I recently joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors group on Facebook. A couple of days ago, a member named Eric Martell posted the following question to the group, which prompted a long discussion thread:
Just about everyone engaged in giving advice to writers seems to agree that today’s readers must be hooked quickly or they’ll lose interest. I’ve read that the first sentence must be a hook; same with the first paragraph and the first chapter. No backstory allowed, just hook the reader with a character that they instantly care about and a question that the character must have answered by the end of the story. …
Do you think that sometimes rules suppress creativity? Is it better to occasionally ignore the advice and write a story diverging from the mainstream for the sake of literary diversity and experimentation?
Both the original post and the comments inspired some thoughts.
First, I’m not qualified as a writer to give feedback on a question like this. I am qualified as a reader, however, to reflect on my own tastes and habits, which I presume are shared by some number of others. As I read the original post and some of the comments, I was struck by the significance of that distinction, i.e. between writers’ feelings about what they want to create versus readers’ feelings about what they want to consume.
Second, there is nothing wrong with a writer focusing on art over reader tastes. Tastes are subjective and vary by individual. Writing doesn’t have to be for other people’s consumption anyway. It can be simply a form of self-expression, a means of giving voice to something inside that wants to come out. We can write for the same reason we sing when we are alone: because we enjoy the act.
Third, however, many writers do want to sell books, if for no other reason than because getting paid for one supports the luxury of writing another. Doing that requires at some point offering a version of the book that will enjoy market demand.
I think this is what authors mean when they talk about writing with the door closed and rewriting with it open. Or writing without fear and editing without mercy. Write a version that is for you. Do it fearlessly. Don’t let the world in to mess with your vision. Let the manuscript manifest itself as your idealized version of it. You can stop there if you are so inclined. Or you can proceed to the next step. Open the door. Let the world in. Carve your darlings without mercy. It is okay; you’ll always have that original, perfect draft for you.
Fourth, as a reader, generally speaking, if the first couple of pages don’t hook me, I don’t keep reading. I’m the sort of reader artists and literary types scorn. I’m finicky, fickle and judgmental. I like good writing, but not at the expense of plot. I have a short attention span, but a long list of books waiting to be read. Life is too short, I’m too busy, and there are just too many other books to devote time to one that is less than captivating.
Fifth, technology has impacted reading habits. In earlier eras, there were fewer books from which to choose. They were more expensive to acquire. There were fewer libraries and bookstores; transportation was slower. Having acquired one of the limited books available, a person who loved reading was therefore more likely to stick with it until the end.
As a child and teenager, my situation was in essence like those adult readers of earlier eras. I didn’t have unlimited access to books. Once one was in our house, I was pretty much going to finish it—because there would not be alternatives until a grownup took me back to the library. The book therefore did not have to work as hard to hold my attention; my attention was captive by circumstance (and youth).
I’ve become pickier as my tastes matured and alternatives were more easily acquired. Now I can take myself to the library or bookstore. I have my own funds to expend.
And of course—electronic books were game-changers.
I can download ten sample chapters in less time than it has taken to type one of these paragraphs. I can download ten more over the course of the day. My Facebook friend wrote a book. Download the sample chapter. My mom’s friend’s daughter wrote a book. Download the sample chapter. I saw an essay I loved by this author, think I’ll buy one of her books. Download the sample chapter. This agent liked these five books last year, I should probably check them out. Download the sample chapters. Etc.
Tonight I’ll scroll through the list of samples to decide which I want to try first, open it and check out the first page or two.
If they don’t hook me, I have dozens more waiting.
I go through several more until I find one that does hook. Then I keep reading. If I’m still hooked by the end of that sample chapter, I pay to download the rest of the book, which is instantaneously available.
To state it more explicitly: readers don’t have to shell out money until after they have been hooked.
Some still do anyway. There are clearly millions of readers whose habits are different than mine. No one has to write to serve any particular group’s tastes or habits. A corollary to the observation that authors don’t have to write for others’ consumption is that, even if they do, they don’t have to write for particular types of consumption.
[A couple of side notes: I don’t think I’ve ever been hooked by the first two pages but then not been hooked at the end of the sample chapter. However, sometimes I fall out of love later in the book. Also, I do sometimes read and finish books that did not originally hook me, such as when the book has come strongly recommended by someone I know and trust well; when I’m reading the book for craft-related reasons; or when I have been assured that later books in the series get better.]
Sixth, the prior point demonstrates the importance of the early hook (to readers like me, not all readers), but it does not explain what the hook is. Because reading tastes are inherently and inescapably subjective, what succeeds as a hook is going to be different for different people. A hook that hits it out of the ballpark for some readers will be a big, indifferent meh for others.
Theoretically, the hook could be anything. A compelling voice. A character that attracts interest. An expression of humor. Interesting dialogue. A mystery that must be solved. The glimpse into a unique imagined world. A political, social, technological, scientific or historic subject that interests me. Emotional resonance.
It is rarely a single element standing alone. Rather it is something that piques my interest and is supported by other variables, like the power of the prose; the charisma of the characters; the wonder of the world; my confidence in the author; etc.
Often though, the common theme uniting successful hooks is a sense of urgency.
I discovered this after a wise beta reader advised me to reread the first pages of my favorite books. Although the form of the hook varies from book to book, when its substance conveys a sense of urgency, I am more likely to keep reading.
This does not mean the book must open with action or a life-or-death struggle, as I have seen some suggest. Although that is one possibility, the sense of urgency can arise equally from an opening scene devoid of physical action or danger.
It can arise from a great injustice that needs to be rectified; I will keep reading out of a desire to see justice achieved. It can arise from an unfair burden or risk placed on a child; I will keep reading in the hopes of seeing that child reach a place of well-being. It can arise from an unrequited attraction between two characters; I will keep reading to see if they get together. It can arise from a character finding herself in an awkward situation; I will keep reading to reach the point of relief from my vicarious embarrassment. It can arise from the character encountering immediate difficulties in accomplishing an immediate goal (car breaking down while late for work; a storm rolling in on a hike; not having enough cash to buy groceries for a hungry child; etc.); I will keep reading to find out if the character resolves this immediate problem.
While writing this post, I revisited the opening pages of books that have hooked me in recent years. I’m compiling a discussion of successful hooks for my next post. In the meantime, I would love to hear feedback from others about what makes a hook successful for them as readers and examples of books that had it.
Thoughts and ideas in the comments!