Finding the "Hook"

Why do some stories click while some fall flat? When you pick up a book and start reading, how long does it typically take you until you've decided that it's a book worth reading? Do you wait until your hit the last chapter, see how it ends? Or do you read just the first chapter or so, just long enough for the author and story to have a chance to get going, until you make your decision?

When you're writing, it's similar. A story has to hook you in as you're writing it, it has to draw you into the story you're telling. If you try and tell a story that doesn't grab your interest, as the one who's creating the thing, the work will show it. Even if you actually finish the story. But most of the time you don't. I don't.

I can't tell you how many stories I've started to tell have withered and died before they germinated, sprouted or grew. Some of them got a decent length in, some only got a few chapters or a few pages, and some never actually made the journey from my head down to my hands. It's been for a variety of reasons" I didn't like the genre, I couldn't come up with good characters, I had a few scenes but no plot, I have a plot but no scenes, etcetera.

Set the bait

So how does a story grab me, if it does? I don't really have a way to quantify it, nebulous and fickle as my interest and inspiration are. I get inspired at random times, often late at night but not always, and through random ways. And when or if a story grabs me is just as random. I might start something off on a tear, with several hundred words worth of ideas right out of the gate, only for it to trickle off and the Word file to languish somewhere on my computer's hard drive, untouched for years. I might also get an idea, but have it go nowhere for a long time outside of a vague concept in the back of my head, then get a trickle of inspiration that, after being elaborated and fleshed out, turns into a flood.

It's the beginning that does it. The beginning of a story has to grab me, get me invested in the characters, interested in the world, excited to see potential stories played out. I don't know if it'll do for the readers what it does for me. Things like taste and what people consider engrossing or exciting about a story might be completely different from my own. But I consider it a much better sign for a story to engross me, even if I'm the one who wrote it, than if it bored me.

I've had stories where I started writing one way, then had a character jump out of their role with untapped potential, prompting a re-write. I've also seen the potential in a world build, to the point where I scrap the story that takes place in it and create a new one that better takes advantage of the setting. If something doesn't grab me, but something tells me it should, I'll change things up until it does, and if I don't find anything, I dump the idea.

And then reeeeeeeel them in

How does that translate to the audience? Well, I find that a story has to grab it's audience right away. It has to be self-evident, self-explaining, and obvious enough to not confuse the readers and push them away, but also intriguing and interesting enough to draw them in. It's a delicate balance, and not one that every story manages.

If you do something to make and element of your story too dense, you'll either have to dump information in a character's "As you know" monologue, give out a load of narration, or just leave things confusing and let the reader interpret things however they want to. The problem with that is, if you do that, your readers might just "interpret" your book right into a wall.

On the other hand, if you explain too much, it's just as bad. If the first chapter has your characters' backgrounds, a full divulging of the setting, and the entire history of the world you created, then there's nothing left for them to read in any chapters later. Which means that, even if a reader does make it through the first chapter, everything after it will just bore them.

I try to make my stories as balanced as possible. A big thing I've worked with for years is the whole principle of "show, don't tell". It's not just for movies. In prose stories, showing is letting situations, worlds and characters demonstrate themselves through actions, through being observed within the context of the story. Let characters act in a way that lets the audience know what they're about. Show the setting through the characters' eyes, or better yet, explore it through the characters' actions. And for the love of everything and anything, leave situations unexplained if the characters don't know what's going on.

Next time, some thoughts on the future and how I want writing to work in my life. It'll be an introspective post, so hold on to your butts.

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