Tag Archives: hooking readers

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

28 Feb
"The Key Bearer's Parents" by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

“The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

A great example of a story that places its hook firmly in a story and world is “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths. It was published online at American Short Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here is how Griffiths’ story opens:

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

The hook is obvious: the shock of encountering “honking red noses” in a story that starts off seeming like a realistic story about two parents. It’s sometimes useful to imagine how else a story could have been written, and so here is another version of these opening lines:

When people saw our honking red noses, they thought we weren’t good parents, but we were.

The basic elements haven’t changed: parenting, red noses, and the expectations people have based on those noses. But the effect isn’t the same. This new version is trying too hard, in my view, like a teacher who tries to be cool and uses five-year-old slang. It’s focused entirely on how people will see it and, as a result, doesn’t come off as natural. Griffiths’ actual opening, on the other hand, starts inside the narrators’ heads, focusing on what they believe about themselves: We were good parents. This grounds us. No matter how many unexpected details the story throws at us, we know who these characters are because we know what they worry about.

As the paragraph continues, we get more clown stuff: makeup, over-sized shoes, flowers. These details are humorous and interesting, but we see through them to what matters: the parents’ conflicted feelings as they watch their kid be embarrassed of them.

As with all “rules” for writing, this one won’t hold true all of the time. Sometimes a story will need to start, from the first word, with how a character is viewed. That said, it’s probably a good idea to start a draft inside a character’s head, feelings, and desires. Establish the kernel of humanity—the conflict or desire that readers will intuitively recognize—and then add a honking red nose or turd in a bucket.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a story’s hook using “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths as a model:

  1.  Start with the hook. Know what it is. If you’re not sure, tell the first part of the story to someone—anyone, someone you trust or a complete stranger. What detail makes their eyes open wider? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, do it in your head. Which detail surprises? To quote the wisdom of Sesame Street, which of your details is not like the other?
  2. Figure out your character’s self-affirmation. If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, you know what I’m talking about. Smalley would repeat to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” It didn’t matter if this was true or not. What mattered was that Smalley needed it to be true, the same as Griffiths’ narrators need to feel that they’re good parents. So, what does your character need to be true? How does your character need to be viewed?
  3. Place the self-affirmation before the hook. It doesn’t need to be as over the top as Stuart Smaller’s. Griffith’s first line seems like a basic statement of fact—but, of course, it’s not. It’s a matter of opinion, but it’s stated to plainly that it doesn’t jump out at us—until we read “honking red noses.” Ordering the sentence in this way can make the hook stand out more and also make the essential human need of the character stand out.
  4. Add action. When I was in college, I’d go to the rec center’s weight room, and there’d be enormous guys who’d grunt when they lifted and then drop the weights to the rack or the floor with a bang. They wanted to make sure that everyone saw them because they needed to be seen as strong. Desire always leads to action. Either the character acts, like the guys in the weight room, or the character becomes intensely aware of other people’s actions, like the narrators in “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” who notice every small thing their kid does when they show up. What action (acted or noticed) follows naturally from your character’s desire and self-affirmation?
  5. Don’t forget the hook. Keep it present in the reader’s mind. If you don’t, then it’s a gimmick. But if you commit to it, referencing it whenever possible, in the context of the action and desire, then you’ll create something readers haven’t seen before and they’ll keep reading.

The goal is to hook readers with something surprising and with an essential element of every story: character desire.

Good luck.

Make Readers Care about a Story’s Movie-Poster Elements

4 Oct
Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

I often teach a class about first pages and how to hook readers. There are some obvious strategies for this: introducing a gun, dead body, broken rule, or a moment with two possible outcomes. But none of these is enough to compel a reader to turn the page. After all, we’ve all seen these strategies put to use over and over again. Something else is needed. That something could be a bigger or more awful gun, more dead bodies, and a more taboo broken rule, but at a certain point you’re simply making another Saw movie. Shock value is a finite resource. But human emotion isn’t. For a first page to be truly compelling, it needs to make readers care about the gun or dead body or whatever.

A great example of making a reader care can be found in Christopher DeWan’s story, “Voodoo,” which was originally published in A cappella Zoo and is included in his new collection Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grownups.  You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

As the title makes clear, the story is playing with a well-known horror/supernatural trope. Any reader will have pretty clear expectations for what will follow: some version of a doll with pins and needles stuck in it. The problem facing DeWan is the same one facing most writers. The story is familiar, and so something is needed to make readers pay attention yet again. He could have used a more horrific doll or added bloodier consequences, but that wasn’t his approach. Instead, here is how the story begins:

You walk into your daughter’s room. You wouldn’t do this normally. You try very hard to respect her privacy, even when this sometimes causes you to wonder if you’re being a bad or neglectful parent. The fact that you wonder means that you probably are not a bad or neglectful parent. But everyone has better days and worse days.

There’s no mention of voodoo or a doll in this paragraph. Instead, we’re shown a relationship and a character who isn’t sure how to proceed, who means well but isn’t is faced with the possibility that good intentions might be insufficient. Or perhaps everything is just fine.

The uncertainty is important. As readers, we’re naturally drawn to situations in which a character is trying to discern the true nature of the world and circumstances. It’s why we’re drawn to conspiracy theories, magic, and Halloween. We love the idea that everything is not as it seems. But we also need to care, and that’s why the emotions in this first paragraph are so important. The character has feelings, and those feelings are tethered to concrete things (the welfare of his daughter) and abstractions (do we ever really know how someone is doing?).

The next paragraph makes good on the title’s promise:

Her alarm clock is going off and she’s nowhere to be found, so you walk into her room, and that’s when you see them: two little dolls. Voodoo dolls of you and your wife.

Now the story kicks into gear, but the reason we keep reading isn’t because of the dolls but because we care (and the character cares) what happens with those dolls.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce emotional stakes to a story, using “Voodoo” by Christopher DeWan as a model:

  1. Decide what readers will care about. In other words, what’s the primary story element. In “Voodoo,” that element is voodoo. In monster stories (vampires, zombies, aliens, serial killers), the element is the monster. In detective fiction, it’s the pursuit of the criminal, and in romances, it’s the consummation of love and the struggle to maintain it in the face of difficulty. It’s the movie poster image for your story or novel. What is this element for your story?
  2. Create an emotional attachment to that element. Movies use a lot of the same emotional stakes—protecting a child or other loved one, finding true love or friendship, finding your best self—because they’re part of our lives in an essential way. Great literary works use the same emotional stakes. So, start by choosing something we all worry or dream about.
  3. Find an authentic entry to that emotion. The problem with blockbuster movies is they introduce the emotional stakes using some well-worn tricks (a child saying, “Why won’t you come to my ballgame, Mommy/Daddy?) but then abandon the stakes as soon as the movie-poster element shows up. After all, the filmmakers seem to think, who cares about that kid when the museum exhibits have come to life and are trying to kill you? They’re right some of the time. But in stories and novels, the writer usually needs to stick with the emotional stakes. Rather than using a shortcut, introduce the stakes with more uncertainty. So, find a simple action (walking into the daughter’s room) and then add a choice (should I or shouldn’t I?) and a larger emotional context (am I a good parent or not?).
  4. Lead with the emotion. Very often, as soon as the movie-poster element shows up, it sucks up a lot of the oxygen in the story. It’s hard to introduce emotion for the first time when stuff is blowing up. So, begin with the simple action, choice, and larger emotional context. Let it be the hook for the reader. The movie-poster element will arrive soon enough.

The goal is to make readers care about the big story elements rather than relying on those big elements to keep readers turning the page.

Good luck.

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