7 Ways to Hook Your Reader
I have a client whom I shall call Steve. Steve is a guy who had a giant success several years ago with a non-fiction book. He has a large, devoted and patient audience who can’t wait for his next book to be launched. But time has passed, as time will do, and Steve is no longer interested in writing the kind of book he wrote last time. He wants to write a novel. Actually, he’s passionately obsessed with writing a novel. He writes me at 4 a.m. with questions. He writes me the same morning at 8 a.m. And noon. And 3 p.m. I don’t think Steve sleeps. I also don’t think Steve was an English major. He might, in fact, never have taken a writing class. He’s a very smart and well-read guy, a naturally gifted storyteller, and he knows what he doesn’t know. So all those middle of the night questions are about how it works. How is it done? How do you hook a reader? Since I’m teaching Steve, I’m re-teaching myself. I thought I’d share some of the lessons with all of you, as well.
1.) Be open to the chaos of the creative process. Yes, being open is about hooking readers. It’s the fundamental step, in fact. Because as much as we might all like to believe that there are fast and hard rules to the creative process — first you do X, then you do Y, then you have a book that people will want to read— it’s simply not true. Creativity is messy. That means that sometimes you have a great idea you have to scrap. It means that sometimes you take one step forward and three steps back. Your idea is like clay, and you are mushing it around to see what you are going to make. My daughter took a class in throwing clay on the potters’ wheel and the instructor kept talking about how, in order to throw a pot (that wasn’t lopsided, that didn’t collapse) you have to first be centered yourself. She also said you have to expect to get it wrong a number of times before you get it right. I loved this instructor. She wasn’t just talking about pots. She was talking about all creative work (and also about life itself, but that’s another story.) So I keep telling Steve to take a deep breath and let the process unfold. The more work he does at THIS stage, and the more centered he is in the midst of the chaos, the less work he will have to do later.
2.) Have a point. Steve does not have a problem in this regard. He’s all ABOUT his point. He’s standing on a soapbox shouting his point out to the world. Go, Steve! Knowing your point means that you know where your story must end. It means you will be in control of your story. You will have AUTHORITY over your story. And guess what? Your readers will know it from word one and they will willingly follow you.
3.) Understand that your characters are not up on your soapbox with you. They are not making your point. They need to come across as real — as people with desires and flaws who are facing challenges and making decisions, as people we might be able to learn something from. They can’t just be shouting your point from the rooftop. No one would listen. What we listen to is the push and pull of their choices, the way they are wrestling with the things that are before them, and we want it to feel like LIFE, not like a lecture. So make your characters authentic. “Would Fred really DO x?” Steve and I ask, “Wouldn’t he be more likely to do y? Okay, if he does x, WHY does he do it? What is his motivation?” This kind of relentless digging into character motivation, and the why, why, why of character, is what writing good fiction is all about.
4.) Story is about change. We need to see motion, action, movement. First the guy was X, now he is Y. The change can be super subtle – a small change in the way that person sees the world – or it can be monumental, but something must change. There was an article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal about Lourde, the 17-year-old pop-star singing sensation. This girl understands something about story that it takes many people a lifetime to figure out. Here’s what she said about learning to write a song: “I read Tobias Wolfe stories out loud to figure out what he was doing to make things rise or crash the way they did.” WHOA, right? Read that sentence three times, because what this teenager is doing is probably the most effective thing you could do to learn about how to hook a reader. (You don’t have to read Tobias Wolfe. Any writer you love and admire will do the trick.) Figure out what he was doing to make things rise or crash. That’s why story, in the end, is a rhythmic thing. You must pay attention to matters of pacing and flow. You must know where things rise and fall, where they speed up and slow down. It is imperative that you “hear” this or “see it.” Use Kurt Vonnegut’s story graph and graph it out. The idea is to capture the flow of the whole narrative, to pin down the overall arc of change.
5.) The scene is the smallest unit of measure of a story, and there must, therefore, be change in the scene. At the end of a scene, we’ve got to be in a new place. We’re got to glimpse what is coming next – a challenge, a problem, a decision, a risk, a situation that must be dealt with. It’s like a row of dominoes, or what my client/colleague/friend Lisa Cron calls “the cause-and-effect trajectory.” X happens, and therefore Y happens and therefore Z happens. The character has no choice but to change because the plot is there to force them to do it, at every turn, in every scene. Steve kept ending his scenes in a way that was flat, dead. They just … stopped. But the end of a scene is not an arbitrary thing. You set up the end to knock down the next domino. You show the reader the next thing that’s coming, the next problem, the next challenge.
6.) Every single solitary thing in your story must be there for a reason. If you write three sentences about the hostess at a restaurant and what she was wearing and how she took so long to book the table, the reader is going to expect that to MEAN something. If you are paying that much attention, they are paying even more attention. Their brains are spinning like mad trying to figure out what the hostess has to do with the story. If the answer is, “Nothing – I just thought she was cool,” then get rid of her. You are the curator or information. You chose what the reader should pay attention to. Choose wisely.
7.) The reader always has to know what the characters are thinking, which means that the writer has to show us. You can’t assume that when Fred’s girlfriend walks out on him, we know that Fred is sad. If you don’t show us what Fred is thinking and feeling, we might, in fact, think that Fred is secretly elated. You don’t have to come right out and say, “Fred was sad.” You can show Fred slumping down on the couch and burying his head in his hands. Or you can show Fred downing a quart of Cherry Garcia. But if you just say, “Maria slammed the door and was gone,” and say nothing about Fred’s state of mind, you’ve missed a juicy opportunity to hook us. Steve has got his action down, he’s got his arc down, he’s working on setting up his dominos. He’s got a ways to go on letting us know what the characters are thinking, but I have no doubt he’s going to get there — probably tomorrow morning sometime before the sun comes up.
I Think in Books
I’m reading a book called Why We Write by Meredith Maran. It features interviews with twenty writers. I’ve already got a ton of pages dog-eared because the book is full of unusual insights. Here is a small sample:
· From Jodi Picout: “Physically, when I write, I feel the years. I’ve been a writer for two decades and like every other writer I know, I have tendinitis. A good day of writing can mean a very bad day for my arm or shoulder. I remind myself that it’s a pretty sweet problem to have.”
· From Sebastian Junger: “By the time you’re at the level where you might be on the Times list, it’s just part of your business. There are beautiful, beautiful books that never make the list, and there’s complete garbage on the list. Every writer knows that. Everyone knows that whether you get on the list, or how long you spend on the list, is not entirely a reflection of the quality of your work.”
· From Susan Orlean: “I love the actual experience of making sentences.”