Friday, March 5, 2010

Hooking the Reader

After all the recent discussion about openings, I've been grappling with the challenge of hooking the reader. Its always important, but I guess its been coming a little closer to home for me as I try to resurrect various short stories and get them onto the market, and look at writing new ones (hey Sarah, five on the market now!).

With short stories you have even less room to hook a reader -- one or two lines at the most. For a novel you might get half a page.

I don't think there is any magic formula.

Thinking about it, I could identify a few different tacks you can take:

  • You can hook into character. Try to present something unique in the character, and hook into their personal dilemma somehow.
  • Present a mystery. Something bizarre and/or intriguing enough to get the reader interested.
  • Dangle a trope. Some writers are excellent at this. I recently read a Kelly Link story that hooked me in extremely well. I'd read the whole thing before I realised nothing happened. The unspoken promise (of finding the Faery Handbag) was not delivered.
  • Go for the oddness factor. Present something that is so quirky and bizarre -- some sort of mental disconnect that is intriguing - that the reader is drawn in just to find out what the heck is going on.
  • Or go for combinations

Now, some writers don't think endings are all that crucial in a short. Me, no matter how long they are (or short) I like to see them going somewhere -- or at least delivering on the initial promise. So I guess there is a word of warning there. That Kelly Link story was the first in an anthology. I did not read any more stories, having been fundamentally disappointed in the first. But that is just me. Others have raved about that same story and its magical quality.

So what other hooks can you think of? Or other ways of looking at hooking the reader?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris to me a story has to deliver a good ending.

Saki is one of the kings of short story writing.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I would agree with you on endings; I recently read Perdido Street Station by China Melville. Absolutely stunning book, but the ending (despite being utterly heartbreaking) was not very satisfying, which for me dulled the whole experience. Likewise with short stories - if they don't have, at the very least, a resolution, if not a pay-off, then it feels a bit flat.

As for hooking the reader, I suspect once I figure that out I'll be much happier. The technique I'm using is to drop in a key piece of information right at the being, which the cast of the book isn't aware of. Hopefully this dramatic irony will bring the reader into the story - everything likes knowing something no-one else knows.

Beyond that, hopefully a compelling and well-introduced cast of characters will do the rest. If the author can make the reader forge a connection with at least one central character early on, I consider their job most of the way done.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jonathan, I felt the same way about Perdido Street Station. It sort of petered out.

Anonymous said...

A Character hook, rather than depending on a quirk, might be better off using an emotion. Anger, fear, joy, exasperation. Everyone knows how those feel, and evoking them in a reader, through your character can get the reader associating with the Character quickly.

It can also set the tone for the book, warn the reader that this is mystery, horror or romance, not the Space Opera they were looking for.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Sake has inspired a few good words as well:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jonathan. You just reminded me of another possible technique. Loading the beginning of a story with a question, or even better, an implied question that bugs the reads or intrigues the reader enough to keep reading to find out the answer.

I tend to be driven by plot, so I often lose sight of the beginnings. When I re-read I see the whole story not just the first few paragraphs. I really have to slow down and focus to work on beginnings.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I agree. The challenge is getting that through the reader without making it too clunky or overdone. I am working on story at the moment where the lead character is overcome with fear in a battle line, waiting for a battle to begin. I can see it so clearly, but am always unhappy with how I convey it.

Kate said...

Beginnings are bloody difficult. I can generally get the rest more or less right on the first run-through, but getting the opening? Ack.

For a good enough writer, anything can be the hook. For me... not so much.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. So much of writing is in that strange zone where you a feeling your way. Best thing I can say is sometimes I do get it right. Not exactly sure why though:)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

so glad you're listening to me. :)

Short stories need very strong endings. Novels too, but short stories definitely.