4 Steps to a Boat Full of Fish:
How to Hook an Audience
By Amy Maida Wadsworth
Ever been hooked?
It tugs at first—a niggling, intriguing irritation you can’t ignore. With a splash and a surge, suddenly you’re racing along, gasping for breath, and barely aware you’ve taken the bait. You’re dragged, compelled, forced to flip the page, consuming the story as if you’re starved. When it’s all over, it’s four in the morning and you aren’t the person you were before. You’ve been on the ride of your life.
It’s a difficult task to reel in readers this way, especially in our fast-paced digital world. The first 500 words (roughly the first page and a half) should be a sample of your absolute best writing, because they’ve got to get hooked before you can reel them in. (See the points below and try to tackle them all in the first 500 words of your next book. Even if you don’t leave them all in, challenge yourself to think creatively, to explore how it could be done subtly.)
If your reader puts your book down, there’s a chance he may never pick it up again.
On the other hand, when your audience is driven to read your story, not only will they finish it, but they’ll tell their friends. They’ll pass the word along until you’ve caught so many readers you’ll need a bigger boat.
Reader satisfaction is THE best form of marketing.
It’s also the best way to get an editor/agent/publisher’s attention and get your book in a reader’s hands in the first place.
It all starts with the hook.*
So here are four steps to hooking your reader on the first page:
1) Introduce a character your readers like enough to want him to be happy.
- Don’t introduce your character through backstory. Orson Scott Card begins Ender’s Game in the middle of a scene, when Ender is about to have his monitor removed. We don’t find out what that monitor is, or that Ender is a third child commissioned by the government, or that he has a bully of a brother and feels that no one loves him except his sister, Valentine. We find out all of this stuff later, after we’ve been introduced to the character and seen him in action.
- Don’t describe your character. Instead, use sensory detail to reveal what kinds of things your character finds important enough to pay attention to. Every detail becomes a subtle demonstration of your character’s personality. If your character is engaged in a hobby or profession or conflict, the reader can draw their own picture. Add to that the details your character focuses on, and the picture becomes full color. Ender doesn’t notice the cleanliness of the doctor’s office or the modern art hanging on the walls. He hears what is said to him, and feels pain and lack of control as the “simple” procedure becomes more complicated. He’s only aware of what is important to him.
- Show your character’s expectations—by showing what he expects to happen, you establish his past. When the nurse tells Ender that the procedure won’t hurt, he reveals his history of being lied to by adults as he thinks, “It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future.”
- Show your character through interesting action and making choices. Choices reveal even more than thoughts. When Ender is presented with a problem, he reveals his character through a choice as a group of bullies meet him in the schoolyard and begin taunting him: “This would not have a happy ending. So Ender decided he’d rather not be the unhappiest at the end. The next time Stilson’s arm came out to push him, Ender grabbed at it. He missed.” The choice to defend himself reveals Ender’s character (as not being a pushover). (It also instills enduring sympathy in our reader, who cares for a fighting underdog.)
2) Challenge the character to his core—make him wonder if he’ll ever be happy again.
- Take away what he values most.
- Make him wonder if he even knows who he is after a particular challenge.
Example: This technique has actually been around for a long time, as is demonstrated by the countless number of stories that begin with a child losing a parent. Even the Harry Potter series begins with this sort of life-changing challenge.
3) Provide some hope that happiness will be possible again after a long and difficult journey.
- This hope often comes through an important object—something the character can see, touch, and hold in his hand. This object will resonate through the rest of your story and linger in your readers’ minds, so make sure it’s a good one!
Example: a perfect example of this is Harry Potter’s letter from Hogwarts. The importance of this letter and the hope it represents escalates when cruel Uncle Vernon does everything within his power to keep the letter from Harry.
4) Write a great opening line.
- Hint at your story’s depth. Some of my favorite opening lines make me wonder how the character arrived in that situation, and with that one line I’m hooked. Rick Riordan begins The Red Pyramid with, “We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.”
- Choose words carefully, because every word is important.
- Be unique. Not just in your word choice, but in the subject of your opening line. Veronica Roth begins Divergent with, “There is one mirror in my house.” My first thought when I read this: Well that’s odd. I have … at least five. I wonder why there is only one mirror in this girl’s house?
Example: You can Google opening lines of novels and spend hours reading intriguing lines that accomplish all of these steps. One of my favorite opening lines is from Crash by J. G. Ballard: “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.”
ACTION STEPS—3 things you can do now.
- Print out your opening chapter and highlight all of the stuff that is happening in your story’s “now.” This should mostly be made up of sensory details and immediate emotional reactions to what is happening. Whatever isn’t highlighted can probably be included later if it’s backstory, or it may not need to be included at all.
- Look for or consider adding a physical object infused with emotional importance—a physical hook.
- Make a list of words that describe your story—include its uniqueness, tension, emotional quality, and characters. This list may contain the seeds for your opening line.
Example: My book Faraway Child is about raising a child who has autism. Since autism is at the heart of the novel, some of the words I included in my list were: scream, difficult, judged, trial, embarrassed, unusual, unexpected. In my opening line, I used one of those words and tried to create the emotion behind the others. “A golden chicken turned on a rotisserie spit in the deli, the sharp smell of aged parmesan filled the air, and the pierce of Kaye’s scream made me want to crawl into a hole.”
One More Thought
If your hook is too dull, the reader will put the book down before the story has begun. But if the hook is too exciting, it can be a hard act to follow. You have to make sure that the next chapter isn’t a letdown. So how do you find the balance? We suggest this excellent article by powerhouse agent Donald Maass.
Now that you’ve got your hook baited and ready, let’s go fishin’!
* FYI: The term hook is used to mean several things in the industry. The opening pages are called the hook because they create reader interest, but the marketing hook used on cover blurbs and to pitch your book to agents and publishers can be loosely defined as your fresh idea + the main conflict your character faces. This hook is tied to your premise, which you can read about here.)
Remember how we challenged you to do all of the above in the first 500 words? If you want to see proof it can be done, here’s one example of many: Divergent by Veronica Roth (you can read the opening pages for free on Amazon). What are your thoughts about these techniques? Any alternatives you’d like to add? What’s your own favorite chapter that demonstrates a good hook?