May 20, 2009

Hooks, Lines, and Sinkers

by DiAnn Mills

I bet you are thinking that this month’s blog is about fishing. Well it is, and it isn’t.

We all have favorite historical novels, rich stories that send us back in time to a setting where the characters are real—and even become our friends. We’re right there with them, sharing their joys and sorrows, weaknesses and strengths. But how were we ushered into their lives?

By the carefully crafted words of the first line.

The first sentence in your manuscript can reel in your readers and keep them hooked to the page, or it can sink your story. I want to help you bait your hook so a reader snatches your book off the shelf and clutches it to her chest while she races for the check out.

When you walk into a book store to purchase a new adventure, what is your pattern of selection? I bet it’s much like mine. You read who wrote the book. You look at the cover and make a snap decision as to whether it is appealing. You flip the book and read the back cover copy. You check the endorsements. If the book has passed all of those tests, you turn to the first page: chapter one, line one—the HOOK. And if the hook doesn’t snatch your attention, you move on.

All of that in about what? 30 seconds? Not much time when you consider the hours and hours spent on writing the book and polishing it for publication.

The opening line should be in the middle of action – arousing your reader’s curiosity to find the answers to some question. But this is merely the opening, a taste of the conflict to come. The writer has carefully chosen the bait to hook your reader.

I like to think of the beginning hook as an invitation to a party. The reader is hooked, excited about what was said in that critical first sentence. “Come along with me on this adventure. I promise you that every word and sentence will be as thrilling as the first line.” None of us want to disappoint our readers. In actuality, the writer may never receive another opportunity to bring that reader along on another adventure.

What can be incorporated in a good hook? A quote? A Bible verse? A song title? A universal phrase, possibly misquoted? Dialogue? It’s not so much the method as the words used to draw attention to your story.

Think about the following opening lines.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times … Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

So what does the writer need to know before the hook is crafted?

  1. The genre.
  2. The characters and their strengths, weaknesses, and goals.
  3. A plot.
  4. The writer has set the stage with: who, what, where, when, and why.
  5. The writer understands the value of sensory perception and setting the stage.

The writer is then ready to write a dynamic hook.

This sets the stage for a disturbance in the opening of your story, but it is not the call to adventure. That happens later—in another writer’s workshop. J

Hooks, lines, and sinkers … How does your story measure up?

That’s it for this month. Me? I’m going fishing. Got a bucketful of bait and I’m going to hook some readers.

*I have a great contest on my website.


Terry Burns said...

You are so right, DiAnn, I've heard it put like this: "We have ten seconds to grab their attention and three minutes to keep it."


DiAnn Mills said...

Scary, isn't it?

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear DiAnn,
I loved your article, and I was so honored that perhaps you got part of your idea about party invitations from my article "Openings Are Invitations" that was published at the website some months ago. It's always so great when we think somebody used one of our ideas. I certainly will use some of yours found in your article. It was great.