Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hooks Readers Can't Resist

I conducted an informal study at my editing site to discover what elements in the
opening of a novel grabbed readers' attention and why.
            From a small sampling of published novels, those who wished to participate voted for the opening that most hooked them into the story. Here are the top two, separated by only one vote.

First place:

I never believed in ghosts. Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep me away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze. (Fathom by Merrie Destefano)

Second place:
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch's skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.
She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?
Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne. (Prophet by R. J. Larson)

            From this informal survey, I draw several conclusions about openings that engage readers and hook them into the story.
            The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected — e.g. warm snow, seeing a ghost.
            They also created tension. From Fathom, for example, the tension is palpable when in the middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, the protagonist starts awake. Perhaps less so in The Prophet but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash "like menacing shadows."
            The openings that captured the attention of most readers also generated a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?
            Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: "... the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away." And "some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze." In Prophet: "Tarnished snow," "smear across her brown flesh," and "mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square."
            The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.
            Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She's observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.
            In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but writers won't go wrong by surprising their audience, creating tension and questions, using evocative language, and connecting them with an interesting character.
Writing Exercise
            Read the opening one hundred to two hundred words of your manuscript. Have you presented anything surprising or unexpected? Did you create tension? Did you use any evocative language? Have you connected readers to an interesting character?
            Now give your manuscript to a reader (preferably someone to whom you are not related) and ask them these same questions.

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Excerpted from Power Elements Of Story Structure, available as an ebook on Amazon.

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