Having You Readers Hanging On A Hook

M.H. Norris

A few months ago, I wrote a post about The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel. And if you didn’t take my advice then to come and read it, I suggest you do so now.

Seriously go to the bookstore, buy it, and then come back. I’ll be here.

One thing Cartmel does in the book is that it has two parts (like a vinyl record has two sides). It was a cliffhanger worth of a penultimate episode of a television show. Like I said before but I’m going to say again, Cartmel has a fantastic way of weaving all these threads together to make the beautiful tapestry that is The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax.

Recently, I was working on something and doing so on a very tight deadline. To attempt to keep myself from getting overwhelmed (you can ask James–I wasn’t overly successful at times) I tried breaking it down into sections.

Going from section to section, I wanted to link them all together with hooks. Sometimes it was a struggle. With a hook inside a story, do you want to go big and bad or do you want to do something smaller yet compelling to press your readers forward.

How can you get your readers holding your book at 3AM unable to sleep because they’re so involved in your story?

That’s the golden question, isn’t it?

Here’s some things I’ve either learned or observed about hooks.

Learn from Television

I’ve been watching NCIS through for the first time, these last few months, and made it to Season 11 in the last week. The Season 10 cliffhanger was interesting; it utilized a time jump to leave you hanging.

Not particularly caring what time it was (luckily it wasn’t too late), I of course hit “next episode” to watch the Season 11 premiere. They took most of the episode to resolve the cliffhanger. It worked really well. It kept you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know what happens. Keep in Mind this is an advanced tactic. It can easily be done poorly. James has thrown books out which skip over the dramatic event, playing with revealing elements of it, instead of exploring it outright. Don’t join these books in James’ trash. But it is an option.

Television lives and dies by its hooks, which convince you the show really is worth sitting through those commercials for. Strong hooks can keep your readers, well, reading.

When considering how to insert hooks into your story, use television shows as an example. The space between commercials in a television show are called Acts. It used to be that shows were set on a four act structure but in the last five years or so, shows have been moving to six. Each of the acts have their own little cliffhanger that gets you to stay through the commercials to see what happens.

How Does this Apply to Prose Writing?

There is the idea that you need to hook your reader in the first chapter of your book. From there the trick is to find reasons to keep people reading–find the hooks to keep them reading. Just because you keep them past Chapter One doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to keep them the whole book.

I have sat down a book, partially read. Sometimes it’s because of writing errors–sometimes, they haven’t given me a reason to keep reading.

The most common form I’ve seen in fiction is chapter to chapter hooks. Often times, people will read to the end of the chapter, and then sit the book down. You need to be their reason to pick it back up

Another thing I often ask myself is why should readers care? Why should they keep reading?

What can be used as a hook?

1) Plot Points

This is the most common type of hook. You end the chapter with a new plot point. In my own writing, I often use this in the form of killing yet another character (though in Notches I also used it for kidnappings as well).

Even if you don’t outline, you’ve got a general sense of where this story is going to go. In the instance of Midnight, I had a bunch of plot points:

  • New Murders
  • Key Clues
  • Introduction of Suspects
  • The Climax
  • The Fall-Out

Sometimes, transitioning from one point to another can help you use plot points as hooks.

2) Character Beats

Regularly relegated to the B-story, character moments can serve as hooks. This is especially handy in a series where you’ve set questions about a character and are ready to answer them.

Often, a revealing character moment can be more powerful than plot point. What is happening to your characters in your story?

In my short story, “All that Jazz” (from the brilliant Nicole Petit’s Speakeasies and Spiritualists), I close every section on a hook. Most of these hooks relate to Margaret’s stress and mental state. She witnessed a particularly gory murder, and as she tries to solve it the images and emotions keep getting thrown back at her. This was much more impacting than having another new dead body every few pages.

Conclusion

Often, stress is put on hooking your readers in and making sure that they stay from cover to cover and story to story.

By weaving in things to hook your reader, to keep them reading scene to scene, chapter to chapter you will hook them in.