Writing Tips – Keeping Readers on the Line
The challenge of every writer is to keep readers engaged. So what turns a book into a page turner? Simply put, tension. Something must reach out and grab the mind of the reader, and then ensure they don’t want to put the book down. It doesn’t just happen. Writers must come up with a strategy that reaches out to readers and then keeps them in the story. I call my strategy, Hooks and Nooses.
Writing Tips – Setting Hooks
Any novelist has heard it said, “You have to hook the reader.”
We now live in a ‘short attention span’ culture. Most of our readers grew up watching Sesame Street, where scenes changed often and something new grabs the viewer every few minutes. In literary fiction, writers can spend pages exploring details, setting, and laying a lot of groundwork for the story. In other genres, readers often have a short attention span and won’t tolerate that kind of detail.
Most publishers and editors will tell you that there must be a hook early in the story. Something has to hook the reader’s attention in the first few pages. Even better, the first paragraph. A great opening line is a hook. Consider the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. If Dickens had started out describing the setting or easing into the story, the book wouldn’t be as well known.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Now that’s a great hook! A good hook creates questions that need to be answered. How can times be great and bad at the same moment? Or, based on the title, a reader might wonder, “Why is one city having it hard, while the other is prospering?”
The reader is hooked by the desire to know why the times are the best and worst. Here are some other great opening hooks:
- In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
- Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. — Charles Johnson, Middle Passage
- We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks
- This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
- 124 was spiteful. —Toni Morrison, Beloved
- Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting
Why did Lin Kong return more than once to get a divorce? Did his wife talk him out of it? Did he forget his love for her while away, only to be rekindled when he returned? Why was he away from his wife? A good hook generates a lot of questions.
Great hooks draw the reader in, and the first line of your story is the best place to set a hook. Not only do you need to hook the reader in the opening, but you need to set hooks at regular intervals. Readers are like active fish. They wiggle off the hook, but since they are always hungry for more, just keep baiting new ones to keep them on the line.
Writing Tips – Stretching Nooses
Every chapter should begin by setting new hooks, and every chapter should end with a noose. Leave the reader hanging. If at all possible, don’t let a chapter end with a conclusion, but rather with new questions. What happened to Joe? Does he escape? Did Sally follow through with her threat to get on the bus and leave town? Try to leave these questions unanswered as long as the plot allows. But use discernment.
Try to avoid ending a chapter with the end of a scene. In fact, it’s a good time to introduce new information and new sources of tension. Tension is what keeps readers going. A good noose extends the tension without making the reader feel like they are being strung along. If readers can tell they are being ‘noosed’, the writer hasn’t done his or her job. First the reader has to care about the character, and then the story must put the character into a difficult situation.
Readers of my book, I Called Him Dancer, frequently tell me things like, “I had to find out what happened to Michael,” or “I couldn’t put the story down until I found out if Raquel made it.” These two main characters in my story were important to readers, so they were driven to find out how their plights ended. And to find out if they were ever reunited. As a writer, I feel like I’ve done my job when people express their care for the cast of characters and their situations.
When it comes to leaving the reader hanging, there are long nooses and short ones. Certain situations in my book are introduced early, but since they are integral to the story, the question is left hanging until the end.
Other nooses are short. A situation may be introduced in chapter 2 but the scene changes. The reader won’t find out how that particular scene ends until chapter 3 or 4. Or you can drop a noose with a passing comment. “After years of preparation, Michael felt he had this competition in the bag, but unforeseen trouble awaited.”
What trouble? Well, now. You’d better read that next chapter to find out, huh?
There are many elements to good story writing. A good hook and a chapter ending noose are two of those tools to keep the story moving at a good pace. Try to make it so there is never a good stopping point to put a book down. When you begin editing your novel, look for ways to set the hooks and opportunities to stretch out a good noose.
Feel free to leave a comment with writing tips that help you. If you’d like to do a guest post with a tip, send me an email on the ‘About’ page or leave a comment below.