The Knack of Hooking Readers
Here is part 6 of Story Springboards with links to previous parts and related posts:
Next week I'll post an index of the Story Springboards series which will be added to in the future.
---From intro to Part 3----------
of Story Springboards --
This post series on Story Springboards explores the essence of what "interesting" means from the point of view of a writer and how to use that knowledge to sell fiction, especially Science Fiction, and double especially Science Fiction Romance.
All the books on how to write stories tell you (without showing) that to sell fiction, all you have to do is write an "interesting" story.
No instruction is more frustrating than that simple sentence "just write an interesting story." So let's delve a little deeper than writing teachers usually do.
"What is interesting and how do you write it?"
And what has that to do with the Art of Episodic Plotting?
So the instruction is "just write an interesting story" --- but books on writing never ask "interesting to whom?"
The key bit of information left out of writing craft textbooks and especially "Creative Writing" courses is that there is a huge chasm between what "interests" you and what your reader will find "interesting" about the story.
Study this image carefully. This is a "show don't tell" of the technique we're focusing on here.
You can just barely see the ridges of the screw-threads, but focus on them. They tell the tale.
A second bit of information missing -- perhaps because teaching it would give the teacher's competition an "edge" over the teacher? -- is that the reader that must be HOOKED FIRST is not the end-user who buys the book off the shelf, off Amazon, Kobo, or wherever e-books are sold.
The reader who must be hooked FIRST is the editor/publisher. Second is that publisher's market department. Third is reviewers. Fourth is maybe the reader.
The order of the hooks you create and implant in your FIRST PAGE is set by the market you are hitting for.
Now, if you write to self-publish, the first hook has to be directly to your reader. Intuitively, you think that is easier -- but given the failure-rate of self-published novels, I'd suspect there's a knack to it as obscure as the other hook-structures.
It is, however, all learn-able stuff and the learning thereof is actually FUN to the type of person who is inherently "a writer" -- and crazy-making boring to end-user readers who just want to be entertained.
Consider how your perspective on a TV Series changes when you visit the "Lot" and see that the town you thought was New York is actually a tunnel of plywood flats propped up behind by slats of wood. The buildings (or space ships or whatever) you thought were "real" just aren't and never were. It is an illusion you fell for. You were tricked.
You never look at any TV show again the same way.
Well, it's the same for most of the techniques we talk about on this blog on Tuesdays. Once you know the trick of it, novels just don't affect you the same way.
One of the components of the "Story Springboard" is the HOOK -- writing textbooks identify only the "narrative hook" and ignore all the rest of the intricacies of the "hook techniques." Writing texts tell you to "write a million words for the garbage can" as if it would help to practice your mistakes until they are ingrained.
Anyone who trains young children in athletics or martial arts, or even driving a car or playing a musical instrument will tell you that HOW YOU START is the key to how well you will master the skills. It is critical to thread the trainee into the procedures just as you thread a cap on a bottle and then twist, seating it just so.
If you put the cap on tilted, the threads cross and twisting makes a mess that's very hard to undo.
Likewise with training to write. How you START learning to write is critical. If you start correctly, all the rest just comes easily and presto you're selling fiction. If you start off-kilter, you have to undo everything you've learned and start over, sometimes again and again. And sometimes the process "strips the threads" and it takes years for the damage to heal.
So learning to construct a sequenced set of hooks can be easy, natural, effortless, and people say, "Oh, she's so Talented!" Or it can be all hard and twisted and confusing, and people say, "Get a real job."
So before you start "spinning your yarn" (or twisting the cap on your story), spend however much effort it takes you to drill and drill until you can bring that story-cap down level, square on top of the "bottle" that will hold your story.
So why do I say the "hook" or the beginning of the story is the CAP? Isn't the CAP the last thing you do, the ENDING of the story?
As we've discussed in various story-structure series on this blog, the ending is the beginning.
In fact, almost any problem you have with structure later on, the climax points, the middle-event definition, or getting the last scene to be the actual END climax, finding the final word of the tale, any problem can be traced to an error in the opening page.
Yeah, "error." It's a mistake, because every story, every tale, has an exact and precise OPENING or BEGINNING -- a point at which the audience can find entry into the entire story -- the character's nature and the problem confronting the character, the setting that hurls the problem at the character, the moral dilemma that must be sorted out, the Relationships that provide the solution which is a new problem, etc.
There is a point at which a character's life is "open" enough to allow onlookers to "enter" that life and walk in that character's moccasins. It is just like the open point at the top of a screw-top bottle's thread -- it is AT a certain spot in the character's life in time and in place (character's age and the setting).
Finding that point is a process that blends Art and Craft. Once found, that point then becomes known and familiar to the writer -- and the problem changes from "find the hook" to "build the hook into a springboard."
The Art component of the Hook requires knowing your end-user, your reader who will pay money for your novel.
The Craft component of the Hook requires knowing your MARKET - which is the publisher (or producer) who will pay you for your manuscript or your screenplay long before any reader has been offered your product.
So visualize a fish hook -- a beautiful curve with really wicked barbs sticking out in every which direction. That's what we have to build the springboard of the story around.
Think VELCRO. (or a zipper).
Velcro has the property that most resembles STORY. It's a better analogy than a fish hook, but it is similar. A fish hook is designed to hook-and-hold a specific, particular fish, and requires a specific bait to attract that fish and induce it to bite at the hook. The bait also HIDES THE BARBS.
Velcro likewise has that design element -- but is even more narrow in its usefulness.
Velcro sticks to it's MATE material, the OPPOSITE curlicue material. A fish hook will stick to almost anything.
So a fish hook might be a better analogy for a story aimed at a large market -- a TV Series or Feature Film, something very expensive to produce that must earn millions within the first few days needs a fish hook that will stick to anybody.
Velcro is more like genre fiction, Romance, Cozy Mystery, Paranormal Romance -- it only sticks to those who are made from the opposite material.
And there you have the inner secret of INTERESTING (as previous parts of this series have discussed), and the core energy-source of Springboards. Opposites. Bring two opposites together, and BANG something happens.
When things "happen" -- that is interesting. CHANGE of SITUATION is interesting. The whiff of a change in the air is interesting.
Here's a quote from the end of Part 3 of this STORY SPRINGBOARDS series:
When concepts of TIME and EXISTENCE are configured differently, everything in the culture that uses those concepts becomes configured differently. The differences cause the most trouble when the participants yelling across the cultural gap are unaware there is a gap.
This kind of miscommunication is the ESSENCE OF CONFLICT.
Resolution of conflict is one essential ingredient in climaxes.
Anticipating a climax is the essence of "Interesting."
Miscommunication that the reader sees but the characters do not provides the ANTICIPATION (foreshadowing) of change of situation (action).
When one character "finds out" (but perhaps the other hasn't yet found out), the situation changes.
It's that change of situation that is the very essence of "interesting" -- and it is most powerful before it happens, not during or after the Event. Interest is about "what will happen next." So when the reader finds out what happens next, that bit of "interesting" is gone -- so the writer must keep planting these foreshadowing hints that "Wait! There's more!" as the pitch-man announces.
These interlaced and overlapping lines of CHANGE OF SITUATION form the fabric that must be created to support an episodic plot structure -- such as we discussed in Part 3 of Springboards.
"Write an interesting story" -- means, learn that the writer is the opposite of the reader, and the writer's brain works in the opposite direction from that of the reader.
Think again of threading a screw top onto a bottle. The thread on the top screws in the opposite direction from the thread on the bottom.
"Interesting" happens when the thread of the TOP interlocks with the thread on the BOTTOM -- and TURNS (i.e. change happens).
As you TWIST the top onto the bottom (or the bottom onto the top) there is anticipation of "what happens next" -- the knowledge that eventually, you hit the end of the screw thread and the top and bottom are mated securely. But when you BEGIN this process, the top and the bottom are not connected (yet) -- change hasn't started (yet) -- there is POTENTIAL ENERGY.
That potential energy is your springboard.
Will the top come down level enough to engage the thread on the bottom?
Will the threads engage?
Will the top turn level enough to twist into a secure mating? Will it turn enough times to get there? The suspense is killing me.
"What will happen next?" is the question that writing textbooks tell you to answer.
But they rarely mention how to construct WHAT WILL HAPPEN FIRST.
It is "What Happens First" that is both the barbs on your hook that capture editors, publishers, publicists, and readers -- and the springboard that flings the reader into the story on the shoulders of the characters.
Real life doesn't have a "What Happens First" -- there is always something that happened before.
Take the Bible as an example. The first 5 books of the Bible are a simple autobiography -- the story of the life of Moses written by God but transcribed by Moses himself. God sets out to tell the story of ONE MAN'S LIFE, and He says, "In The Beginning" and starts with the creation of existence. And ends with Moses death (a real tear-jerker because Moses for all his service to God, doesn't get to the Promised Land.)
Even God couldn't figure out what happened FIRST in the story of Moses, so He started with the beginning of Creation.
Generally speaking, modern novels don't go quite that far back. Normally, we don't even start with the birth of the main character.
The story we tell STARTS where the two elements that will conflict to generate the plot first come into contact, and ENDS with the RESOLUTION of that one conflict.
In the case of the Bible, the conflict started by Moses confronting Pharaoh is still going on. The conflict started by God choosing Abraham is still going on. We have a suspense building flash-forward via Prophecy, but the details are still happening.
So when we tell a story, we cut out a smaller piece of canvass, and lay down perspective lines that give us a close-up view of the threads of one character's life that will (or will not) interlock with another character's life, and screw down into place (or strip the threads and seat crooked.)
So the top and bottom screw threads represent the pair of characters who will conflict to generate the plot (Hero and Villain, or Male and Female lovers-to-be, or Buddy Cops, or Detective and Quarry, etc), but they also represent the writer and reader.
Writer and reader have to MESH in just that way -- like opposites, jousting with each other like Detective and Quarry, or flirting like lovers, or Teacher and Student, or Parent and Child, or whatever combination your genre prefers.
Writer and reader are two halves of a whole.
That's why we learn early in life to memorize the byline of an author who tickles our imagination just right, then find all the rest of their books. Writers have a 'voice' and if a writer's 'voice' soothes a reader's nerves the way a certain singer's voice does, the reader will collect that writer's novels.
You don't get this effect with TV or Movies because what you see on the screen is the product of many, many voices -- and a whole orchestra of instruments behind (camera crew, casting directors, etc). So being a fan of a film and TV production is more like being a fan of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir than of a particular singer in the choir.
With novels, yes, there is a whole production crew, and very often the "voice" of the editors and others at a publishing company show through into the finished product, but the "voice" of the byline writer dominates the reader's experience making novels a much more personal interaction.
So the "Knack of Hooking Readers" -- even first-readers such a slush-pile readers, agents, editors, etc -- lies in training yourself to recognize OPENINGS.
Yes, it's called a story-opening (a stage-play term), an "opening scene," because just like with the screwtop, there is that little open spot where the top and bottom screws "mate" -- an opening spot where the screw threads can MESH.
The first drill, before you even begin to search your mind and heart for a story to write, is to watch the people around you, listen to their lives as they chatter to each other about having the car break down on the freeway, taking the kid to the doctor before racing to get to work on time, stopping to pick up dinner at the supermarket only to find the market's salad bar closed for suspicion of salmonella (eek!), and whatever other adventures ensue.
Listen to real lives unfold. Think about "making friends" (making friends with new people at a new job requires finding one of those "open" spots to thread yourself into their lives). Read a lot of biographies and autobiographies (comparing biographies and autobiography of the same person is a good learning experience). Try to find biographies of people who aren't particularly "famous" because that's where you'll find "real" lives just like your reader's lives.
Here's one biography I recommend which is edited by Allan Cole (the screenwriter) from tapes of stories told by his Uncle. It is a collection of first person anecdotes, not a novel or novelized biography. It is very different, and very much to the point of the subject of Hooks and Springboards. It is in paper, e-book and audiobook and you can find them all here:
Now, make a habit of recounting your day when you get home at night. It helps if you live with someone who will listen, but if not make a diary entry -- verbalize the sequence of events of your day as if telling them to someone.
Notice how you tend to tell the story out of chronological order, starting in the middle with the interesting thing -- the thing that interests YOU most -- then backtracking to what caused it.
One error beginning writers make is starting in the wrong place, choosing the wrong opening event, or laying out the whole tapestry of what WILL cause something to "happen" before saying what did happen.
Remember, "interesting" means CHANGE OF SITUATION. Action = Rate Of Change Of Situation (not one character beating another over the head with a broadsword).
A hook without any barbs on it to capture interest is created by detailing the SITUATION before an EVENT changes that situation.
Three paragraphs detailing a situation is way too much prelude to change.
The most complex set of barbs on your hook can be created by putting the CHANGE of the situation in the very first 10 words, the first line of the story. Then sketching (not detailing) the Situation that the change altered.
By creating your opening in that order, you present your reader with an entire tapestry (a velcro surface) of questions.
If you've chosen the EVENT and your wording of how you present that EVENT to match the genre you are aiming for, then some of your hooks on your Velcro will engage the slush-pile reader, some will engage an agent, some will engage an editor, and some will send that editor bouncing to the marketing department crying, EUREKA!
Each hook in your side of the Velcro strip of that opening paragraph will mate with one of the "eyes" on the target strip.
Note that the first thing that you learn about your Character or the Situation that has remained unchanging around them for years of their life is not the first thing you present to your readers when you tell the story.
To you, the writer, the first thing you learn about the Character (which comes in a multi-dimentional burst of I HAVE AN IDEA!) is what is INTERESTING to you, the writer.
That first thing is NOT the thing that is interesting to the reader.
To "write an interesting story" is the opposite (look again at the screw threads) of the process of reading an interesting story.
The process of becoming interested in a story is the opposite of the process of interesting someone in a story.
Think about the most boring person you've ever met.
When that person tells you about something that happened, or discusses something you told them that happened to you, your eyes close. Why? Is it because they don't know what they are talking about? Not likely. Most likely is the way they use DETAIL.
Your mind has already leaped over to the next thing after the thing that comes next -- way beyond --- and the boring person is wading through minutia you already grasped.
Boring usually happens not when things are SLOW (suspense, creeping horror etc is very interesting, and very slow) -- but when details are presented in the wrong order, in the wrong place. Boring also happens when you TELL someone what they already know, or think they know (even if they don't.)
It's not speed that makes things interesting.
"Interesting" is all about change that portends more change. "Interesting" is all about QUESTIONS -- questions the reader poses to herself, not the questions the writer articulates.
"Interesting" is all about what is NOT SAID -- rather than what is said.
Inference, innuendo, off-the-nose dialogue, all are techniques that raise questions without specifying what the question is exactly.
"Interesting" is all about "The Socratic Method."
Here's a quick reprise in case you've forgotten:
The discourse is between writer and reader.
The reader is actually the curious questioner -- the initiator of the dialogue -- not the writer.
The reader is riffling through a whole lot of books (on a shelf or in a Kindle) asking, "What am I in the mood for tonight?" Or perhaps, "Is there an interesting Romance on my Kindle?"
Many readers (especially slush pile readers and editors) come to the stack of reading matter in a state of being bored. They don't want to read anything - but it's their job to read. And it's just boring for all the reasons any job gets boring. So the question the potential reader is asking is, "What would break through this boredom?"
The writer's job is to SURPRISE that bored reader.
And that surprise has to be about 3 or 4 words long. Maybe only one word.
Surprise always breaks boredom. The Unexpected is key.
What a given group of readers "expect" depends on the group and why they are a group.
What surprises one group, shocks and repels another. Shock-repel can be as interesting as surprise, but the Romance field generally doesn't host shock-repel openings (middles maybe, not usually ends).
The opening (there's that word again - look at the open spots in the mated screw threads and ponder this) words of your manuscript have to break into that boredom with a SURPRISE.
When the idea for a story bursts into your consciousness, it is almost always a SURPRISE wrapped in DELIGHT and it energizes you, making you reach for something to jot down that idea, or capture the rapid-fire dialogue that just rushed to mind.
Those first jotted words can be the actual opening of your novel, but that is likely to happen only if you've trained and trained, sweated and strained, to bend a hook into a springboard.
More than likely the first explosion of IDEA will be from the middle or end of a novel -- or maybe something that never makes it into the actual novel.
The actual opening of the novel based on that IDEA has to create for the reader that same SENSATION of "I've Got An IDEA!"
The writer must encapsulate the experience of HAVING an IDEA for the reader.
That's where the Socratic Method comes in.
The objective of the writer is to get the reader to have the idea, rather than just telling the reader what your idea is.
If you go back to thinking about that Most Boring Person You Know again, you may discover the essence of the quality "boring." Other people's IDEAS are boring. YOUR OWN IDEAS are INTERESTING.
"Just Write An Interesting Story" means "Let Your Reader Have All The Ideas."
Your ideas are boring to your reader. Their own ideas are interesting to them.
Readers are most entertained by having their own ideas erupt into their own consciousness.
Being a reader rather than a writer means being cozy with the concept that the IDEAS are IN THE NOVEL. That the writer is "Talented" -- that the book is interesting.
The writer is not talented. The book is not interesting.
The READER is the interesting component in this transaction.
If you, the writer, are not interested in the Reader, the transaction won't work.
Note in the explanation of Socratic Method the technique involves stating a thesis that is to be refuted.
It's a thesis that begs to be refuted.
One common human trait is the urgent need to CORRECT someone who's wrong about something.
To create a story-opening, find a moment where your main character is involved in a changing Situation -- find a moment of change where your character is convinced of an INCORRECT THESIS -- or one that your reader (because of the genre) will know is wrong and will want to correct.
"Love Conquers All" is one such thesis.
"Now that's a baby so ugly only a mother could love him." An opening line of dialogue like that triggers the Romance reader's impulse to read the next line because that thesis just has to be refuted.
And that makes the observation of the "ugly baby" a SPRINGBOARD.;
Note the simple two words "ugly baby" state a theme, arouse a need to REFUTE, and open a whole plethora of possible EVENT PATHWAYS leading to or away from various conflicts.
Can love conquer the ugliness of a baby? Is there such a thing as an ugly baby? What would be the effect on a person who was regarded as ugly as a baby? Could their personality ever come out right?
Maybe this novel is about a photographer who does photo-journalism, but as a hobby collects baby pictures of really ugly babies (human and otherwise), with the idea of selling them as a book some day. What if he takes his collection to an editor just hired by the magazine he works for (probably an online publication) to try to sell it. Would she have a high opinion of this man -- even if she were attracted to him? Maybe he was an ugly baby and his personality is warped by that -- or maybe, he only thinks he is.
Are you getting the SPRINGBOARD concept now? The spring (potential energy) is wound up inside the THEME.
In this Story Springboards series we've also discussed the Episodic Structure.
Take the Ugly Baby hook, and create a TV Series out of it, using episodic structure.
The photographer would do as a main character, getting sent to exotic parts of the world on news stories, finding all sorts of babies to take pictures of for his project, having harrowing adventures getting his stories in on time, acquiring and losing various Reporters (photographers generally work with reporters who write the text of the stories) along the way. A Reporter might last him a season or two, but the Editor back at home-base is always the same, and his main love interest (however much he hates that).
Now, take the same Ugly Baby hook and create a NOVEL OUT OF IT.
Photographer on dangerous assignment -- gets shot at, or has a burning building fall on him and loses his eyesight, which Event causes him to develop his Relationship with his Editor (or Nurse-cliche, Physical Therapist cliche, whatever), he gets his eyesight back, and has the choice of picking up his photography career, or maybe settling down to get married and run a studio and take wedding and baby pictures for a living.
Same Hook, same Springboard, two different story-structures, each of which can work with a plethora of thematic statements about Ugly Babies, fate, destiny, and perception, or possibly (for science fiction) eugenics.
Hot stuff wound up inside two innocent words that spark questions when juxtaposed.