Writing Tips: How to hook the reader
Posted October 01, 2014 in
The writer’s first task is to hook the reader to the story. Hooking the reader means first of all getting them interested in the protagonist. Once they’re interested, they’re more likely to keep turning the page.
The best method of getting the reader hooked is to put the protagonist on the back foot and keep them there.
Being on the back foot means the protagonist is struggling with a problem, and this problem is bigger than they are. The problem is not so big the protagonist is paralysed and unable to act. But it’s so big that the protagonist cannot easily solve it.
Karin Slaughter (pictured) is not only the mistress of crime fiction, she is also the mistress of putting her protagonists on the back foot and keeping them there. Her novel Fallen opens with Special Agent Faith Mitchell of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. She is a diabetic who has been in a conference all morning and hasn’t been able to eat.The conference has gone on longer than expected. Her mother has been babysitting for her. Faith thought she would get out of the conference at noon, but it went on until quarter past one. So she’s late, very late.
Now she's got a choice: she can stop and eat, thus raising her blood sugar level and avoiding hypoglycaemia, or she can rush home to collect her baby and eat there. She decides on the second course of action.
Karin Slaughter throws Faith onto the back foot and makes it very hard for her to solve two problems: the need to eat to avoid hypoglycaemia, and the need to get to her mother’s house as soon as possible. These two problems are not so huge that they paralyse Faith and prevent her from acting. On the contrary, they drive Faith to solve them.
This is Karin Slaughter, so no sooner does Faith arrive at her mother’s house than she realises something is wrong. There’s a bloody handprint on the doorframe. Meanwhile, Faith’s blood sugar level continues to drop. Remember, she’s a diabetic. This is serious. But she can’t simply barge in and cram some food into her mouth, then investigate the bloodstain. She has to deal with the bloodstain first. Is her mother’s house a crime scene? Is her mother dead inside? Is the attacker still in there? And what about Faith’s baby? Where is she?
This escalating situation adds up to a protagonist who is well and truly on the back foot. She is in such a fraught situation, hedged about by thorny problems she can’t walk away from, problems she must try to solve, that the reader can’t help but get hooked.
Do you have a writing problem? Send Sydney your question by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. Her latest book The Architecture of Narrative, about how to plot and structure fiction, is in production. Sydney's next blog comes out on November 1.