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Hooking the Reader: An Introduction

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hooking the ReaderAnyone who’s a regular reader of this blog knows (at least) two things about me: I’m a rabid LSU football fan, and I quote from Stein on Writing whenever I can. Well, guess what—no Stein on Writing today!

In How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein (aha!) compares the act of reading with the phenomenon of sports fanaticism. In the first chapter of the book, Stein writes about how the one person most writers don’t think about when writing is the reader:

    “What is amazing is the fact that so many writers with a novel in the planning stage give little or no conscious thought to the reader’s experience. They need look no further than sports to understand the spectator seeks the excitement that does not usually occur in daily life. The joy of winning, even through surrogates, is real” (Stein, 8).

This past year was one of the best—and worst—in college football history. No one, it seemed, could hold onto the top spot. The number one position came with a target, and lots of other teams hit the bull’s eye. This was the season of Appalachian State, the University of South Florida, and Rutgers—under-rated teams from small schools who toppled giants, only to be toppled themselves. But this was also the year of controversy—the year that proved the BCS championship system doesn’t work. Because of all this CONFLICT, it was the most-watched, best-attended, most-talked-about football season ever.

    “But let us remember that when a team—even the team we are rooting for—is winning too easily, our enjoyment of the game decreases” (Stein, 8).

I truly believe that the reason it took until the spring for the doctor to get my high blood pressure down is due, in large part, to the 2007 LSU football season. Games that came down to the wire—won by touchdowns with only a couple of seconds left on the board. Two losses in triple overtime. Nail-biters that had me screaming at the top of my lungs. Games so close they kept my complete focus for four—or more—hours. But then there were a few others in which my boys jumped out to a commanding lead and never looked back. The other team may have made a foray or two into the red-zone, but they posed no serious threat to LSU’s winning the game. I could do laundry, write, even read, and not worry about the ultimate outcome.

When we write, we want to give our readers the same kind of experience LSU fans had when Les Miles had our boys go for it on fourth-down not once, not twice, but five times in a neck-and-neck game against defending national champs, Florida. We want to surprise them with faking a field goal and scoring with a no-look, over-the-shoulder touchdown pass to the kicker . . .

Okay, yes, I’m ready for football season five months early—but I hope you’re getting my point. Readers want that kind of enthralling experience—the kind that doesn’t happen in our normal lives—to lose ourselves in. That is the promise we’re making when we put words on paper and call it a story. That’s what we’re going to be discussing over the next few weeks.

To get the discussion started: What kind of experience do you hope for when you pick up a book to read?

  1. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 10:10 am

    You’re right, I want a fight on my hands, good over evil, find the bad guy, figure out the mystery, unsnarl the lines of communication, triumph over obstacles, something, anything with some teeth in it.

    I want characters I care about climbing serious obstacles and coming out on the other side of the conflict as better people.


  2. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 10:20 am

    I want to be immersed in another time/place through the eyes of a character faced with the kind of moral choices that don’t have easy black and white answers. Character, setting, plot (conflict), it’s all wrapped up together. I can’t choose any of those singularly and call them the hook that works for me when I pick up a book. It’s a magical balance of three. But all need to be strong.

    There have been rare times I’ve been hooked by a cover, usually one that evokes mood and setting (with no models on the cover!).


  3. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 10:28 am

    Of course, it depends on the book. I don’t really expect much conflict from reference books 😉 . I pick up The Great Gatsby to “feel” the words. Books I’m reading for the first time are usually to escape, to experience another kind of life.

    But right now I’m looking for books set in the same place/time as my novels (preferably written as contemporary fiction or even nonfiction) to help me understand the atmosphere of the place and try to convey it better myself.


  4. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 10:42 am

    When I pick up a book to read—which isn’t very often any more—what I’m hoping for is a story that’s so engrossing it shuts off my internal editor. James Patterson’s When the Wind Blows is the last book that happened with, and it’s one I picked up on a whim, just to read something totally outside of my genre.


  5. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 11:32 am

    I want to get completely swept into another place, where the book becomes a real experience for me and I forget I’m reading. I want to be so impacted by the characters I continue to think about them after the book is finished. I want to be sorry the book has ended.


  6. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 12:19 pm

    I’m looking forward to this series, Kaye. It sounds great.

    When I pick up a book, I want to basically fall into the story. I want the characters to seem real to me and I want to care about them and thus I gain an almost vested interest in where the story takes them and what happens along the way. I want to be rooting for the hero and heroine and praying for help for the villian to change his/her ways.


  7. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 2:03 pm

    Can I just add . . . I love that picture of the goldfish and the hook. I’m thinking of making it my wallpaper on my computer at work!


  8. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 7:04 pm

    I want to be so completely swept into the story that I lose all track of time. And if it’s a mystery or suspense I don’t want to have it figured out in chapter 3. I’m reading Robin’s newest one right now and not breezing through it because I had it all figured out in chapter 3.

    And I was on the winning side of one of those triple-overtime losses. SOOIIEEE PIG PIG PIG!!!


  9. Wednesday, March 19, 2008 2:32 pm

    I like to learn about people, places, and experiences with which I’m unfamiliar. At the same time, I like characters I can relate to because we have something in common. I like emotion, no matter what the genre. I want to feel the emotion of the story as opposed to being told about it. I want to experience the story.

    Those comments relate to all genres but I particularly enjoy romance. In romance, I want to fall in love, hit a snag, and find my happily ever after through the characters.

    When I can lose myself in the story, it’s a good read.

    And for once I can say, “Go Big Red!” (Cornell made the NCAA basketball tournament.)


  10. Thursday, March 20, 2008 9:02 am

    What kind of experience do I hope for when I pick up a book? Let’s see…I want to completely lose myself in the world of the novel. I want to be completely engrossed, so absorbed by the characters, the time, and the action, that I can’t wait to dive back into the book. I want to love the story and the characters and the struggle so much that thinking about the book distracts me when I’m NOT reading…


  11. Friday, March 21, 2008 9:15 pm

    I really should do a post of my own about this, but I haven’t found all the words for it yet.

    Basically I’ve lately dragged my feet going into *any* novel (even one I’m sure I’ll like) and all I can guess is that I’m afraid they won’t pay off.

    But back to what I want:
    *clever dialogue
    *tension and challenges that don’t get unrealistic (Anne MacCaffrey– aside from her consequence-less sex– drives me *nuts* with taking away absolutely every prop for the poor soul designated the MC that book. I’ve only been able to finish a couple of her books, despite their being engaging),
    *a clean wrap-up
    *women who are able to be strong without becoming like men. It takes more creativity, I think.

    Tie-ins to folklore gain major points from me.


  12. Esther permalink
    Sunday, April 17, 2011 2:25 pm

    I was just reading this Stein book, How to Grow a Novel, and of course I started with this chapter. Since I’m facing finally getting to begin my second book, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Thanks.



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