Hooking the Reader

There are various ways to “hook the reader” in a story. Typically you would do this within the first few sentences of the first chapter by means of something exciting or interesting that goes with the genre. It makes total sense to do this. You put the murder in the first chapter. You start the story in the middle of a spell-slinging battle. You show what the monster is capable of doing to some throw away characters. It’s just a taste for what the reader can expect later on. Right?

Well, what happens when the reader expects a string of hooks? I’m not sure how well a story would work if you wrote it as a string of first chapters with scene after scene of explosive action and character arguments. You can actually watch this play out in the movie His Girl Friday. From start to finish it’s a constant bombardment of conflict in the form of dialog, the one thing that ensures the story continues forward at the pace the director wanted. But for some people the rapid fire conflict can be overwhelming, and in some formats it can be exhausting or even dull you to the impact of a climax later.

Lol dialog go burrr

Some people expect action and excitement in every other paragraph to maintain their attention. You’ll see this often in the 1-2 star reviews of books that are based on real life events. They’ll say there is no story or the story didn’t go anywhere on something like – the Diary of Anne Frank or a biopic based on a very significant historical figure or event. Real events don’t have the same sort of pacing/plot freedom that fictional ones do. But even if you have a non-stop violent fantasy epic, the story will still benefit from pumping the brakes on the pacing once in a while.

I think some people see a slowdown in pacing as a “boring part” within the story. And yes, if the slowdown lasts more than an entire chapter it can turn any reader off a story. There is a balance that has to be maintained between hooks, no matter how often you place them. Sometimes this gives away a pivotal position in the story. For example, you know something bad is about to happen in horror or suspense when the characters are allowed to relax for too long a period of time, that’s when the literary jump scare happens.

A cozy little dinner scene just before things explode.

I know it’s not fair to use film as examples for written stories but it works for the visual aspect on this post. With prose you do have to mention details that would otherwise be shown in a film. You do have to take a moment here and there to describe the environment from time to time else you end up with what’s called the white room syndrome. Locations do have to be described. Obviously unfamiliar or invented places would need more description than say casually mentioning a gas station, but you do have to put it in there. Sometimes you need to stop for a while and let the character think to themselves, or let them just walk down a street looking at things. There is a difference between boring chunks of long winded exposition and a slow building scene. I think sometimes when we stop to smell the roses our visual media expectations tell us that nothing is happening in the story we are reading.

So, one way to maintain the expectations of a modern reader is to string along the hooks. But do we want to alter the way we structure a book to cater to our collectively lowered attention span? I’m not sure that’s really the issue, but perhaps it is. Within Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series each book is around 400k words a pop. The average traditionally published book is around 100k words, and yet people have issues finishing those that would otherwise sail right through The Way of Kings. It comes down to the writing style and keeping the reader hooked or engaged, meeting their expectations.

I think that’s the one thing I learned the most over the last couple of years, that the reader has expectations before they open the cover. Their expectations depend on what you present the story as, as well as the type of media they consume in general. I used to think that this was all some marketing nonsense that was geared to get sales, but really if you want someone to read your story it has to be compelling to a reader from 2021 and not 1821. You can still write a slower paced story as long as you present it for the readers who enjoy/expect it.

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