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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Hook, Line, & Keep 'Em

Hook: You read about it in every writing book published, hear about it at writer’s conferences, and know it’s crucial, but exactly how do you “hook” your reader and keep them reading? In suspense, you better do it in the first couple of paragraphs or more than likely, you won’t keep them around long enough to do it at all.

Line: In suspense, your opening line could well be the very thing that hooks your reader and keeps them reading. You want your opening line to: introduce your reader to a character (and not necessarily your protagonist), provide some forward moving action, and set the stage for the rest of the book.

And Keep’em: Once you’ve hooked your reader, exactly how do you keep them reading page after page? With action, suspense, pacing, and endless questions to be answered. Notice that exposition isn’t there? Your reader doesn’t have to know everything about your character, the town, the people, or the weather to latch on to your character and keep reading.

With suspense, it’s all about the set-up. The anticipation. The uncertainty. The “suspense” of it all. Why is she walking in the woods at midnight? Why is he hearing noises coming from the attic? Why didn’t they call the cops when they found that dead man in their pool? Raise the question in your reader’s minds and then take your time answering it. Feel free to raise a couple of questions… then keep your reader hanging – reading for the answers.

Be generous with questions and stingy with answers. Ask a mystery lover why they love mysteries and they’ll tell you that they love to try and figure it out, spot the clues, ponder them out, and then keep reading to see if they’re right. Suspense and mystery fans love to be tortured and then they love being able to say, “Oh, man…I was so sure it was the butler, but how obvious it was the cook, and I never saw it coming.” You get a reader to say that about your book, and they’ll be back to buy the next one you write.

In my first book, I had tons of email from people telling me that they were sure, and then they weren’t, and then they were, and then they weren’t, and it was driving them crazy because they just couldn’t say for sure exactly WHO the bad guy was. That’s the kind of reaction you want. Keep them guessing. Make them work for it. Hide the clues. Toss in those red herrings. And then bring in a new suspect. Or at least raise a question in your reader’s minds. Could he be…? And then give your guy an iron clad alibi. Or is it iron clad? Maybe he paid off the girl to give him an alibi?

If you haven’t read Jim Bell’s “Presumed Guilty”, I don’t want to give too much away, but he does a brilliant job when he has a man practically confess to the murder of the girl. But what did he actually confess to? Hmmm… you have to read it to find out, but Jim did a wonderful job with that plot twist.

Even I, old and jaded as I am when it comes to suspense, sat up and went, “He did do it! I knew it!” only to find out uh-uh… wrong. I love it when a writer can get to me.

There’s a book I’m reading now and I won’t recommend it because it’s secular, but in the first chapter, something strange or tragic happened to the police chief and he’s not exactly over it yet…. But I’m on page 146 and I STILL don’t know what it was. It’s eluded to from time to time, lest I forget the question is still unanswered, but I keep reading to find out what happened to him before the book ever started as much as to find out who the killer is.

It’s all about hooking them with an opening line, and then keep’em reading!

So my version of hook, line and keep’em is this…. Hook them with a strong opening that is action in motion, line up the questions, but not the answers, and keep’em reading!



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