Jill Elizabeth Nelson here with a sneak-peak behind the scenes at one way all writers, but suspense/mystery writers in particular, work to capture your interest in our stories. At the end of the post, leave a response to the final question, and you will be entered to win a copy of my upcoming release, Frame Up. The book releases in January 2014, but the winner of this drawing will get their copy as soon as I have my advance copies, which could be as soon as next month!
Imagine a fish eyeing a tasty morsel dangling on the end of your fishing line. If you jig that treat just right . . . it strikes! Now the fish is on the hook, and you can reel it in, taking the creature exactly where you want it to go. A hook in a story works much the same way. With every individual scene and chapter, a writer must present a tasty morsel in such a way that the reader is compelled to follow your story wherever you want to take them. A dull hook will lose a potential reader within a paragraph or two, or even a line or two.
Readers who seek primarily to feed their intellect or to gain information will pick up a work of non-fiction. Readers who buy novels are hungry primarily for an emotionally resonant experience that satisfies them at gut level. This emotionally resonant experience hinges on maintaining and escalating tension moment-by-moment throughout the story, but especially in the opening lines of each and every chapter and scene.
Here is an opening hook that does NOT work. (Don’t worry. It’s not from anyone’s published book.) Why does this hook not work? Ask yourself if this opening contains any element that communicates tension or emotion.
Hayley Jones walked off the plane and onto the tarmac of the small airport.
Certainly, the sentence conveys vital information—the name of the character, what the character is doing and where; however, information minus emotion equals stagnation. There is no hint of a story here to intrigue us to read on!
Here is an opening that works in one simple line. (Again, not from a published book.) Why does it work? (Hint: Is there any word choice that evokes emotion or tension?)
Aimee huddled in the corner of the room.
This line contains all of the informational elements from the line that didn’t work—the character’s name, what the character is doing where—but it also captures that all-important element of tension, as well as suggesting the emotion of fear. Someone huddled in the corner of a room cannot be in a good situation, and the reader will crave to know more. There are a gazillion different directions a writer can take the story from here, but the reader is hooked and will avidly follow where the story leads.
While the opening hook is vital to a story, the punch at the end of each scene and chapter plays a role of equal importance. During the editing process, our hooks and punches are among the first aspects of the story that we should inspect.
Hooks and punches can be subtle, with the action primarily mental or emotional, or they can be high action and overt. But subtle or overt, these elements must be relevant to the story and contribute to the novelist’s supreme goal—to provide the reader with an Emotionally Resonant Reading Experience.
I think of the punch as a “gasp moment.” If a writer leaves the reader sucking in his breath, naturally he must turn the page to find out what happens next—and that next thing should be a sharp, fresh hook.
How can a writer deliver that all-important closing punch?
One approach is a twist or a surprise. The reader is now knocked off balance by an unexpected, yet plausible, development and must keep on reading to find out how this turn of events affects the characters.
Another approach is “the resolution.” A scene concludes with a character forming a resolve that defies the odds and the reader has reason to anticipate will be tested to the max. The resolution must be of the sort that keeping or not keeping it will dramatically impact the character’s well-being, as well as the lives of other characters.
Another type of punch is the cliff-hanger. The chapter or scene closes with a central character in a dire predicament, so naturally, the reader must turn the page to see how the character escapes—or not.
A more subtle and yet highly emotional punch could be called “the moment of truth.” This type of chapter or scene closing might depict the central character discovering a new realization that stuns her and sheds a different light on everything that has gone before and inevitably will impact all that is yet to come.
Here is a closing punch that does NOT work. Why not?
Tristan picked up his menu. “Let’s get some dinner. We could be here a while.”
Where is the tension and emotion? Let’s see if we can infuse these necessary elements into the mundane act of ordering dinner.
Tristan gripped his menu. Fine! If that’s the way she wanted to play it, he could be Mr. Cool-as-a-Cucumber. He unlocked his clenched jaw and sat back. “Let’s get some dinner,” he told his brother. “We could be here a while.” Tristan’s gaze cut to the elegant female seated at the corner table. He could wait her out. No sweat, right?
Now the reader has a conflict to sink their chops into. If the writer has set up the scenario properly, there will be valuable stakes involved in who waits out whom, and the reader will ache to find out who wins the contest of wills, and they will also feel Tristan’s internal conflict of determination edged with a hint of self-doubt.
Dear Readers, please share with us an "opening hook" or "closing punch" from a book you particularly enjoyed. That quick little share will qualify you to be in the drawing for Frame Up.