When we talk about book openings what we’re often talking about is the opening hook or hooks – what it is in the first few sentences, paragraphs, or pages that entices a reader to keep reading.
The first thing I’d like to point out is that while we talk about a book’s hook (singular) in truth books have several hooks. The cover image is a hook, the author’s name on the cover may be a hook if the author’s name is familiar to the reader, the cover blurb on the back of the book is another hook.
These types of hooks are like the bait that the fisherman puts on his hook and dangles into the water. A cover image that is interesting, intriguing, emotional, that causes the reader to wonder what the book is about is like the smelly catfish bait on the fisherman’s hook that makes the fish nibble around the hook…smelling…sensing…nibbling just lightly. A familiar author’s name can act as a stronger inducement. This isn’t just the run of the mill dough for the hook…this is the super smelly made out of blood worms or some such variety…that lures the fish in even closer…really tempting the fish to take a bite of that delicious (to a fish) smelly morsel.
If we’re lucky and our cover image does its job (or our bait does) the reader picks up the book, turns it over, and reads the back cover copy. Back cover copy is almost always a hook written using an intriguing premise. The back cover copy tells the reader what the book is going to be about. It tells a little about the characters, the situation in which they find themselves, the conflict and the stakes involved.
The cover blurb is like the movement that an expertly crafted lure makes when it is tugged through the water. A good lure mimics the movements of live bait and causes the fish to move beyond nibbling at the edges of the bait to taking a big old bite of that lure.
At this point the cover image has done its part by attracting the reader. The reader has nibbled around at the bait and they’ve gone a step further by taking a significant bite of the bait…by turning the book over and reading the back cover blurb. They’re still not hooked. They could still quite easily decide that the story isn’t quite as enticing as the cover made it out to be and put it back on the shelf.
At this point if the bait (the cover image and the cover blurb) have done their job the reader is somewhat hooked. They are in the mode of thinking okay…prove to me why I should buy this book. They WANT to buy the book. But before they do they want to be sure that it is going to offer the kind of experience that they want. So they turn the page…and it is here that your skill either convinces the reader that they absolutely must continue reading or that they really don’t care what happens.
This is an interesting point and is the point that we are most often talking about when we talk about hooks.
The reader intrigued by the cover, enamored of the premise, is now looking at the story and they will most of the time either buy or not based on what they find here.
So…what makes a reader decide after a few sentences or paragraphs or pages that they must continue reading?
There are several things:
· Emotional Engagement
· Mental Engagement
· Stakes for the character involved in the story
When a reader reads the first part of the story one of the things that will force them to continue to read is an emotional engagement with the character. When we’re talking about emotional engagement what we’re really talking about is the reader having an emotional reaction to the character or to the material he or she has read. The emotional connection causes the reader to care about the character and the character’s situation and to care about its outcome. If the reader doesn’t connect emotionally to the character the reader may not care about the character’s situation or its outcome. This is a problem in stories in which there is no heroic character. The hit TV series The Sopranos comes to mind here.
Tony was a bad dude…a mafia guy who ordered hits on people, who in fact killed members of his own family. But the author made us care about Tony by starting with him with his psychiatrist where Tony, like everyone else on the planet, has life problems and he’s talking about them in a very vulnerable way. We know Tony is no angel…yet we care about his situation because we vest emotionally in this character who is vulnerable within this situation with his therapist.
Even when a reader doesn’t engage emotionally with a character there is still another way to engage the reader. We can engage the reader mentally. In shows like Law and Order we don’t get much of a glimpse of the victim of the crime usually…yet we engage mentally in the story because we want to find out who the guilty party is.
Mental engagement happens when a reader is made to care about something on a mental rather than emotional basis. This is often because the reader wants to understand something or wants to figure it out. Often there is a mystery to be solved but this is not always the case. Nonfiction often works on the basis of mental engagement…promising the reader that through reading this book they will learn something that has value to them.
Engagement can happen through the stakes that a character faces too. The stakes ultimately boil down to the character faces a between the rock and a hard place situation. If she doesn’t do x something bad will happen. If she can’t figure out where the terrorist placed the bomb, all of New York will be blown up. If she can’t find a bone marrow match for her son, he will die.
Stakes can be powerful. If the reader cares about the stakes they will usually continue reading.
If the cover is like the smell and texture of the bait that lures the fish to the bait and intrigues him sniff and nibble around and the cover blurb is like the movement of the lure that urges him to take a big old bite, then writing the opening hook is like you, the fisherman yanking back on the fishing rod at just the right time to fully sink the hook into the reader.
At this point you’ve convinced the reader to buy the book…and that’s a win…but it’s not the last of the hooks because you have to KEEP the reader engaged mentally, emotionally and keep them caring about the stakes of the story otherwise the dishes and the laundry and a trip to the corner bar will begin to look attractive.