Hook me, baby.

By Robin D. Owens

Hook me, baby

Occasionally I pick up one of the unread books I've purchased and say, "hook me, baby." Most of the time I realize why I didn't read the book right away, and often I just go to something else. The amount of time I can spend reading is extremely limited, and if there isn't a good hook, I'm gone.

My bias: I am a firm believer in getting the hook in the first line, and if not the first line, then the first paragraph. I think the longer you take to set the hook, the more likely it is that the reader will skip to the next book in the pile (or on their device). I believe that no matter your status as a writer – unpublished or New York Times #1 Best Seller, you should attempt to hook the reader as soon as humanly possible. Don't expect the reader to have read any other books of yours, especially if you write series. Work your hook, always.

Like I said, this is my bias and this is the point of view I'm coming from in this article. And as a reader, I want to be drawn into a story quickly. (I once had an agent turn Heart Thief down because she "liked to sink into a story.")

The following are some openings that DON'T work for ME. These are true examples, pretty much as I flicked through my electronic library, but the authors will remain anonymous.

1) Starting with the weather. I don't care if it's hot and sultry, or if a thunderstorm is raging. Why, if your hero is making a pact with the devil at the end of the paragraph, don't you put that in the first line? Or if your heroine senses danger outside in that storm, you wait until the end of the second paragraph before telling me? Use it up front to get me interested in your story.

2) Five people named in the first two pages. What? Who? Why? What is going on that there are so many people? Who are they, and who of these five are important? Where are they? You have to keep track of them all, what they look like, their ages, and who moves where. This was especially necessary in the mystery I'd started. This becomes less of entertainment and enjoyment and more work for me, the reader.

3) Ten pages of standing and looking out the window and thinking about backstory, or driving somewhere and thinking of the past. When will the action/story actually start?

4) The hero or heroine embarrassing himself/herself or acting stupid in the first scene. If I'm putting myself in that person's skin, I don't want to feel embarrassed or stupid, I can do that just fine on my own in my own life, thank you, I expect more of my protagonists. At this point, unless I know and trust the author, I don't know if the character will really improve or not.

5) Point of view of a wonderful person, an obvious victim who will die before the end of the first scene. I especially don't like to be tortured to death. You had better have a very good story reason for this, and you had better not have been manipulating my emotions gratuitously. This is a cheap-shot to try and get me involved without giving me information on your main protagonist.
Note: I finished this book, but am still irate that the New York Times best-selling author didn't find a better way to give us information that the main characters didn't know. S/he should have mastered a better technique to do so, and if s/he doesn't know a better technique his/her editor should have. I reread the books I buy often. I have never reread this scene.

Other ways of opening that may or may not work, depending upon the reader and/or the technique of the writer. These you should consider.

Starting with a dream. Conventional wisdom states this is a no-no. I can't say "never," since in my twenty-four published books, two have started with a dream, including the latest, Heart Fire, which begins with a nightmare of a past event. Two pieces of advice: Make sure readers know up front it's a dream, and keep it as short as possible.

Single character on stage. I've also used single character on stage; again, keep the backstory to a minimum, keep the time the person is solo as short as possible, and make sure the character's voice is engaging, or the events s/he's immersed in are active -- fast action and/or a dangerous situation.

Tense and/or Point of View, for instance:

First person present tense. I, personally, have a problem with reading this. It makes my head ache. If there isn't something especially wonderful about the book, I close it. Be aware of tense and point of view with regard to the genre you're writing in and your audience.

With regard to point of view, I like deep third person past tense. I don't particularly care for omniscient point of view as it seems distancing to me as a reader and the less engaged I am in the story, the more likely I am to put the book down. Again, some genres and readers accept this better.

And that's my two-bits on hooks and hooking me to read your work. Other people might have other sensitivities, but I will say that I try my best to stay away from what bothers me as a reader as I craft my own work as a writer.

Be aware what hooks YOU and keeps you reading, study the books and the openings that particularly worked for you as a reader and figure out if you can use the same technique.

May all your writing dreams come true,

Robin D. Owens
RITA® Award Winning novelist Robin D. Owens credits the telepathic cat with attitude in selling her first futuristic/fantasy romance, HeartMate, published in December 2001. Since then she has written fourteen books in the series, Heart Fire the latest in November 2014.

Her five book Luna series included average American women Summoned into another dimension to save a world. Her Mystic Circle series was a mixture of contemporary urban and romantic fantasy set in Denver.

And her newest stories, about an uptight accountant who sees Old West ghosts and helps them move on, started with Ghost Seer in April 2014. She is profoundly thankful to be recipient of the 2004 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year award as well as the 2011 Writer of the Year Award, the Colorado Romance Writers Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2010 Best Paranormal and Best of the Best Daphne Du Maurier Award. More about Robin on her website.

8 thoughts on “Hook me, baby.

  1. We have similar preferences in the kinds of writing we like to read, Robin. There was a time I’d read a book all the way through, no matter what. Gradually I gave authors less and less time to grab me. Now, with many fewer years left to read and millions and millions of books to go, I tend to give a book about two pages to draw me in.

    When so many books and stories began to appear written in first person, I hated it. Now I often find one hooks me for other reasons and the POV doesn’t bother me. The one thing I still hate, however, is head hopping within chapters (and there’s no obvious break). I caught a little of that going on in the alternate history post-apocalyptic thriller I’m reading now, and it yanks me out of the story to ponder the careless writing/editing. I have to finish it though. I want to know how the story ends. 😀

  2. I totally agree on the main character doing stupid or senseless things. I just finished reading a free book (bookbub) it’s was a great premise but the 2 main characters are insufferable, unbending not matter the things they experience. Skeptical is fine, block headed, not so much, not even the cliffhanger at the end is bringing me back. I wouldn’t have finished it but I had nothing more interesting on the shelf and was waiting for Ghost Killer.
    Clare and Zach are taking too much time to get used to their new life. it’s the 3rd book.
    Resistance is Futile !!!!
    Also hook plus humor. I love the chapter quotes in Darynda Jones

  3. 🙂 regarding Ghost Killer. Yes, they are taking some time. Clare might have taken too long to accept her gift, too, in book time in Ghost Seer. For some reason I just couldn’t move her fast enough. There is a difference between book time, reader time and real time. Book time is: it’s been 3 books, reader time, it’s been 3 books and, I think, 11 months since Ghost Seer came out, so we’ve all lived that 11 months. “Real” time, that is the days that pass in the books, it’s been less than a month since Clare started seeing ghosts. Some day I’d love to see a seminar on Colorado Gold about “time.”

  4. “All he could see in every direction was water.” Thus began a gritty taste of World War II seen through the eyes of Louis Zamperini, in the preface of “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. At the bookstore, I read that preface and gladly bought the book and read through all those pages–it’s a long book–as close to experiencing war as ever a reader can in words.

    The best books capture a reader in the first few pages and time is suspended through to the last page and the story ended.

    Hooks are legion in poetry. Just the first line there snares reader commitment to read the whole thing. This is my experience with Facebook page of Rattle, which shares first line links like baited hooks. I fall for them near every time and am mostly rewarded.

    On the other hand, I tackle a book sometimes and realize–in the middle–that nothing is happening, or if it is, at a hobbled snail’s pace.

    See, Robin, how your article catches responses. Now, of course, I’ll be paying much more attention to techniques used in novel beginnings.

    • Oh, dear! My friend read this article and comments that the author HAS set the hook correctly when a person buys his book. He has a point.

      • Yes, absolutely the author has set a hook correctly if the person has bought the book. Of the books I was talking about, some were freebies I downloaded, one was by a fellow conference goer that I wanted to support, one was by a writer I often read, and I continue to judge contests of published books.

  5. Maryjocee, maybe not. Maybe the reader judged the book by its cover, or by its blurb on the back or the blurb on Amazon. These don’t showcase the writer’s skill. Robin, I enjoyed this post. Points well taken.

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