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  • Writer's pictureTina Radcliffe

Hooking the Reader

Updated: Jun 9, 2018

You only get one chance to hook the reader who has 300 books on his/her Kindle. The first line, first paragraph, first page, first chapter must in effect "sell your story." FAST. Does anyone really care that your story is amazing in chapters two and three if they can't get through chapter one? I know how important that first chapter is, so I utilize a first reader before proceeding with the story. I like a cold read from someone who is a voracious reader, and who is not afraid to give me honest feedback. With my current project I was fortunate that Villager Vince Mooney agreed to read for me, and with his feedback in hand and my notes, I'm ready to dig deep and review hooking the reader. The First Line Hook It doesn't get any simpler than this. One line dialogue hooks do the job. They YANK you into the story. What else do these one liners do?

  • Immediately set the tone.

  • They put the reader in the story

  • They ask an unspoken question that can be answered by reading further.

  • They intrigue the reader.

“If there was one thing Josie Miller knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.” -Her Unlikely Family, Missy Tippens. “At precisely one o’clock on a sunny September Saturday afternoon, Megan McGuire spied a pirate.”–Dreaming of Home, Glynna Kaye. “If Annabelle hadn’t found a body lying under “Sherman” she wouldn’t have been late for her appointment with the Python.”-Match Me If YouCan, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in search of a wife.” -Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. "If you've killed her, Geoffrey, we will never hear the end of it from Lady Thornborough." -An Heiress at Heart, Jennifer Delamere. A BORN KILLER. MELVINA ELDORA SMITH KILLED THREE people before the age of one-her mother at birth, her father of a broken heart and her poor, poor Uncle Mutt outside a bar with a runaway buggy...-An Ever After Summer (A Bride for All Seasons), Debra Clopton.

Another Method is the Opening Hook A good opening hook consists of several paragraphs and does the same thing as the one liner:

  • Immediately sets the tone.

  • Puts the reader in the story

  • Asks an unspoken question that can be answered by reading further.

  • Intrigues the reader.

AND it:

  • Establishes viewpoint

  • Introduces a protagonist

  • Makes the reader care

  • Begins to set the story stage

  • Foreshadows

" “The sharp crack of a cocking pistol brought Lucas Stone’s head around. “I’ll shoot if you so much as twitch.” The deputy’s badge gleamed in the dim lantern light of the stable, and his aim was true. “What’s the problem here?” Luke straightened away from his horse, hands spread wide and raised slightly. He hoped this didn’t count as twitching; he didn’t want to give the deputy an excuse to flinch.” –Swept Away, Mary Connealy. "Kate Donovan entered the town of Redbud, Pennsylvania, for the first time driving a car packed with her seventy-six -year old grandmother, a comprehensive set of encyclopedias on American antiques, three sacks of nonperishable groceries, and enough pink luggage to give Mary Kay fits of jealously. It was the end of their three-day car trip from Dallas but only the beginning of their big adventure together." -My Stubborn Heart, Becky Wade. "Strapped into the quivering soup can laughingly called a plane, bouncing his way on the pummeling air through the stingy window of light that was was winter, through the caps and breaks in show-sheathed mountains toward a town called Lunacy, Ignatious Burke had an epiphany. He wasn't nearly as prepared to die as he'd believed."-Northern Lights, Nora Roberts. "Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men. She looked into the handsome face of the man she'd planned on taking to her sister's wedding and thought, Those days are gone. "This relationship is not working for me," David said. I could shove this swizzle stick through his heart, Min thought. She wouldn't do it of course. The stick was plastic and not nearly pointed enough on the end. " -Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie.

First Chapters:

The goals of a first chapter include ALL of the ABOVE plus they: Establish your story world

  • Introduce your hero and heroine and keep them together as much as possible

  • Show what's at stake

  • Prove you've got a fresh and exciting story about to unfold

  • Make the reader worry

Where to start the story? Three techniques with examples. Each has their own opening hook. 1. Introduce the ordinary world very briefly and then the protagonist's life is about to change forever.

"Crazy. For Nathan Cross, no other word came close to describing the past year. Now all he wanted was to survive this wedding-a double wedding, no less! -then figure out what exactly God had planned for the next stage of his life." -A Horseman's Gift, Myra Johnson. "Julia Grace shielded her eyes against the sun as she stood on the bluff and stared south. Far in the distance, a train churned its way west across the plains, a ribbon of smoke trailing from its stack. As always, she wondered about the passengers onboard. What was their destination? Was someone waiting for them once they arrived, or were they all alone in the world? her.-Betrayal, Robin Lee Hatcher. 2. Start at the exact moment the protagonist's life changes forever -at the inciting incident. "He stood hard and unyielding, one arm stretched across the entry as if to block Kayla's approach. Light spilled from the angled farmhouse, warming the mold-hashed porch with a splash of gold, backlighting his rugged frame." -Winter's End, Ruth Logan Herne. Lily Beaumont gasped for air and fought her way through the dream that came too often. Her heart pounded a warning as she blinked open her eyes, allowing the dark outline of her bedroom to sweep into focus. She lifted her head off the pillow and anticipated the distant thunder before the sound reached her ears. -The General's Secretary, Debby Giusti. 3. Begin in media res- in the middle of the action ( the inciting incident happens before the story began).

"Lost in the Alaskan wilderness. Penelope Lear's great adventure was not supposed to end this way, with her standing on a shadowy path in the middle of nowhere. "-Thanksgiving Groom, Brenda Minton. "And finally," Jamie said as he pushed the door open, "we come to the main event. Your room." I was braced for pink. Ruffles or quilting, or maybe even appliqué. Which was probably kind of unfair, but then again, I didn't know my sister anymore, much less her decorating style. With total strangers, it had always been my policy to expect the worst. Usually they-and those that knew you best, for that matter-did not disappoint." -Lock and Key, Sarah Dessen. Words of Wisdom from the experts:

Shelly Thacker, in her Hooks and Grabbers workshop says to use THE THREE Fs. FAST (keep the story moving forward)FOCUSED ON RELATIONSHIPFILLED WITH CONFLICT Michael Hauge says the reader must identify with your hero. Establish empathy with two of these devices:

  • sympathy-the victim of undeserved misfortune

  • put the character in jeopardy

  • make your character likeable

  • make your hero funny

  • make your character good at what they do

Above all, live the story as you write it! Get in their heads and stay there.

The best way to learn how to write great hooks and first chapters is to read great books. The examples I am sharing today were randomly grabbed from my Keeper Shelf. I encourage you to take a print copy of one of your keeper books (or a spare copy) and read it, making notes in the margin. Analyze how that author hooked you in. It’s a given that you should be reading all the finalists (in your targeted sub-genre) of the RITA and the Carol Awards. Not only will you read a great story, but you’ll learn a lot about technique.


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