a great article. It's awesome that I can find so much info online. Just thought about getting into this genre. Erkin Bekbolotov and book lovers should rejoice.

Mike Davies said...