Every Wednesday I’ll be sharing some hints and tips about how to improve your writing. These are basic things I have learned over the years, from writers websites, published authors and constructive feedback from friends, family and online pals.
There is an argument that fiction writing cannot be taught because it comes from talent alone, it is in your nature to be creative. Whilst there is some truth in that, even the most creative person needs to learn how to use their ability and make the best of their craft.
This week: Hooking & holding the reader’s attention.
This weeks topic is brought to by Piglet in Portugal who made a request in last weeks Writing Tips Wednesday – Writer’s Block? Seriously? This week I’ll be talking about how to grab a reader’s attention and keep them hooked with your mighty power of words! There is an art, or let’s say knack, to hooking the reader in, but the ability to hold a reader’s attention is based on various factors such as writing style, subject matter and how well it is communicated to the reader, not to mention how you present your writing, for tips on that subject see my post: Writing Tips Wednesday – Getting the layout right.
The how, where, when, what and why.
First we’ll take a look at how you hook your reader and reel them in. I’ve grabbed a handful of books from my shelf and glanced at the opening lines to remind myself why I continued reading the story let alone finished the book. Here are a few samples of opening lines:
When the video is posted on YouTube it’s an instant hit. Within days everyone’s talking about it.
From The Dead by Charlie Higson.
With a draft beer and a smile, Ned Pearsall raised a toast to his deceased neighbour, Henry Friddle, whose death greatly pleased him.
From Velocity by Dean Koontz.
In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral-plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
From The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
From The Gunslinger by Stephen King.
Each of those first lines entices the reader to keep going. Why? Because the reader wants to know the how, where, when, what and why. We are intrigued to know more. In the instance of the man in black who fled across the desert with the gunslinger in pursuit we want to know a lot of things after only reading 12 words:
We want to know the WHY x 4:
- Why is the man in black?
- Why is he fleeing across the desert?
- Why is he/they in the desert?
- Why is the gunslinger following him?
Then we want to know the HOW x 2:
- How did they end up in the desert?
- How is the gunslinger going to catch the man in black?
- How is the man in black going to escape the gunslinger?
We also want to know the WHERE x 2:
- Where in the desert are they?
- Where in the world are they? Which desert?
The when and what are also important questions not readily answered but given the solid hook it’s likely we’re going to read on and find out. Okay, so the “Why is…” and “How did…” are pretty similar but they highlight how fast the a reader is pulled into the story. To get a reader interested the key is to reveal just enough information whilst keeping the rest hidden. Drip feed the reader information, enough to keep them asking questions. Avoid dumping masses of names, places, dates etc in the first paragraph, unless you are writing for a very specific audience the reader wants to be pulled into the story a bit at a time.
Zoo Much Information.
Imagine arriving at the zoo and seeing all the animals in one gigantic pen. There’s simply too much going on to focus on any one animal alone, even if the tigers start scoffing down the pandas it would be information overload for the visitors. Instead zoos usually have a grand entrance to give the visitor a sense of scale and excitement. There are signposts leading the visitor around the park where they can watch the animals individually.
Swap zoo for story and your reader will be hooked with your grand entrance, the opening line. Now lead the reader around the story, show them the sights bit at a time, let them enjoy the scenes and characters as they wander the paths around the park, the chapters and plot in your story.
Big no no no!
I recently read a couple of articles about how to hook the reader and the advice offered was astonishingly different. One article suggested the writer should never start with dialogue or action. It stated that readers are timid, slow-witted creatures, very easily frightened. Really? Seems some writers don’t give their readers enough credit. The article went on to state the best way to open is by describing the scenery, weather, time of day. Apparently nothing hooks a reader more than telling them the hue of the clouds at sunset and how the trees sway in the breeze!
To add further insult to the reader, the article mentions that to build up suspense there should be an ominous howl or other strange noise. After you’re done with the weather, the time, the date, the strange noises, location, trees swaying and setting sun….then you can introduce your character and get on with the story!
The second article states that a writer should never open with describing the weather, never tell the reader what time it is and never talk about strange noises, map references, unimportant back story, prologues and an overly long precise descriptions of what the character is wearing.
Again – Noooooooooo!
I think these are both wrong. There isn’t a magic formula for hooking the reader other than giving them a reason to keep reading. You can start with the weather if you want:
Morris thought the weather sucked. It had been raining for three days, ever since he used his Magic Ring. His best friend, Timmy, told him not to do it but Morris didn’t listen.
So we want to know why Morris didn’t listen, why he used the Magic Ring and why it had been raining for three days. Alternatively you could place this in dialogue:
“I hate the rain,” said Morris as he stared out of the window.
“Told you not to use that Magic Ring,” said Timmy. “But you wouldn’t listen.
I think that’s equally intriguing. Okay, it’s not the best opening line ever written but it’s not a bad hook. Try the opening section from my Ground Fall short story:
It all happened so fast and without warning.
Lee was sat on the grass at the edge of the park, a can of cream soda in one hand and a sweet chilli noodle salad in the other. Families enjoyed their picnics, children played football and teenagers lazed on the grass, their tinny music drifting in the soft warm breeze. The central tree-lined path was riddled with shoppers licking ice creams and chewing hot dogs.
I like the first line, it hooks the reader in one go. You want to know what happened and why there was no warning. Then instead of offering a reason the story goes on to describe how peaceful it was before the bad thing happened. Then we get to see what happens in the next paragraph. Again, the information is drip fed to the reader.
Another example of opening a story with a hook, this time from my ongoing dark saga Arcane Insane:
It was a dark and gloomy night in Arcane Town. Werewolves howled at the moonlight, vampires snarled at the werewolves and the zombies moaned at everyone. Only the insane walked the streets after sunset and only the sane locked their doors and hoped the sunrise would come again.
Plenty of how, where, when, what and why in that one paragraph. So you get the idea, right? It’s all about giving the reader just enough information so they want to ask questions, and the only way to have them answered….yes, by reading on. Get them through the grand entrance then sign post them around the story.
Lisa Hall-Willson from Girlswithpens has this to say on the subject of opening line:
“Before I buy a book, I read the first line. If you lose me there, I’m moving on. It’s not fair, but it’s the harsh reality.”
I agree with her. I don’t buy a book based on its cover or the blurb on the back, those are factors of course but I go for the first line. If it hooks me I’m likely to buy it. The same with reading stuff on the internet, if the first line or chunk of text is flat and uninspiring I zone out and click elsewhere.
If you use Twitter user go take a look at the Tweets you find enticing, you’re more likely to gloss over something like:
Chops for dinner. Doing some decorating tomorrow whilst listening to Dull FM.
Whereas someone who Tweets this is more likely to grab your attention and prompt you to click the link.
Ever wondered why the sun lightens our hair but darkens our skin? [linky thing here]
Holding the reader’s attention.
This is a bit more tricky. 9 ideas to keep the reader enjoying the sights of your zoo/story.
#1 Information overload.
Too much data can be off-putting to readers, read your story out loud and if you get stuck or run out of breath you know there’s too much stuff in there and it needs to be trimmed. Break the information up and deliver it in bite size chunks.
#2 Too many characters.
Similar to #1 where the reader can only take in and care about so many characters. If you have a whole plethora of characters do they really need to be sat on top of one another right at the start? When you go to a party do you walk in and ask everyone to shout out their names all at once? Nope. You meet and greet, mingle and get to know them, check out what they’re wearing and how they talk and so on.
#3 Keep it simple.
Try this on for size: “Were are we going?” he asked distressingly. Yeah. I hate it too. Try this: “Where are we going?” John always worried when no one told him the destination. A little better. Just because you know some big important sounding words doesn’t mean you should use them. Don’t throw a mammoth steak at the reader and let it stick in their throat, chop it down to bite sized chunks.
#4 Trim the fat.
If what you’re writing doesn’t move the story on or add anything to it then it can usually be trimmed. Lucy wore a pair of red Louis Vuitton shoes with silk stitching and cats fur lining, bought by her Welsh Grandmother the day before she died on a rainy Tuesday in May. That’s nice but unless there’s a reason for the description it’s just fluff. Does the reader need to know about her dead Welsh Grandmother? Does the rainy Tuesday in May have any bearing on events in the story?
#5 Back Story.
Kristen Lamb – social media guru – has this to say on the evils of the Back Story:
Like a real bog, the Bog of Back-Story looks lush, verdant, and innocent from afar. One might even easily mistake this smooth green landscape for solid ground…but take a closer look. This sucker is nothing but mud and muck and quicksand. Step in deep enough and we ain’t getting out.
It is my opinion that the Bog of Backstory is most often the by-product of our failure to plan ahead of time. Writers (especially new writers) are super excited to start writing, so they often charge into a plot without understanding the psychological terrain of the characters ahead of time. As a consequence, it is then easy for characters to wander off the path (plot) and end up stuck in the mire of memories and recollections.
New writers often try to thread flashback after flashback into the plot as they try to understand who their characters really are. Weighting down any plot with bag after bag of memories, dreams and flashbacks is a surefire way to sink any story…and kill all souls on board.
Failure to understand key characters ahead of time often has terrible effects.
You can make this as complex as you like, but when it gets complicated the reader may zone out and the point of the story will whither away and die. Subplots can dip in and out of the story and add extra dimensions, reasons, characters, scenes etc but be wary of having too many. The number of plots should be limited to the length and premise of the story. This isn’t to say you can have multiple threads weaving in and out but be aware that with too much going on the purpose of the story may get lost.
If your characters all get along just fine, agree with each other over everything and generally have a nice time throughout your story, the reader will probably use your book as toilet paper. Introducing conflict gives the reader a purpose to read, they want to know how that conflict pans out – will the good guy beat the bad guy? Will the two arguing friends make up in time before X happens? Will the battle be won and how will the tide turn? Will the antagonist be redeemed before the end? You get the idea?
Don’t let sloppy research ruin a good story. If you tell a reader your characters are in the Arctic and mention that penguins are hopping around the snow-covered vistas you run the risk of losing credibility because penguins live in the Antarctic. If the reader knows this it may make them doubt any or all of the other facts in your story.
#9 Spelling & Grammar.
This should be obvious but you’d be surprised how many people don’t check their work for mistakes. I know I’m guilty of this. My sister texted me this morning as I was leaving for work to point out I had written “they” instead of “the” in my post The Survivors: The Country Code. Remember that even if you spell check your work the spell checker won’t always pick out things like that.
That’s all folks!
This list isn’t exhaustive, there are plenty of other ways to keep your reader glued to your words. As an exercise go have a look at your bookshelf and scan the first lines of those books. See how the writer hooked you in and then remember why you kept reading. Think of all the ways a writer grabs your attention, from books and newspaper headlines to articles on the internet and Tweets – keep an eye on those you don’t bother reading and those you do.