Have you ever read a book that was well-written, seemed to have a lot of action and conflict, but you couldn’t finish it? And then there are those books you can’t seem to put down. The authors of the latter books know how to hook the reader.
There are many ways to hook a reader, but for this discussion, I shall focus on three things you probably should do if you’re an author who wants to keep your readers turning the pages to the very end of your novel.
1. Give your protagonist a goal, a mystery or raise a question.
2. Create anticipation.
3. Give your readers a chance to become emotionally invested.
Most writers are smart enough to create some sort of mystery or story goal. They figure readers will keep reading to see if Sherlock Holmes will solve the mystery, or if Dorothy will ever get the witch’s broom, etc. A story goal or mystery raises questions in readers’ minds as the plot thickens.
This may be all you need to keep some readers hooked, but many readers will probably quit reading…and here’s why: At a subconscious level they don’t feel their questions will be answered, and/or they simply don’t care.
That’s why it is a good idea to add anticipation and make your readers emotionally invested.
Let’s start with anticipation. Suppose a story lacks this element. Suppose you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and Holmes has no interest in solving the murder. He spends his time smoking his pipe. That would make a pretty boring book, would it not?
The mere fact that you have a mystery isn’t enough to hook readers. Readers need to know that Holmes wants to solve the mystery. If Holmes does, then readers will ‘anticipate’ that the mystery will be solved if they keep reading–so they keep reading.
Anticipation is created when a character in the story represents the audience. When Dorothy asks the Munchkins how to get back to her farm and Auntie Em, she is representing we, the audience, who are asking, “How is Dorothy going to get back home?” We can relate to Dorothy because she asks the same questions we’re asking, so we ‘anticipate’ that she will find the answers for us, as well as for her own benefit.
Of course, the answers to our questions don’t come easily. We have to read a whole book or watch a whole film to get them all. But how can we be sure we’ll get them all? The Munchkins don’t know the answers to Dorothy’s questions, but they tell her that the Wizard knows. At this point, a new question pops into our heads: “How does Dorothy find the Wizard?” So Dorothy, our story rep, asks, “How do I find the Wizard?”
“Follow the yellow-brick road!”
“What is the yellow-brick road?” we ask. The Munchkins show it to our story rep, Dorothy, and now we know.
By the time we get to the Wizard, we have a ton of questions: How will Dorothy get home (and Toto too)? How will the scarecrow get a brain? How will the tin man get a heart? How will the lion get courage? And throughout this story we have been ‘anticipating’ the answers because we have been told the Wizard has all the answers–but there is a catch: Dorothy and her crew have to steal the witch’s broom and deal with flying monkeys. Man! Will we ever get the answers we seek? Maybe we should just put the book down or turn off the VCR and quit wasting our time. But we hang in there. Why? Because the great and powerful Oz has spoken!
“Get me the witch’s broom and I’ll grant your requests!”
Do you see the power of anticipation?
Now let’s examine emotional investment. I was reading a mystery novel the other day that I thought was brilliantly written. Lots of action and some great dialog, but I got bored with it after the first chapter. Why? Because someone I didn’t know was murdered, and the sleuth had a nonchalant attitude.
If the author had allowed me to get to know the murder victim and had vividly described the horror of the murder scene, I would have been ‘emotionally invested.’ I would have wanted to see the mystery solved and the murderer caught and punished for committing such a heinous crime! And, if the author had the sleuth (or some other character) mirror my emotions, then I would have been hooked. I put the book back on the library shelf because the characters didn’t seem to care that someone was dead, so why should I?
Make your characters care, then your readers will care. That is the power of emotional investment.
I sincerely hope these three ways of hooking readers (or any audience) will help you write better books, etc. Of course, you won’t hook everybody no matter what you do, but you can improve your odds.
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