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Hooking the Reader: “To Be Continued . . .”

Monday, March 31, 2008

Hooking the ReaderPicture this scenario: You’re watching your absolutely favorite show. Things are getting dicy for the heroes. All of a sudden, there’s an explosion! Your heroes’ lives are in danger! What’s going to happen to them? Are they okay? Will they survive? Then, the screen goes black. And then you see: TO BE CONTINUED. “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” you scream. “I have to know what happens next!”

And what does happen next? Well, you tune in when the next episode airs or the new season starts. Why? Because you’re HOOKED. Because you need to know the sequel: what happens next.

Though I wouldn’t recommend reading it straight through, just like with Stein’s books, I recommend everyone should at least check Scene and Structure out from your local library and read the sections on Sequels. It’s not about subsequent books, but the pattern of how scenes follow-up the disaster that happened in the previous scene.

The way you structure the flow of your scenes is one of the primary ways, after dropping disasters on your characters, to keep the reader hooked. Remember, the purpose of each scene is to move the character further from quick fixes and shortcuts. Once you’ve written to the hook, the disaster, you can keep the reader frustrated and wanting to find out what happens next by breaking away from one character’s disaster to a subplot or other POV character’s scene. But change POV only when it creates more tension and suspense, not just to be in the other character’s head.

Bickham gives a few ways to amp up the conflict for each character within the scene that then ties that scene to either the next one or what happens later in the book (setting up sequels to keep the reader turning pages):

  • Drop hints that the antagonist knows something which the hero/POV character doesn’t—something that is advantageous to the antagonist and/or disastrous for the hero. This is Malfoy taunting Harry Potter with stuff he knows that Harry obviously doesn’t. This is the serial killer taunting the detective. This is someone (either an antagonist or someone well-meaning but ill-informed) telling the heroine that the hero is cheating on her.
  • The antagonist could actually reveal something the hero didn’t know yet—a bit of bad news that alters the hero’s assumptions or decisions or even make him deviate from his scene goal (or at least make the reader believe he will).
  • Show that the hero has faulty information—and that he doesn’t realize it—to lead the reader to believe he’ll make the wrong decision.
  • Have the antagonist (or an outside source) set a ticking clock on the duration of the scene (Can Jack Bauer stop the terrorists in twenty-four hours? Can Rose get Jack unshackled before the room fills with water as Titanic sinks?)

Once you’ve upped the tension in a scene, then ended it with a disaster, there are six ways to keep the conflict going in the sequel that will give the reader some closure on the previous conflict and yet still keep the tension level rising:

  • As already mentioned, set a timer on your character’s actions, a time-limit in which to make a decision. You end a scene with the hero receiving a ransom note from the kidnapper who has his child: You have three hours to deliver $5 million or I kill the kid. What happens in the sequel scenes is shaped by that disaster, by that time-limit.
  • Have the POV character come to understand—on his own or with help—an entirely different aspect of the previous disaster he hadn’t thought of before. How can that disaster actually be used to his advantage?
  • On the flip-side, instead of realizing how the disaster can be advantageous, the character is now overwhelmed by the disaster (and the emotions resulting from it) and plunges back into the conflict with insufficient understanding of what’s going on, leading to more disasters.
  • Introduce roadblocks (have you ever seen Amazing Race?) that create a “sidebar” conflict the character must get through to get to the next scene—conflicts which the character (and thus the reader) sees as relating directly to his stated goal for that scene, but which, in reality, only serve to throw him further off course.
  • Have the character hint that he has more of an agenda than he’s revealed to the reader. Something along the lines of, “He knew what he had to do.” [End of scene].
  • Stage an interruption—an outside stimulus—which forces the character to stop “sequelizing” and meet the new threat/conflict. This is very similar to the roadblock idea. Something interrupts the very straight-forward direction of the plot and either waylays the character for a little while or throws him completely onto a different trajectory for the remainder of the story.

Now that you’ve read the “how to,” let’s look at some examples of how published authors have put these techniques to work. I probably should have put these on the “disasters” page, but I think from these, you’ll also be able to see how the disaster sets up the sequels to come:

Janet Evanovich, Eleven on Top, end of Chapter 5:

    “How could you be the big bounty hunter without knowing how to pick a lock? How’d you ever get in anywhere?” Lula stood back and looked at the store. “Ordinarily I’d just break a window, but they got one big window here. It’s just about the whole front of the place. It might look suspicious if I broke the window.”

    She ran across the street to the Firebird and came back with a tire iron. “Maybe we can pry the door open.” She put the tire iron to the doorjamb and another car drove by. The car slowed as it passed us, and then took off.

    “Maybe we would try the back door,” Lula said.

Sandra Brown, Play Dirty, end of Chapter 13:

    She must have parked around back, where he’d parked the first time, because the red Honda was the only car in the driveway. In the time it took him to reach it, he was already considering going back inside to apologize. He was still mad as hell, but he couldn’t afford his anger. The price tag of it was half a million now, and millions more to come. Not worth it. Not by a long shot.

    He turned on his heel and had started back toward the house when he spotted something that drew him up short.

Susan May Warren, Happily Ever After, End of Chapter 21:

    He needed Mona. But he was the last thing she needed. She had her hands full building her life, and the Joe Michaels deluxe package, complete with handicapped brother and covert identity, did not fit into that reality. She needed a man who could hang up his backpack and invest in her dreams.

    Instead he’d spent the past month knitting together a façade of white lies. Lies meant to keep him and Gabe safe. Lies that could unravel at any moment.

    No, he couldn’t stay.

    He closed his eyes and fought the urge to weep.

Linda Windsor, Maire, end of Chapter 25:

    Unable to speak, Maire strained against the hold of the guards, leaning into the sword and toward the fire as though she too were ready to walk into its deadly mouth, even if it meant perishing with him . . .

    Rowan stepped to the fire’s edge where the heat slapped him and reached into his lungs with invisible hands, clutching his breath. The perspiration on his forehead evaporated. Lord, use my example to Your glory. He lifted his foot, ready to take the final plunge from which there would be no return, when a voice of protest cut through the bonds of tension holding all in check, save the beasts of flame.

    “Hold, in the name of God Almighty!”

For Discussion:
Are there some scenes/chapters in your WIP in which you can apply one (or more) of these techniques to tie the scene to what comes after it (sequel)? What are some ways in which you’ve planted information or dropped hints that the hero doesn’t know everything he needs to know before facing the next conflict? Do you tend to immediately follow your disaster with a scene that resolves it, or do you leave your character hanging off the cliff and cut to another character/subplot?

  1. Tuesday, April 1, 2008 10:50 am

    Leaving the character hanging is so much fun! It’s something I’m still learning, and with 1st person that’s harder to achieve because you’re only getting one person’s information. Great suggestions!


  2. Wednesday, April 2, 2008 11:18 am

    A technique I’ve tried a time or two in my WIP is to end a scene at a high tension moment, but before the scene would naturally play itself out, leaving a few questions dangling (such as: how will the character respond or react, or how will things change?) and pick up the next chapter not with a continuation of the scene, as might be expected, but with a time lapse that shows the character or his situation altered in an unexpected way (hopefully) by the previous scene. If needed, I explain (very) briefly how he got from conflict A to situation B. It’s more of a pace-quickener than anything.


  3. Thursday, April 3, 2008 9:32 pm

    My WIP is a case of hidden identity, so the hero and heroine both have things they don’t know that the reader does. I’m having a lot of fun with it, but I need some help with my end of chapter hooks. I’ll be trying to apply some of these techniques soon.



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