What's Needed to Hook a Reader? 3 Essential Tips for Story Openings
By Carol Test
The rise of online submissions systems means it’s likely your manuscript will first be encountered by editors in digital format. Form affects experience – people’s attention spans are shorter online. Add to this the fact that many publications lack the staff to read thousands of unsolicited submissions to completion, and it becomes clear just how essential it is to hooks readers on page one.
But what’s needed to hook a reader? Some writers mistakenly believe their opening must contain a gimmick or scene of high drama, when what readers really crave is focus. Readers enter the world of a short story blind, without the benefit of jacket copy or a synopsis to guide them. A smart author provides readers a toehold in this fictional world by zeroing in on questions readers yearn to answer.
Does your opening hook readers with key questions?
Read through the first three pages of your work-in-progress to see if you can clearly identify:
1. What’s the plot question?
Every story is a mystery, no matter the genre in which you’re writing. Readers read on in order to uncover answers: Will the lovers stay together, will he find his father’s killer, will they survive the war . . . will she ever change? It’s important to frame your central conflict in terms of a question, explicit or implied, in the first three pages.
2. What’s the clock?
Clock refers to the duration of time it takes for the present action of a story or novel to unfold. Readers appreciate the brackets a clock provides; these tell them when a story will end or what event a novel is building toward. A clock might span the duration of a holiday weekend, road trip, or tour of duty. The tighter the clock, the greater the tension.
3. Why now?
What occasions the story? Antonya Nelson, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston and author of 2014’s acclaimed story collection Funny Once, encourages writers to think of occasion in medical terms: When you attend a 50-minute doctor’s appointment or therapy session, you cannot cover the material of your entire life. Instead, you must answer the question, “What brings you in today?” This is the presenting condition. Underlying this may be chronic conditions that get brought to light as a result. Every opening requires a reason events are unfolding now as opposed to at any other time in the main character’s life.
If you cannot clearly identify plot, clock, and occasion in your opening, read onward to find where each first appears in the story and look for ways to work these in earlier. Remember, your opening hook may end up being one of the last things you write. Great openings get discovered in the revision process; they are rarely the first lines drafted. Often, writers find their true opening buried somewhere on page five.
Clock & Plot In Action
Here’s the first line of Ron Carlson’s classic story “The Summer of Vintage Clothing” from Harper’s: “Ruth was dressing for Vicky’s party when Carl came home and told her he had lost the turkey.”
Don’t let the straightforward prose deceive you; it’s a crafty line. First, it gives readers a clock, telling them when the story will end. (Still don’t believe how important this is? Imagine sitting in a meeting and not knowing if it would last an hour or a full day . . . or if you had no idea whether this article would run three or three hundred pages.) In this case, we understand the bulk of the narrative will focus around Vicky’s party.
Carlson’s first line also raises the story’s plot question: What happened to the turkey? How did Carl lose it?
Quickly focusing clock and plot is no less essential for novelists. Consider the opening paragraph of Anne Rice’s bestselling Interview with the Vampire:
“I see,” said the vampire, and he walked across the room towards the window. For a long time he stood there, against the dim light from Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic. The boy could see the furnishings of the room more clearly now, the round oak table, the chairs. He set his briefcase on the table and waited. “But how much tape do you have with you?” asked the vampire, turning now so the boy could see his profile. “Enough for the story of a life?”
The novel’s title provides the clock for the current story: the span of an interview. The clock on the backstory will be longer, but equally focused – comprising the length of the vampire’s life. In one short paragraph, Rice gets an epic novel up and running, its ground rules clearly laid out.
Plot questions are also immediately addressed. Explicitly, the interview occasions the story, so readers wonder what the vampire will reveal in its course. Implicitly, more serious tension emerges. Note the repetition of descriptors in place of names: the vampire, the boy, the vampire, the boy. Rice uses these to remind readers that this interview, however polite it may seem on the surface, remains an inherently dangerous situation. Someone’s life is at stake. If our understanding of vampires is that they kill humans to drink blood, the plot question really becomes: Will this vampire kill this boy?
Occasion Reflects Theme
Our greatest challenge when we write fiction lies in unifying abstract thematic concepts with concrete plot actions. The goal of writing about a character who yearns to overcome his fear of failure is a concept – creating a situation in which he has an opportunity to do so becomes plot. Therefore, the earlier question “Why is this story happening now?” necessitates not only a specific action to throw a story into motion, but also that this action reflect the story’s larger theme. A story about connection may kick off with a blind date. A story about perspective may open with a statement followed by a contradiction of that statement. A story about inner change may open with an abrupt outer shift for the main character.
Which brings us back to “The Summer of Vintage Clothing.” In this story, the presenting condition is clear: Carl has lost the turkey the couple was supposed to bring to Vicky’s party. Carl’s bumbling retelling of how exactly the turkey came to be misplaced (and, later, his recollection of where he left it) bookend the tale and serve as plot. Yet as we read on, we see how this incident also raises the chronic condition of the couple’s married life: Ruth, Carl’s wife and the story’s protagonist, is feeling increasingly disconnected from her husband and teenage son, Sean. At the start, Ruth yearns to believe that she and her son are in alliance, that father and son couldn’t be less alike. Over the course of the evening, however, plot actions occur that lead her to realize both men have become strangers. They are male; she is a female. Sean is young; she is growing old. That which was once ironic (horror movies, vintage clothing, aging) has now become genuine and terrifying. Since the story explores loss and alienation, it makes sense to open with a lost object. In this way, the occasion reflects the thematic question the author wants to explore. Yet all that really matters to hook readers on page one is, what happened to the turkey?
Practice identifying plot, clock, and occasion in the published fiction you read. Ask a few select readers to see if they can identify these elements in your current work-in-progress. Focus revision efforts on openings, since these are more likely to make or break a story under consideration for publication. The more clearly focused these elements become in your work, the easier it will be to beckon readers into a fictional world and captivate them.
Carol Test is an award-winning fiction writer with more than a decade’s experience teaching college creative writing. She empowers authors to craft works-in-progress into books with polish, with reverence for the creative process. Visit writingcycle.com to learn more about her services for writers ready to achieve creative goals.