How to Hook the Reader Every Time

no trespassing

The first few words or couple paragraphs of a story are called the Hook. I sometimes refer to the beginning of a story as the “calling” or “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and yank them, screaming if necessary, into your tale.

Without the hook, the reader will not care about the line or the sinker.

Here are two terrific novel beginnings from well respected authors, Dean Koontz and Olivia Butler.

Dean Koontz, and the beginning of Midnight:

Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.

This sentence is also the novel’s first paragraph, which makes it all that more ominous. Who runs at night? Isn’t that dangerous? You know because of the importance attributed (It’s the first sentence!) that something bad is going to happen. The tension mounts from the very beginning.

Right off, Koontz hooked me, implanting those questions–the lurking mystery—so I HAD to read the next sentence.

Olivia Butler’s beginning of The Wild Seed:

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.

How many villages does Doro have, who is Doro, and what is a seed village?

Both writers grab the reader at the outset, forcing them to continue and answer the questions their well chosen words prompted.

A couple interesting things: each writer named the character immediately Why? A reader identifies with a character, a person, someone like them . . . or maybe not. But the reader does need someone to relate to—this is important stuff; don’t miss it.

In the examples above (and the ones following), the first word(s) is the character’s name, but it does not have to be so—I do encourage writers to name the character in the first sentence, though, or the second at the latest. Readers want to know the “Who” of the story as soon as possible.

Secondly, Koontz and Butler give the reader action and excitement at the start. This is not the place for back-fill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled in throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies.

Reader’s lives are busy, hammered by a myriad of distractions—you must shake their mundane everyday world and pull them into the story you have to tell, and it better be quick.

Here are the beginning two paragraphs of my short story, Nychelle’s Gate.

(In no way do I compare myself to the two masters quoted, but by using my own writing, I KNOW what I tried to do: it’s up to you to decide if I succeeded).

Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father.

“I won’t do it,” she spat, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. The Elder’s slap was not the worst of being “taken,” nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered and ignored the stickiness down there.           

The opening two paragraphs attempt to accomplish the following:

  1. Introduces the main character, Nychelle, right off.
  2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies the people are nomadic, or at least have not reached the point as a culture of developing towns and cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people populating the story.
  3. Confrontation demonstrated by her dialogue: “I won’t do it” shows a problem and her parents are at the center of it. This confrontation is geared to raise the tension of the scene: it’s called conflict.
  4. There are other hints within these 63 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy (shuddered at the stickiness down there).
  5. Speaks to Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the clan elder.

Another from my published short story, The Accomplice.

Deke turned the headlights off and sat for a moment, letting the plan roll through his mind one last time.

What plan? The fact Deke “turned the headlights off” indicates night, and darkness is when trouble happens.

Introduce your character at the outset, give them a problem, and provide a mystery the reader is drawn to solve. Pretty straight forward, and guarantees the reader will read the next part of your story . . . hook, line, and sinker.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend


It’s hard saying goodbye to a 30-year-old friendship. Emotions run the gamut—sadness (moist eyes, a lone tear escaping onto the cheek), regret and disappointment (the I shoulda’s), anxiety (what will I do without the comfort they give?), anger (face heating up, hands trembling), and a heart-sinking melancholy.

Emotions are what drive people to act and think the way they do. You know this from your own life, and the emotional stability (or instability) should be apparent in your characters as well.

Yesterday we sold our 1971 VW pop-top camper, and lost a dear friend.

The first two paragraphs “seemed” to indicate the lost friendship dealt with a person, but instead, the emotions rattling through my wife and I related to a vehicle we owned and enjoyed while raising our children; as my wife pointed out, “We’ve owned the bus over half my life.”

Mystery and surprise within fiction keeps the reader turning the pages, all-important ingredients we must not forget—make the reader wonder, then shock them.

Emotions are real regardless of their source, and the same is true of your characters: an heirloom conjures happy memories of a grandparent, or a Purple Heart reminds an ex-soldier of friends who died on the battlefield.

Emotions are strong motivators, and every character needs a believable reason why they do the things they do.

The mystery of why and how a character acts—along with appropriate plot twists—fuels a reader’s interest as you dole out bits and pieces during the pages and chapters of your story. Why did they do that? What will happen next? How will they solve the problem? These questions and others should be imparted in small doses to the reader throughout the story.

Think of a TV drama; the lead character is faced with a dangerous situation, an event that jeopardizes their life or the life of a loved one—fade to commercial. This is known as a cliff-hanger, and within literature, is best used occasionally, and normally at the end of a chapter.

The reader sucks a breath, glances at the clock, realizing they need to get to bed, and turns the page to see what happens next. You have accomplished your job as a writer—kept the reader wondering, fearing, and hoping as you disrupt their sleep.

Keep your story mysterious and thrill the reader with surprises of unexpected outcomes to life threatening events.

I have been fortunate to have eight beta readers for my novel, The Returning; each has been valuable at showing what does and does not work in the story. Four of my readers were given only the first two chapters where my initial cliff-hanger took place following a monumental surprise for my protagonist.

Something crashed against the back of his head–blackness.

The response was unanimous: each of the four readers berated me (gently and with good humor) with comments like, “How dare you leave me hanging like that!”

Perfect—just what I wanted.

Keeping the reader on edge, wondering what will happen next, and then fulfilling their anticipation with an undreamed of resolution entices readers to the next page. Isn’t that the point?

Now go write your story, adding foreshadowing hints along the way, and then knock the readers from their comfort zone.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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Fiction and Natural Disasters

Catastrophic natural disasters happen all the time.

Hurricane Harvey has dominated the news over the last week, but it is only one of several natural disasters affecting and displacing people around the world. As terrible as Harvey has been for Texas (now accounting for 44 deaths and dozens still missing at last count), the monsoon that hit Napal, India, and Bangladesh last week killed over 1,200 and made millions homeless.

Currently, fires scorch the western U.S. and Canada, threatening thousands of homes while smoking up several states. Our small town at the foot of the Oregon Cascades sits in a valley where smoke accumulates and has made life miserable the last month—we are surrounded by several fires burning the forested canyons where biking and hiking are normally the call-of-the-day.

Disasters magnify the human condition in the suffering and peoples’ response to events beyond their control. Over the next days and weeks stories of bravery and tragedy will underscore the disasters—those instances are fiction’s ripe fruit.

Fiction is all about people in conflict, whether with themselves, other people, circumstances, or nature; disasters and a character’s reaction can include and embody all simultaneously.

Uncountable movies and books use disasters as their catalyst, and in some cases the events comprise the entire plot. Contemplating the disasters inundating us on the daily news, I realized I have never used a natural disaster in my own writing.

Perhaps character “motivation” is so deeply ingrained in my plot development—the how’s and why’s they react—is why I have never used an “act of nature” in my stories; I’m not sure.

The world impacts my characters (my MC hurtling over a waterfall, for example), but the cause of such action was another character’s betrayal and a bit of bad luck. Weather has certainly affected my characters, and the climate hints at a character’s mental state or the perception I want my reader to experience.

The magnitude of natural disasters and the lives affected are often lost on us as we have become complacent due to the sheer volume we read and hear about. But when writing, we leave our aerial view of the world and swoop down onto the shoulder and into the minds of our characters and their reactions to the world around (and within) them.

This is how it should be.

Writing about a natural disaster can be a doorway into a deeper understanding of a character’s motivations and reactions. Think of a macho-man cowering and polarized by fear during an earthquake, or a young female store clerk who risks her life to save a drowning puppy: each instance speaks to who these people really are beyond the persona they exhibit under normal situations.

I remember in the Kevin Costner movie, The Guardian, where as a Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician, he drops from a helicopter into a raging sea to save a drowning couple. During the ordeal the husband is only interested in his own survival: the Costner character has to punch the man to calm him, and after the rescue, the wife’s reaction to her husband’s cowardice is classic.

People act differently during duress than they think (or hope) they would. My dad always said, “No matter how you think you would react, you don’t know what you’ll do until a person puts a gun to your head.” He was right.

As a writer, you need to know how your character will react. Even if you don’t plan a natural disaster in a story, knowing a character’s reaction to all sorts of stimuli will give you—and, thereby, your reader—a better understanding of a character’s many facets.

Fiction is about people and how they respond to calamity.

As an exercise, put one of your favorite characters into a natural disaster and see how they react. Add that to your Character Sketch. Even if you do not use what you write, it will give you a better understanding and will help “round out” your understanding of the character.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Writing Time and Character Death

Our lives are rubber bands pulled taut, each day threatening to snap with the next unplanned event.

Some days spiral out of control.

Even without catastrophic events pounding our lives, the daily requirements are daunting: work to pay the bills (for me, 9 hours a day, including lunch), sleep (I’m old; I need at least 8 hours), then there’s spending time with family and friends, caring for one’s animals, preparing meals and eating, showering, staring blankly at the walls, and dozens of other “events” that require our attention.

Every day is a package waiting to be unwrapped. I wake at 5:30 AM and begin  peeling back the paper that is plot and characters before I delve into the package of my life. Much of the package’s interior consists of routine and monotony, the kind that sucks creativity like a vacuum—exactly why the first hours are so precious, alone-time when everything is fresh and full of hope.

I am also acutely aware that we only have so many packages to unwrap.

The day before the last post, I learned a friend of Linda and mine died weeks earlier. A car accident took his life, a sudden, spontaneous tragedy caused by an unlicensed driver smoking crack—the pipe was found still between his legs when emergency crews arrived. The young man spent a week or two in the hospital with a punctured lung, and upon release from the care of nurses and doctors, his cushy surroundings were replaced by a wafer-thin cot and bars. He will likely spend a portion of his life in prison. As for our friend, he is no more . . . . his rubber band snapped, and unbeknownst to him, he opened his final package when he climbed in his car that fateful day.

Richard was a year and few days older than me when he died. At the scene, he asked the emergency crews to make sure the other driver was okay—that was Richard, kind and gentle, and speaks to his character.

Death causes reflection, followed by questions, and adds an urgency to how best spend what days we have left. Whether religious, philosophical, or just from a human standpoint, death’s awareness is unique to our species. Keep that in mind when writing.

The same is true of your characters. Death shapes your character’s psyche—their fears and how they cope with the inevitability. Nothing ramps up a story’s tension like a character’s view of their impending death.

Death haunts each character. Some writers shy away from killing off beloved characters, others derive satisfaction in the emotion evoked when a highly-thought-of character succumbs.

J.K. Rowling killed off several popular characters, as did George R.R. Martin, only more so. Tolkien, on the other hand, kept his main characters intact for the most part. Each instance is different, but it is a decision we writers need to contemplate.

Whether they are to die or not, the probability the character will should take center stage, a veiled unknown huddling on the horizon, just like for each one of us.

How do you feel about death? Dig deep. I’m not saying perceive the end of life as a gloomy cloud, but as a reality. Ask others how they feel about death, and you will see a cacophony of perspectives, some riddled with fear, others brightened by hope.

One’s feelings on death impacts their life. Realize that each day Death’s Door opens a bit wider: how do your characters feel about that?

Often a character’s feelings manifest when one close to them, including a beloved pet, dies. Shock, sadness, helplessness, a dull mind haze: all are symptoms of grief. Reactions change, ebb through stages, heartbreak to anger, regret and joy (at having known them), laughter blended with tears of pain. Yes, we know these feelings, these sensations, and your characters need to as well. Make your characters hurt, and thereby show the reader their humanity and their passion. To cause readers to cry is a great gift, perhaps more so than making them laugh.

In all things, use life’s joys and pains as the lifeblood of your stories, and readers will be grateful.

Take those feelings about death, appreciate the day you have before you, and write a story to draw the reader’s emotions—their fear of what might happen to their favorite character—into your story.

Live the life you wish, and write what you feel. Don’t shy away from the topic of death as all readers face the same questions; it’s an excellent way to garner their attention and hold it throughout your tale.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Ultimate Character Checklist

When developing a character, it’s essential to know “who” that person is, what they represent, and their current journey.

A Character Sketch helps the process, but is only a springboard to creating well-rounded characters; answering particular questions illuminates all aspects of the character—it is then up to you to show the reader what you wish to highlight. Much of what you know about your character will not be revealed, but it is important to be intimately aware of the people you create.

I developed this Character Stretch from a wide variety of sources, altered to fit my needs, with the sole intent of trying to improve my characters. The sketch has evolved, and because of the vast resources used (some surely lost to memory), I hold no bond to it. For that reason, feel free to copy and paste the Character Sketch into a document file, and add or change to satisfy your own purposes.

Characters are made up of three parts: The Outer Person (what the reader sees), which I refer to as the Skeleton; the Interested Person (the actions the character takes and the reader watches unfold), represented by the Flesh; and the Internal Person (what the character, and thus the reader, feels), the Breath of the character.

Character Sketch

Outer Person—The Skeleton

Name, gender, age, general appearance (height, weight, body type), profession and/or skills, education level, family and friend associations with background as necessary to the story; where they grew up (Texan or young girl from Bali), and the particular culture that helped shape them.

Choices of clothing and other possessions (a man who owns a truck or a college freshman driving a BMW) indicates status and is accompanied by layers of attitude; jewelry or not; tidy or disheveled? Somewhere in between?

Gestures or quirks (tilting of head, rubbing hands, brushing at hair, a limp, etc.), not to be overused; if applicable, does the character always put one sock and shoe on before the other, or both socks followed by both shoes? Why?

Speech patterns: slow and thought-out, fast and free of societal filters, contradictions or not, vocabulary and choice of words, sarcastic, impatient, accommodating, condescending—there’s a slew of different reactions and dialogue venues, and you will probably use several in different circumstances for each character.

Paraphernalia and indispensables (purse, wallet, watch, sword, revolver, etc.).

Interests—The Flesh

Favorite and least favorite things to do–how they spend idle time; pet-peeves and prejudices; how they think they appear to others (and how others view them), true or not; to what lengths will they go to accomplish their desires (lie, cheat, and connive, or deal with life’s set-backs and move on).

Is the character’s general attitude haughty, reserved, humble, daring, loyal, over-emotional, analytical to annoyance (we can all be many of these, and so should your characters); typically a good person or one out for themselves (a little of both shows contrast and adds dimension).

Work ethic: what motivates them to succeed and/or do better; what things or scenarios intrigue them? Do they like their job, or tolerate it while harboring deep-seated dreams?

World view? Do they root for the underdog or do they want to associate with the top dog; me against the world or me helping the world, ie., do they feel an obligation to help the less fortunate? What is the purpose of life and their place in it? Is there a God, or does science answer the questions surrounding existence?

Emotions—The Breath

What the character feels when:

They witness someone being mistreated, and what do they do? What do they think and how do they react when they see an animal being mistreated (one’s feeling about animals—dirty, adorable, useful, indifferent—speaks volumes about a person); when someone falls down, do they instantly try to help or stand back and assess the situation before acting?

How do they feel (and act) when they don’t get their way, when they can’t convince another and the outcome is important, at least to them.

What makes them happy/sad? How do they react to their own emotions and the emotions of others? Empathize, sympathize, or neither?

What internal dialogues do they adopt (determined to do better, or wallow in self-pity); do they like who they are?

Their opinion of people outside their economic/social strata: do they strive to be like them or abhor the success of others when they are struggling to make ends meet?

Do they settle for second best or yearn for the best? Do they care about the Jones’s or not in the least? How do they compare their life to others? Do they buy in to media hype or think only fools pay attention?

What do they value? Money, love, friendship, making their own decisions or counting on others to lead them? Loner or social butterfly? Drawn to cliques and the “in group” or avoids them?

Thoughts on life’s purpose and death.

Frugal or wasteful? Planning for the future or living every moment like their last?

Describe a character’s rage, pain, fear, or helplessness? How do they react (physically and internally) when beset by emotion? Do they control their feelings or let loose with tears, hurtful words, or do they fly into a tirade.

When developing a character, place that person in a tense or stressful situation and see how they react. These exercises are great for getting to know your characters, and while the instances you create may not be used in your writing, they just might. Let yourself go to discover who this person is and what floats their boat.

Some writers suggest interviewing your character; try and see if it works for you.

Working through different scenarios will enhance the relationship you have with your characters, and will help readers see them better.

You may not answer all the questions, and that’s okay—the purpose is gaining a better understanding of your character. You may find, like me, that the Character Sketch is filled in bit by bit as your writing progresses.

I titled this The Ultimate Character Sketch, but it only fits that description if you modify to suit your own needs. Have at it and make it fun–writing should be enjoyable, after all.

See you on the next page,

Rick

P.S. I love the graphic at top of page, but I do think it needs the word, MORE, added.

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The Making of a Hero — Part 5

Description is a Silent Tool

The last several weeks I have written about The Making of a Hero, focusing on three of four ways a writer brings the protagonist to life: through action, dialogue, and thoughts. The fourth, and no less important aspect, is description.

Description—within the context of your hero—is the Silent Tool sprinkled through the narrative, interspersed between the action, dialogue, and thoughts in such a way that adds to the character’s personality.

The first thing to understand about describing the viewpoint character is not how they look. The reader will develop a mental picture of the character no matter what you say about their physical features . . . mostly.

The worst possible scenario is having a character look into a mirror or glassy pond and describe what they see:

Mary gazed into the bathroom mirror to see auburn-streaked hair falling around a face she thought too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

Some of the description works, but looking into the mirror does not. Instead, leave out the mirror and the words effectively tell the reader how Mary feels about herself:

Mary thought her cheeks too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

The physical features are the least important information revealed to the reader. What we want is for the reader to know the main character, feel what they feel, see what they see, and thus, what the character thinks about the world they occupy.

A man exited the bathroom and started across the basketball court. He wore shorts and flip-flops, with large tattoos on each calf—Wiley Coyote on the left, Yosemite Sam on the right—sunglasses pushed up onto his shaved head, and swaggered as if an exclamation point marking the words on the back of his shirt: Old Men Rule.

This description tells the reader as much about the viewpoint character’s perception of the man as the man himself. We “see” the man, but more importantly, the words “swagger” and “as if an exclamation point” speak more to the viewpoint character’s appraisal than the man himself.

Description can also be used to set the character’s tone. In the following example, the viewpoint character’s awareness of the world imprints his mood.

A dove’s mournful cooing broke the silence, followed by chirps and calls in a soothing musical symphony. A songbird’s lyrical, trilled melody beckoned a mate, silenced by a crow’s sudden cackle, echoed by other shrieking black birds until the calm morning lay shattered in angry tones.

Be cautious of using too much description within the narrative as it can pull the reader from the story’s forward movement. Some refer to too much description as Info-Dump or Back-fill Overload; the best way to avoid such problems is to sprinkle character description within the action of the story—an enhancer, not a distracter.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 4

Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description

In the last post I wrote, “Heroes are not wimps, nor indecisive, and usually not overly inner-reflective.” Yet, people are all these things and more, so why shouldn’t the characters exhibit these traits?

Your hero (like real people) can and should have doubts, harbor prejudices, and even be a little self-absorbed . . . in their thoughts.

While the hero acts and speaks in ways demonstrating confident forward movement, inside their head they can be a tangled mess.

The contrast between “thoughts” and “actions” help illustrate a complex character, a person at odds with themselves, one rattled by internal conflict.

Conflict is critical within the fiction framework, and a superb way to show a character’s unsettled mental state is within the natural ebb and flow of confidence.

A person with internal fear and doubts about their abilities, the chance of success, or even a reason to continue, becomes a hero when they push aside debilitating emotions and battles to right a wrong, especially when one of the battles is against their very nature.

In my novel, The Returning, a disheartened and disillusioned immortal yearns to (finally) die the last time and sleep with the Fathers. The challenge was to show his inner struggle of having no purpose (that he recognizes), but still give him a strong constitution—the “hero touch.”

In the example below, the protagonist has died while a young soldier, and has just now realized he has “returned” to the body of a Prince.
——————-
Inhabiting a Prince, whose responsibility and future hinges on ruling an entire country. He wanted to run, to hide, to live this life—like most lives before—in seclusion, with the sole hope of dying one last time and leaving the emptiness of his pointless existence once and forever. Let me have rest.

He clenched his fists and forced his concentration outward. Thoughts shifted to what he must do to survive, what he had always done.
——————–
Inner thoughts are italicized. Even though much of the first paragraph in the example describes the character’s thoughts and feelings, I decided to only italicize the first and last sentence; I did this to make it easier for the reader. Reading an entire italicized paragraph can be tedious, and as shown, unnecessary—the reader understands the character is thinking “He wanted to run and hide . . . pointless existence once and forever.”

Although the story line is in third person past tense (He wanted to run . . .), the italicized thoughts are in first person, present. Using this altered viewpoint pulls the reader into the immediacy of the situation and the character, without the usual viewpoint-verb tense-switch distraction.

Another example of using italics to introduce the thought process, and how the “regular” type face that follows enhances the main character’s disposition:

What the hell am I doing? He shouldn’t have entered the bar, or even gotten out of his car, but knew it was too late now–Jared had spotted him.

Working on a character’s psyche can be great fun, and used intermittently, enhances the reader’s understanding of the “person” you created.

A warning: if the character’s “soul-searching” is explored too often or constitutes the same questions, your hero will (in the reader’s mind) turn into a brooding puddle of emotions whose actions will be derailed by the inner “poor me” syndrome, and nobody cares about heroes feeling sorry for themselves.

Make your hero strong, but vulnerable, and you are well on your way to making a character readers will identify with and cheer.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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