The Stories Begun











{March 8, 2011}   I’m gonna getcha! I’m gonna getcha! I’m gonna reach out and grab ya and MAKE YOU READ ME!!!

The hook: proof that writers really do write for the audience and not just for the pleasure of writing.  Any writer who tells you otherwise is full of a bunch of hooey.

This particular element of any work should have been covered in your first essay writing class in high school, maybe even middle school.  It probably went something like this:

TEACHER:  After reading your essays, “What I Did This Summer,” we have a few things to work on.  Most of you are familiar with basic paragraph structure with the intro, body paragraphs, and conclusion.  That was well done.  However, you do need to repeat that same structure within the paragraphs as well.  Have a topic sentence for each paragraph, followed by supporting body sentences, followed by a concluding summary sentence.  Everyone understand so far?

STUDENTS: Yes, Miss Hannigan.

TEACHER: Good.  I knew that wouldn’t be too hard.  There are some finer points of structure that we’ll cover later in the week, but something you all struggled with was the attention getter.  Does anyone know what that might be?  Yes, Millie?

MILLE THE KNOW-IT-ALL:  The Hook!

TEACHER:  That is another name for it, Millie, but what is it?

MILLIE THE SLIGHTLY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL:  It’s a sentence or two that draws the reader in and convinces them to continue reading the story or, in this case, essay.

TEACHER:  Very good, Millie.  An attention grabber, or hook, can be a story told at the beginning of an essay, a definition of a word that the essay centers around, or perhaps a shocking assertion.  It can be other things as well, anything to garner interest.  However, a hook is not, “Today I’m going to talk about what I did this summer.”  That was similar to, if not the exact first sentence in more than seventy-five percent of the essays I collected last week.  Today’s in-class assignment is to re-write the first paragraph of your essay on a separate sheet of paper with an appropriate attention grabber.  Millie, please put your hand down.  Even yours can be improved upon.

MILLIE THE ENTIRELY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL: Oh.

I may have enjoyed putting that together a bit too much. 🙂

In blogging, the world of hooks is a bit different than it is in the world of essays or even books.  Titles are ever so much more important in blogs than in essays or books, in my opinion.  The title has to act as the hook, to stand out amongst a mess of titles to the reader, quietly surfing the internet.  The title has to be enough to convince the reader to follow the link.  However, it is never going to hurt your cause as a blogger to have a hook in the body of your text to greet the reader who has already made the decision to follow the link.  They deserve an interesting blog, too.

Now, I know why the amount of importance the title gets is so disparate between blogs and essays: teachers have to read the essays anyway.  I almost never bothered to title my essays in an interesting way until the last three or so semesters of college.  I’m sure my teachers appreciated the extra effort if they noticed, but I’m not convinced any of them did.  Why should a student bother to put in the time and effort to title a piece cleverly (which is surprisingly difficult) when the teacher/professor will–at best–come out of their essay daze long enough to smirk?

On the other hand, I do not understand the difference in importance in book titles and blog titles.  There are blogs I simply will not read because their titles are ridiculous, dull, or badly spelled.  However, there are plenty of books with incredibly boring or overlong titles (the non-fiction industry is full of run-on titles, it’s an epidemic), that I buy at sight.  My fiction book chosing process doesn’t even take the title into account!  I pick a book at random; look at the cover; read the back; if I am not satisfied at this point, I give the book ten pages or the first chapter, whichever comes last; read and then decide.  Any book that manages to capture me so completely that I go beyond the ten page/one chapter limit without noticing is a same-day buy.  Any book that I am enchanted, if not thrilled by goes on my ever-growing buy list.  There is rarely a time when the title comes into play.  I am entirely willing to judge a book by its cover (so long as that cover includes a blurb), but I would never dare to judge a book by its title.  I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has to do with the size of a book: with only half a dozen words representing, it’s harder to tell the content of many thousands of words at least (possibly hundreds of thousands) as compared to the content of a couple thousand at most.  The example that comes most immediately to mind is the book East by Edith Pattou.  I would not read a blog titled “East.”  East of what, where, who, and why the heck?  However, the minute a friend told me there was a book called East, I began to suspect what it was about and went through the process of getting it from the library.  Sure enough, it was an adaptation of my favorite version of ATU 425C (need a refresher on the ATU system–find it here).  Had I been in the position to perform my normal process, I wouldn’t have required reading the first chapter.  There was a polar bear on the front (a dead giveaway) and the blurb made the parallels clear.

So, that being discussed, there is another problem with hooks: one is never enough.  Cliff-hangers (and don’t we just hate them as readers?) serve sort of as reverse hooks.  They’re not meant to draw you in, they’re meant to throw you out of the story saying, “WHAT?  What happens next, you jerk?”  Then, if the author has toed the line of making you angry without infuriating you too entirely, you’ll dive back in.  If you’re lucky, the cliff-hanger just happens at the end of the chapter.  If you’re unlucky (Chris D’Lacey, I’m glaring at you for that business with Dark Fire), the author ends the book that way. 

While cliff-hangers used well are some of the best ways to keep a story going when you, now as the author, feel you might be losing an audience (by the way, if you’re feeling that way, highlight the section for a close look during the first major edit), used badly they can put off the reader, for good.  When FictionCentral.net was still up and accepting submissions (sniffles), that was one of the biggest flaws I saw in the fiction there (as well as at the fan-fiction sister site, though I didn’t frequent it nearly so much).  Authors, in an attempt to keep readers interested until the next chapter would often leave the chapter unfinished.  Unfinished does not mean cliff-hanger!  Even those talented with the cliff-hanger (of which I was not one, my talents lay much more to the flash-back) would abuse the talent and put one in every chapter.  The result was a frenetic piece of work that never did flow quite right.  Maybe that was because of the format of submissions (min and max words per chap), but I think it has to do with the acknowledged fact that readers have a small attention span!

Think about it, readers.  How often have you picked up a book that you know you adore and . . . oh my gosh, it’s been three months and I haven’t gotten past the first fifty pages!  What is the deal?  I don’t think it has anything to do with appeal and it’s a total myth that you can read a book too many times.  It has to do with what is grabbing you attention at the moment?  I’ve been working on a novel that’s barely over 500 pages for over a month.  It’s killing me.  I can do 500 pages in half a day.  Furthermore, it’s by one of my favorite authors!  But, despite how much I enjoy the author,  the snappy dialogue , the awesome one-liners, the great interplay between the characters, or even the fact that the next book comes out in a month and a half and I want time to read this at least once more, I can’t engage.  I’m SLOGGING through this reading of it, while still enjoying it.  For some reason, the subject matter is falling flat.  There’s nothing the author could have done to prevent this.

So, my goal for my writing is this: more hooks, but no more than I need.  I recognize the fact that I’ll never please even one reader all of the time.  There are days when even the best of my writing will not appeal to my dearest and most ardent fans (hi, Mom! 😀 ).  The result of trying to MAKE people read my writing will just be a horrific, jilty work that I’ll hate and won’t ever be proud of.  And, of course, as I’m adding these hooks, making sure they aren’t necessary to make the prose in the middle palatable.  That, too.

Time to go jump off a cliff and see where I land!

~RJLouise

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Race Capet says:

500 pages in half a day! I wish I could read at a fraction of that speed!



rjlouise says:

I’m a lucky stiff, I know. It comes from practice and is one of the only practical gifts from my English major. Good luck in increasing your reading speed!



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