Guest Post: Hook, Line, and Sinker – How to Hook Your Reader with Just One Sentence
Today I have another awesome guest here on my blog! Mark, thanks A LOT for this AMAZING and DETAILED article! Learn How to Hook Your Reader.
Guest Post: Hook, Line, and Sinker- How to Hook Your Reader with Just One Sentence
When I was young, I took to heart a terrible piece of advice from Stephen King which made my writing all the worse for decades.
Don’t get me wrong; Stephen King is a phenomenal writer, and his book “On Writing” still remains one of the most inspirational and helpful works about the craft. However, I was young, stupid, and full of myself and my own talent. I read something from King which I desperately wanted to believe; I gobbled it up without stopping to think of the context.
When young Bobby Garfield complains to neighbor and mentor Ted Brautigan in King’s Hearts in Atlantis about the boring old book The Lord of the Flies that he has to read, Brautigan chastises Bobby and teaches him an important lesson.
“A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give… eventually. Do you go along with that?”
“How long would you prime a water-pump and flail the handle if nothing came out?”
“Not too long, I guess.”
“This book is two hundred pages, give or take. You read the first ten percent – twenty pages, that is, I know already your math isn’t as good as your reading – and if you don’t like it by then, if it isn’t giving more than it’s taking by then, put it aside.”
-Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis
“Aha!” young me said. “This is perfect! And he’s right – a book CAN drag in the beginning, but it soon rewards you. So clearly, I can spend several pages to build up the story, only to knock it out of the park ten or twenty or thirty pages in.”
No, no no, wrong, wrong, WRONG. Ted’s advice, which is excellent for a reader, is death for a modern writer. Ted was advising a child how to approach reading; specifically, reading classic English literature. It was a discussion between two characters in the 1950s lounging on a porch on a hot summer afternoon when the chief source of entertainment for little boys was comics, baseball, black-and-white broadcast television, and the occasional monster movie.
It was NOT made to a new author trying to get their foot in the market in a world where attention is fought for constantly, where the largest bookseller on earth constantly reminds its customers of other, similar books which might be MORE interesting as they browse, and where even the medium that books are read on is full of games and social media that updates and alerts constantly. An author doesn’t have ten percent of the book to establish themselves anymore. They don’t even have one.
In short, the modern reader doesn’t have the patience to pump and expect water eventually; they expect it to come gushing when they turn the faucet. Every page is critical. Every word is critical. And I’m going to say something here which might be controversial, but REALLY can’t be ignored.
The most important part of any book is the first sentence.
The second most important part of any book is the first chapter.
If the reader isn’t hooked in the beginning, the rest does not matter. No one will read it.
The author MUST hook the character with the very first sentence or two. A hook grabs reader attention by introducing the main character, the action, the scene, the problem, and enough questions that make the reader interested to find out more. It also must be exciting enough to engage the reader. This is most easily done by taking your main character and getting him into trouble.
Once attention has been snagged, the author then must use the first chapter in order to reel the reader in. This is best done through characterization-through-action of that main character, showing how she responds and resolves the problem while introducing more opposition. It is not done by lengthy exposition. Through action, the author must introduce fully their character, their motivation, the setting, hints toward the main problem, the key themes to the book, AND finish with another larger hook to get the reader to continue onto the next chapter.
Tough? Maybe. But absolutely vital. Even writers who would never, ever dream of writing out of order may want to consider writing the first chapter later after they know their story better.
To demonstrate the difference that a solid first line and first chapter can make, I’m going to use as examples two books from two New York Times best-selling authors: Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, and Jim Butcher’s Blood Rites. Paolini’s work begins with the typical High Fantasy prologue, and Butcher’s work begins the reader in the heart of the action. Read the following, and judge which works better.
Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.
-Christopher Paolini, Eragon
Paolini’s first line establishes very little: time, weather, and a vague premonition. There are a few questions that the reader may be asking himself at this point, but they’re entirely the wrong questions. Does a scent change the world? What does it smell like? How will that scent change the world? This is, in fact, a dead line: the ‘scent’ is simply a poetic opening that does little more than sound interesting. It has no significance other than the fact that a creature smelled it. The following lines are barely better: the reader is introduced to a character who is almost certainly not the main character, which immediately makes many readers lose interest. Why waste time learning about someone who is almost certainly not going to be important for the beginning section of the plot? Ultimately, the main questions the reader has as they read these passages are: what is this creature, and why should I care?
On the other hand, Butcher’s opening paragraph is a single line.
The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.
-Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
Immediately, we’re thrown into action. We might not yet know who the main character is, but we know that he’s in trouble: there’s a burning building, and presumably, he’s in it. To many readers, that would automatically start the heart racing. How to get out? Yet, the masterful part of this opening line is the second clause: and it wasn’t my fault. Whose fault was it? Who started the fire? Was it accidental, or intentional? Furthermore, why does the main character feel the need to state that it wasn’t his fault? Are there people who would otherwise blame him for the fire? What does that say about him?
Ladies and gentlemen, the reader is now hooked.
Let’s continue on to Paolini’s first few opening paragraphs:
He blinked in surprise. The message had been correct; they were here. Or was it a trap? He weighed the odds, then said icily, “Spread out; hide behind trees and bushes. Stop whoever is coming . . . or die.”
Around him shuffled twelve Urgals with short swords and round iron shields painted with black symbols. They resembled men with bowed legs and thick, brutish arms made for crushing. A pair of twisted horns grew above their small ears. The monsters hurried into the brush, grunting as they hid. Soon the rustling quieted and the forest was silent again.
The Shade peered around a thick tree and looked up the trail. It was too dark for any human to see, but for him the faint moonlight was like sunshine streaming between the trees; every detail was clear and sharp to his searching gaze. He remained unnaturally quiet, a long pale sword in his hand. A wire-thin scratch curved down the blade. The weapon was thin enough to slip between a pair of ribs, yet stout enough to hack through the hardest armor.
The Urgals could not see as well as the Shade; they groped like blind beggars, fumbling with their weapons. An owl screeched, cutting through the silence. No one relaxed until the bird flew past. Then the monsters shivered in the cold night; one snapped a twig with his heavy boot. The Shade hissed in anger, and the Urgals shrank back, motionless. He suppressed his distaste—they smelled like fetid meat—and turned away. They were tools, nothing more.
-Christopher Paolini, Eragon
To be fair, Paolini’s focus on the beginning passage is on building anticipation. The reader understands from the beginning that this Shade and his cohorts were sent to this location on orders, and are now trying to ambush someone who is approaching. This would normally create tension, which would be proportional to either what we know about the Shade and the Urgals, or what we know about the person or group being ambushed. It’s not a bad tactic to use, mid-story.
It utterly fails as an opening, as the reader at this point doesn’t care about the person being ambushed. They don’t even care about the Shade. At this point, the reader is likely just trying to figure out who is important and whether the Shade is the good guy or the bad guy. The shifting viewpoint between third person omniscient and third person limited doesn’t particularly help, either. The reader might assume that the Shade is the bad guy and the people being ambushed are good, but they would do so only due to tired, worn-out clichés: the Shade has a threatening attitude, and the Urgals are monstrous; ergo, bad guys. When the reader gets to the last paragraph, he is likely either buckling down to read a lot of exposition about a lot of characters he cares nothing about, has skipped ahead to the next chapter, or has put the book back on the shelf.
Heck, the first time I read Eragon, I skipped. I’m not alone.
Now, let’s check up with Jim Butcher’s protagonist.
My boots squeaked and squealed on the tile floor as I sprinted around a corner and toward the exit doors to the abandoned school building on the southwest edge of Chicagoland. Distant streetlights provided the only light in the dusty hall, and left huge swaths of blackness crouching in the old classroom doors.
I carried an elaborately carved wooden box about the size of a laundry basket in my arms, and its weight made my shoulders burn with effort. I’d been shot in both of them at one time or another, and the muscle burn quickly started changing into deep, aching stabs. The damned box was heavy, not even considering its contents.
Inside the box, a bunch of flop-eared grey and black puppies whimpered and whined, jostled back and forth as I ran. One of the puppies, his ear already notched where some kind of doggie misadventure had marked him, was either more brave or more stupid than his litter mates. He scrambled around until he got his paws onto the lip of the box, and set up a painfully high-pitched barking full of squeaky snarls, big dark eyes focused behind me.
I ran faster, my knee length black leather duster swishing against my legs. I heard a rustling, hissing sound and juked left as best I could. A ball of some kind of noxious-smelling substance that looked like tar went zipping past me, engulfed in yellow-white flame. It hit the floor several yards beyond me, and promptly exploded into a little puddle of hungry fire.
-Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
Butcher doesn’t let up on the excitement. We immediately understand that the protagonist is in the building and running out, but he’s got a problem: he’s carrying a huge heavy box that is full of puppies while being chased by something that appears to be shooting napalm Even though we know nothing about the protagonist, the situation is exciting enough and odd enough that it grabs the reader’s attention and keeps them turning the page. More questions begin to pop up, and characterization begins to leak into the verbiage. We see bits and pieces of not only the setting but also the character: he lives in “Chicagoland,” he’s been shot numerous times, he judges that the puppy must have gotten in a ‘doggie misadventure,’ and he ‘juked’ – all terms which give us glimpses of personality.
Furthermore, we see his choices. Somehow, this box full of puppies is worth more to this character than his own safety and life. Why? Is this a person who often puts his life on the line? Is there something special about the puppies? Why would he go through so much pain and agony to pull them out, rather than drop the box and run for his life?
Five paragraphs in – Butcher has hooked his reader and is reeling him in; Paolini’s missed the hook and lost the fish.
Now finally, let’s introduce the opposition. Ideally, this should be an adversary, not merely an event; something that the character we’ve been focusing should be conflicting with. Because writing is about conflict, the adversary should highlight what is important or vital about the character and ratchet up the tension. Seeing the characters in conflict should also tell us about the story in general and what to expect from the book as a whole.
Here’s how Paolini introduces the opposition to his Shade.
Between these two rode a raven-haired elven lady, who surveyed her surroundings with poise. Framed by long black locks, her deep eyes shone with a driving force. Her clothes were unadorned, yet her beauty was undiminished. At her side was a sword, and on her back a long bow with a quiver. She carried in her lap a pouch that she frequently looked at, as if to reassure herself that it was still there.
One of the elves spoke quietly, but the Shade could not hear what was said. The lady answered with obvious authority, and her guards switched places. The one wearing the helm took the lead, shifting his spear to a readier grip. They passed the Shade’s hiding place and the first few Urgals without suspicion.
The Shade was already savoring his victory when the wind changed direction and swept toward the elves, heavy with the Urgals’ stench. The horses snorted with alarm and tossed their heads. The riders stiffened, eyes flashing from side to side, then wheeled their mounts around and galloped away.
-Christopher Paolini, Eragon
While Paolini certainly expects this passage to be exciting, the effect on the reader is anything but. Essentially, by starting his work with an unimportant adversary character slowly planning to ambush an unknown character, Paolini has done nothing more than started a sudden fight between elves and orcs. In the post-Lord of the Rings world, this is absolutely dull; nothing we haven’t seen done dozens of times before, and far better. The reader doesn’t know a thing, or care, about the elves; by now, they certainly don’t care about the Shade.
The only thing that the reader MIGHT care about is the big obvious Plot Device sitting in the elf-lady’s lap – and this is less because there’s anything interesting about it, and more because Paolini essentially tells his readers, “Look, over here, this thing’s important. Something’s going to happen here.” Compare this to Butcher’s box full of puppies, and the difference is clear: both are the MacGuffins of their own narratives, but Butcher’s box has far more narrative agency than Paolini’s pouch. The box creates pain, and tension, it alludes to having a mystical history and is full of puppies, who have their own personality. Paolini’s pouch just sits in someone’s lap.
Have you been wondering yet about Butcher’s opposition? I bet you have.
The goop hit my left shoulder blade and slid off the protective spells on my mantled coat, spattering the wall beside me. I flinched nonetheless, lost my balance and fumbled the box. Fat little puppies tumbled onto the floor with a chorus of whimpers and cries for help.
I checked behind me.
The guardian demons looked like demented purple chimpanzees, except for the raven-black wings sprouting from their shoulders. There were three of them that had escaped my carefully crafted paralysis spell, and they were hot on my tail, bounding down the halls in long leaps assisted by their black feathered wings.
As I watched, one of them reached down between its crooked legs and . . . Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it gathered up the kind of ammunition primates in zoos traditionally rely upon. The monkey-demon hurled it with a chittering scream, and it combusted on its way to me. I had to duck before the noxious ball of incendiary goop smacked into my nose.
-Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
Hook, line, sinker.
If Butcher hadn’t landed the reader before, he has by now. He uses the increased tension and opposition to go into detail on his main character – he can use magic; his leather duster has protective spells on it, and he had cast a spell earlier. Butcher’s investment in his MacGuffin pays off when he puts the puppies in danger, immediately raising the stakes, which he uses as an opportunity to show the reader what the main character has been running from. Demons. But not just any demons; flying purple chimpanzee demons who throw flaming monkey poo. Flaming monkey poo which almost hits the protagonist square in the face.
Butcher’s antagonists in this scene may not appear as anything more than goons, and that’s because they really aren’t. But they serve an extremely important job: we see how the main character thinks and responds. It completes the picture and helps us understand a little bit more about the world that the author wants to tell us. And it tells us more about what kind of book we’re about to read.
By the end of the first chapter of Blood Rites, the reader may come to the conclusion that he’s going to read a book about a modern-day magic user in Chicago who fights evil to great personal risk and pain, all while keeping a humorous attitude. And they’d be right. If this sort of story appeals to them, they would probably pick it up.
By the end of the first chapter of Eragon, the reader may come to the conclusion that he’s going to read a book about a lot of elves and orcs fighting some epic battle with this black-haired elf as the main character, and they’d be kinda right but mostly wrong. They also might be looking for a different book.
Often times, your first sentence, and your first chapter may be the only chance you have to truly sell a reader on investing the time to read your book. Don’t forget that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s true for real life, and it’s true for books as well.
Make yours count.
Guys!!! What can we say of this amazingly well-researched article in a vital point like this? Please, leave a comment below! Thanks a lot, Mark! How to Hook Your Reader!
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