How to Hook the Reader–PNWA Summer Writer’s Conference Writing Class with Jason Black, Book Doctor

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I’m on my last day at the PNWA Summer Writer’s Conference, and I’m attending this “Hook the Reader” class. These are my notes…

Character Hooks

  • Who is this person?
  • What’s he/she doing and why?
  • What’s special about him or her?
  • How did he/she get that way or end up here?

When you start your novel, if you start with a character running pell-mell down the street, then the reader is immediately hooked by the questions listed above. The start of a novel needs to hook the reader. Jason Black, our teacher, gave the example of Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer (a pirate story with a character hook at the start).

Conflict Hooks:

  • Show the conflict rather than telling about it.
  • What is it about?
  • How did it start?
  • Why should anyone care?

Some books begin with a conflict hook. Start your tale with an event we can care about in a setting we can relate to. Fantasy writers are notorious for starting with a gob of information attempting world building and a broad-perspective conflict, when they should instead offer a smaller, more relevant-to-the-reader conflict, like being mugged on a city street. Nobody wants to be mugged, so the reader empathizes immediately. Mr. Black offered a reading from Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell as an example.

Catastrophe Hooks:

  • What hangs in the balance?
  • Consequences for success/failure?
  • Opening vs. middle chapters.
  • Hints vs. revelations.

Remember, fantasy books that try to begin with a wizard trying blow up the world, end up with a sagging middle. Start small and build up to that. A well-written catastrophe has hints that build up into something bigger, and these hints leave the reader feeling curious, drawing them forward into the book. Mr. Black read to the class from The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.

Context/Circumstance Hooks

  • Where is this place?
  • What is it like there?
  • What are the rules?
  • What is it like to live there?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy was discussed.

When you write about a place or time that’s different from our world, it can leave the reader with interesting questions. But a well-written context/circumstance hook also broadens the questions the reader is left with. Physical danger might be present in the land itself. Maybe the land is volcanic, for example, and the reader is left wondering, “Holy cow! What’s it like to live there?” It could be a physical feature, a social rule, or whatever, that leaves the reader wondering/caring about the character’s ability to thrive in that circumstance. Mr. Black read to us from The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

In Closing:

Hooks come in different sizes. Small-scale hooks are usually one sentence long. Medium scale hooks aren’t quite a scene, but maybe a paragraph or two long. Every scene must have a hook of its own as well, chapter by chapter or whatever. The trick is to hook the reader up to the next size scene. A great opening scene will touch on all the sizes of hooks. With the largest hooks, it’s hard to get us hooked right off. You need to wait for those until you get a ways into the book.

First Lines– Your first line is your best opportunity to hook the reader. Give us:

  • Voice, the essence of the narrator.
  • Conflict/catastrophe.
  • Pose a question.

What’s it all about? Characters, conflict, catastrophe, context, CURIOSITY. What Black sees too often is writers who start the story with an info dump (backstory). Don’t tell us all about your character right away, because you destroy the character hook. And truthfully, character hooks are some of the best hooks of all. His example:

Which would you rather have?

  • A bag of puzzle pieces with no box–no picture on the front to follow? OR
  • A box with a picture on the front but no puzzle pieces inside?

Which one is more fun? If you have backstory info dump, you’re handing the reader the empty box.

The one answer the reader should have is “Why do I care?” Give the reader a hook with an avenue of concern, but also give them a reason to care about your character.

NOTE: For those of you who’ve enjoyed my blog posts lately, I’m sorry to say that this will be the last in the PNWA Summer Writers’ Conference series. However, please check in with me periodically to see what writing prompts we’re doing in my classroom. Other schools and people from all around the world are welcome to participate in our middle-school-appropriate blog-style journals. School starts on September 6th. (Hopefully I’ll have my blog all set up and ready–even the home page–in time for school!) Perhaps I’ll see you back here at that time!   🙂

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