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Hooking the Reader: Scene Two, Take Five

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A sign of a novice writer is that
he begins scenes too early
and ends them too late.

Hooking the ReaderI don’t know if it’s a quote, a maxim, a proverb, or just something that was said at a writing conference a decade ago that everyone took to heart. (It’s probably from Don Maass or Sol Stein, but I couldn’t find it quickly.) I’m sure that most of the people reading this blog have had the experience of reading someone else’s work in which the scene starts with the character waking up in the morning, going through the morning routine, thinking about what they have to do that day, having breakfast, kissing the family goodbye, getting in the car and setting off for work. Then, once they arrive at the office, they’re fired. Or their boss turns into a big green monster and tries to eat them.

This is a prime example of starting the scene too early. There is no hard and fast rule that says, in both cases, the scene should have started in the boss’s office—with the character receiving the pink slip, or with the boss turning into the big green monster. In the second case, especially, there is a need for the establishment of “normal” before something like that happens if it is at the beginning of the book. Hopefully, if this isn’t the opening scene of your book, you’ve already established that in the “normal” world of your characters, bosses don’t usually turn into big green monsters, so opening the scene with your already-established character walking into the already-established boss’s office will seem normal until the extraordinary happens—as soon as the scene opens.

Starting scenes in media res, or in the middle of the action, hooks the reader. Just as we don’t want to open the book with the boring scene of someone going through the morning routine (unless he wakes up to discover he’s metamorphosed into a giant cockroach overnight), you don’t want to start any scene in your book that way. Readers don’t want the mundane, day-to-day stuff. As I quoted from Stein last week, readers are looking for something that they don’t usually experience—they want to be put smack into the middle of this fictional fantasy you’ve promised them.

“Suspense is achieved by arousing the reader’s curiosity and keeping it aroused as long as possible.” (Stein, How to Grow a Novel) A reader is hooked when she can’t put the book down—she just has to turn the page to find out what happens next. “Immerse the reader so deeply in the story that he’ll let go of the book only when the real world intrudes” (Stein).

Once you’ve created characters the readers will invest in, then you have to start writing each scene, each chapter, to a hook. The structure of a chapter is similar to that of the novel itself—except the chapter ends before the resolution of the conflict.

Reality TV as well as scripted shows like LOST, Heroes, Jericho, and soap operas have perfected this in the visual storytelling medium. It’s the long pause by the reality show host before announcing who’s getting kicked off the island. It’s the commercial break right before Heidi Klum announces who’s in and who’s out. It’s the cliffhanger at the end of the show—followed by the snippet of a preview for the next week—that leaves us worried about whether Jake and Stanley and Robert will all survive and keep the bad guys from using the last nuclear weapon to take out the new government.

There are five key elements to making sure you’re continually hooking the reader in each scene you write:

1. Credible Characters. As has already been mentioned many times, the reader must identify with and become invested in the characters.

2. Strong POV. Go deep. Show, don’t tell. Eliminate structures that keep the reader at arms’ length. Don’t write, “He saw something happen.” Get so deep in the character’s head that you’re writing, “Something happened.”

3. Suspense. Your hero is hanging off the cliff by his fingertips. The reader wants you to rescue him. Your job as the author is to avoid rescuing him as long as is possible (and believable). The reader gets more and more hooked by a story when she wants something to happen and it hasn’t happened yet.

4. Balance. You must have a good balance between narrative and dialogue, introspection and action. Every scene needs to serve the novel—to move the plot ever closer to the climax—while revealing who the characters are and why they’re here.

5. BOMB DROPPING. Imagine all the action in your scene is happening in a small room. You, the author, are standing at the door, directing everything that’s happening. You’re getting to the end of the scene/chapter. You casually pull out a grenade and yank the pin. Toss it in, and slam the door closed. This is the end of your scene. Think about those TV shows or movies that do this—they throw the characters into mortal peril then either cut away to a commercial, flash to be continued on the screen, or cut away to another scene. You’re on the edge of your seat. What’s going to happen? Will the “grenade” explode? Will anyone be hurt? Will someone be heroic and sacrifice himself to save others? We have to make the reader want to wrench the door open (read the next chapter) to find out.

Remember, though, what we talked about with plots—your action/drama/suspense cannot be unrelenting. There do need to be quieter moments as well. Not every single scene can end with a dropped bomb—at least, not all on the same magnitude. But you do need to have built up enough questions in the reader’s mind that a “happy” scene ending doesn’t lead them to putting down the book feeling like all their questions have been answered, all the conflicts resolved. [For more on this, see (Narrative) Debt and Simple vs. Compound Interest.]

For Discussion:
From something you’ve read or from a TV show/movie, what is the best cliffhanger scene ending you’ve ever read/seen? How did the writer/filmmakers build up to it—how did they hook you into caring about what happened to the character(s)? Then, from your own writing, have you ever written a scene ending like that? One that just made you clap your hands and laugh maniacally, knowing you’d just dropped a big bomb on your readers? What kind of feedback did you get from people who’ve read it? Did it make you want to write more scene endings like that?

  1. Tuesday, March 25, 2008 10:10 am

    Best Cliffhanger from a movie or TV: The end of The Two Towers…Helm’s Deep has been defended, but the Battle for Middle Earth has just begun. This was esp. hooking to me because before I saw the movies, I’d not read the books. (I’ve since read them.)

    Best Cliffhanger I’ve ever written? Probably something in Drums of the North Star…though you’d be a better judge than me of any of those.


  2. Tuesday, March 25, 2008 2:03 pm

    After starting out as someone who didn’t like to do things to my character, who avoided conflict even in fiction, I’ve learned over the years not only not to hold back, but to drop those bombs. It’s more about shocking the reader for me.

    As a reader, there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush that comes from getting to the end of a chapter and having the insatiable urge to keep reading, to find out what happens next. Therefore, I started incorporating that into my own writing—writing every chapter to a hook.

    My favorite one that I’ve ever read is the end of chapter thirty-four of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
    Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear—

    He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.

    My favorite I’ve ever written was the end to the second to last chapter in Ransome’s Honor which can be found here:


  3. Tuesday, March 25, 2008 11:08 pm

    I was supposed to write a cliffhanger? Hmm. So that’s what went wrong 🙂 Probably one of the scenes where no one knows who “Khan” is would be one I can think of off the top of my head. You ask great questions, Kaye–and my brain is tired.

    PS. I might have to run with the cockroach idea.


  4. Wednesday, March 26, 2008 8:20 am

    G–Yes, you had some great cliffhanger scenes in Shadows of Alaska!

    And Franz Kafka beat you to the cockroach idea by about 100 years:


  5. Wednesday, March 26, 2008 11:38 am

    The first cliffhanger book ending that comes to mind is the end of the first book of Francine Rivers’s Mark of the Lion series.


  6. Wednesday, March 26, 2008 2:48 pm

    That is an awesome cliffhanger ending in Ransome! I’d clap my hands and laugh maniacally too over writing something like that.

    I think the best one I’ve written so far (which is still in first draft) is in The Master’s Hand when Leksi is being shoved towards the rail car on the Siberian railway and his father is standing there watching his son disappear forever. It’s a scene completely void of hope and filled with utter despair.

    Cliffhanger ending that I’ve read or seen…. I’m going to have to think about that one.


  7. Thursday, March 27, 2008 12:57 am

    I ended one chapter with the exchange:

    “Where are we going?”
    “To see what hell with be like.”

    That totally got me cackling and rubbing my hands together.


  8. Leslie S. permalink
    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 6:09 am

    I think my favorite cliff-hanger moment was when I was a kid and still liked Star Trek – the episode where Captain Picard turns into a borg. It was completely unexpected and it was torture waiting all summer long to see if the crew would be able to rescue him.

    As for my own writing – on my wip I am starting the “hero” with running for his life. The reader doesn’t know why he is running or who he is running from. I’ll answer eventually, of course, but for now I want people scratching their heads.



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