How to Hook… Your Reader

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The opening of your novel or short story is crucial. It must be well written, catchy, and evocative. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your opening doesn’t move the story forward in the proper manner. This is a reflection of an improperly framed narrative.

Many writers’ create a story, but have a fixed idea how it should work.  In their minds, the narrative doesn’t exist outside of the bounds they’ve chosen for the beginning and end. Sometimes the story is simply lacking context that might be provided by a scene that comes before the writer’s current story beginning.

Meet Your Reader:

All right, we’re ready to begin the story. First, look around and find your reader; they maybe Men? Women? or Both? From now on, those readers will be looking over your shoulder while you write. What you create should appeal to their tastes. In fact, they will help you write the story, and you will entertain them.

The concept of the reader helping you write the story is important for all of us who have problems with info dumps and other authorial intrusion problems. Readers often see themselves as a character in your story, usually the protagonist. Give them elbow room to bring their imagination into play. Let the reader contribute some of the finer details. For every two or three details you put in, make allowances for the reader’s collaboration.

With the reader on your left shoulder, it’s time to pick a place in the narrative to begin.

Show the protagonist in focus:

The protagonist is on screen and in focus. Scenery is nice but dull. Don’t get bent out of shape… We know you can write beautiful, eloquent descriptions of your lovely world. Do yourself a favour — show us later. At the beginning, simple is good…  Your focus should be on the character’s emotional and physical details and getting us into that person’s head. If you stop the story to give the reader a guided tour, you may lose them.

Establish the protagonist in context:

The focus is on the protagonist. Now, provide opportunities to establish the characters in their primary social context. Are they at odds with the world or in sync with it? Context is just like that sentence: It shows how things relate and mesh with one another. Simply put, show whether your protagonist is a round, square, or hexagonal peg — and the hole into which life is trying to fit him or her.

Offer a scene that reflects the overall book or story conflict:

The scene should mirror the overall conflict of the novel in some way. For instance, if the book is about the protagonist getting back a kidnapped child, then a good way to start might be with the character seeing a child being taken from their parents, or two parents battling over custody of the child. There is even the blunt and obvious approach: the scene where the child gets kidnapped. Your first scene sets the tone for the rest of the book.

Portray an evocative situation:

Show the protagonist in a vivid uncluttered scene, preferably doing something that is signature to that character. If he or she is awesome with a sword, but hates swordplay for some reason, that should be revealed.

Establish that the protagonist has something significant at stake

Conflict must be present in your start. Make sure something that the protagonist feels an attachment to and cares for is on the line. Blood does not have to fly. People do not have to die.

How the main characters are motivated to deal with the conflict and the establishment of a personal stake is essential to driving your story forward. These details will provide important characterization. If the character is a nature type, and the theme is man against nature, then make the conflict deal with that issue in some way. Use indirection such as depicting an incident where the character hears about it, throws back his or her chair, demands to know where the atrocity is taking place, then storms off to confront the evildoers.

In choosing a scene of conflict, we single out that person’s passion and show them grappling with it. Our demons reveal telling contrasts in our values and character. When gripped by powerful emotions, we sublimate our learned social behaviour and act as our basic nature dictates. During these moments, potential is uncovered, hidden beauty can be revealed, or ugliness unmasked. Unveiling these aspects of the protagonist exposes flaws that make them more believable people, it also provides depth and shows that person’s potential for change.

Show the rules of the world at work:

Simply because your novel will be sitting on the fantasy rack doesn’t mean you can break rules on a whim. Yes, fantasy readers will suspend disbelief to an extent. However, a wise writer will start with the most plausible fantastic elements first.

Your best tools for getting a reader to buy into your fantasy are something sacrificed for something gained, action versus reaction, cause and effect. If fantastic elements play a key role in the plot, whether derived from magic, fanciful creatures, or simply some skewed aspect of the world, then some hint of the governing rules should play a role in the opening.

If the protagonist is in some way more confined by or less bound to those rules, you need to show or give evidence of this special relationship to the reader.

Introduce story Question’s:

Every protagonist will have a question. This question may have nothing to do with the plot, but it does reflect their personal needs and motivations. (Why me? – Why am I alone? – Why did she have to die? – Why go on living?). The story creator should know this question, and by the end of the story, answer it. Make sure this is on your list of things to accomplish by the story’s end.

In every plot, there is a need line and a desire line. Characters follow their aspirations, but cannot be at peace until they’ve fulfilled their crucial life’s necessity.

Good story structure dictates that the protagonist will at some point stand at the juncture between their needs and their desires. That decision is often a turning point in the story.

Establish tone and pace:

Your opening scene sets the overall mood of your material, be it dark and gloomy, violent or whatever. This is where you play fair with the reader. If your piece on a whole is bloody and violent, then initial scene should resonate with that feeling. This is key. Rules broken for creative purposes can be effective, but this has to be done in a sensitive way; a smooth transition often works.

If something important to the protagonist is threatened, you have your conflict. What remains is to ask a story question, and to depict the character displaying their signature characteristic. Your story’s tone and pace should take care of itself simply by loading the opening paragraph with this writing approach.

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