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Hooking the Reader: Facing the Consequences

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hooking the ReaderIn Monday’s post, we explored the idea of creating sequels—i.e., what happens next—through the disasters or hooks at the end of each scene. In addition to Bickham’s methods listed there, he also introduces the technique of the scene interruption. To keep the reader hooked, he suggests creating a diversion that stops the hero’s ability to complete the task or work through the conflict of that scene. The character wants to move on, but is thwarted because his scene is postponed, left hanging. This creates a delay, a setback, a “mini-disaster.” In cinematography, they call this the “cut-away.”

In a single-POV story, this is going to be extremely hard to do, unless your cutaway involves a timelapse. In that case, the sequel scene may actually be more of the character internalizing the disaster that just happened—a chance for a character-growth/development scene. But, as anyone can tell you, don’t let the interrupting scene pull the reader away from the previous disaster too long, or else you’ll lose the tension because the reader will forget the peril the character was facing.

Regardless of how long or short your chapters are, always end your chapters at a place where the reader has to know what happens next. If you don’t end at the disaster moment, the next best place to end is in the middle of the conflict, especially if the next chapter opens with the continuation of the conflict. Another way to end is at a place when the character is stuck, thinking there’s no way out or that things can’t possibly get worse (which of course, is a method of foreshadowing and immediately implanting the idea in the reader’s mind that things are definitely about to get much, much worse). Or you can end the chapter when the character is on the brink of making an important decision or taking a new action that has potential to change the story outcome.

As in life, in writing “what happens next” is all about consequences. We’ve already seen how our job as authors is to make sure that our characters fail to reach their goals often enough to generate more conflict for the story. Failure brings consequences that generate conflicts that necessitate setting new goals—in addition to the main story goal that must still be met. These then become your scene goals. For each conflict, there are multiple outcomes dependent upon which decision is made or action taken, and this is the driving force behind the plot of your novel. For example, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo and Sam’s main story goal is to take the One Ring to Mordor to destroy it. Yet all along the way, they encounter roadblocks, interruptions, setbacks, and other characters with different goals that keep setting them along paths they don’t necessarily want to be on. They must work their way through each of those conflicts—they must resolve those consequences—before they can resolve their story goal.

Along with consequences come rewards. Stein, in How to Grow a Novel, states that in a discussion with playwrights once, he jotted down the phrase, “You must reward your audience” (18). As we discussed in the Plot or Plod series, you cannot just pile up the conflicts one on top of another in an ever increasing intensity, or else the reader is going to be overwhelmed. Once you’ve finished your first draft and are ready to start revisions, take the time to write out a scene-by-scene outline (or use scene cards) and pinpoint scenes where you’re rewarding the reader for sticking with you by revealing something important, resolving a conflict, or allowing a breather-scene where your reader can fall in love with your characters a little bit more. This will also help you in tracing the conflicts and consequences and making sure that each scene ties in with the scenes that follow in some way, and that each ends with some kind of a hook.

And just because I took the time to pull them and I kept forgetting to use them, here are the rest of the chapter-ender hooks that I pulled as examples for this series:

Dean Koontz, The Mask, end of Part 1:

    “Gracie . . . it can’t go on forever. You’ve got . . . to put an end to it. Protect her, Gracie. Protect her . . .”

    The voice faded away.

    There was only silence. But not the silence of an open phone line. There was no hissing. No electronic beeping in the background. This was perfect silence, utterly unmarred by even the slightest click or whistle of electronic circuitry. Vast silence. Endless.

    She put the phone down.

    She started to shake.

    She went to the cupboard and got down the bottle of Scotch she kept for visitors. She poured herself a double shot and sat down at the kitchen table.

    The liquor didn’t warm her. Chills still shook her.

    The voice on the phone had belonged to Leonard. Her husband. He had been dead for eighteen years.

Carolyn Keene, The Moonstone Castle Mystery, end of Chapter 13:

    Bess and George and the boys hurried toward Ned. “Where’s Nancy?” they asked in one breath.

    “I don’t know,” Ned said fearfully, then told them where he had left her.

    “How long ago was that?” Bess asked quickly.

    “Why, just a few minutes.”

    “Then she didn’t come up the stairway, nor was she anywhere near it,” said Bess. “Otherwise, we would have seen her.”

    The five young people looked at one another. Panic seized them. What had happened to Nancy?

Dick Francis, Dead Heat, end of Chapter 13:

    I dreamed that I could smell toast. But someone had left it in my broken toaster for too long, and it was beginning to burn. Burned toast. My father had always liked his toast burned black. He had joked that it wasn’t burned, it was just well-done.

    I was awake, and I could still smell the burned toast.

    I got up and opened my bedroom door.

    My cottage was on fire, with giant flames roaring up the stairway, and great billowing black smoke filling the air.

Michael Crichton, Timeline, end of 30:21:02:

    Sir Guy stared for a moment, and then he began to shout, “The prisoners! All escaped! Prisoners!”

    This cry was taken up by the Lady Claire, who called out in the hallway.

    In the passage, the professor turned to them. “If we’re separated, you go to the monastery. Find Brother Marcel. He has the key to the passage. Okay?”

    Before any of them could answer, the soldiers came running into the passageway. Chris felt hands grab his arms, pull him roughly.

    They were caught.

JK Rowling, HP & The Deathly Hallows, End of Chapter 34:

    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.

  1. Wednesday, April 2, 2008 10:23 pm

    That’s one thing I really need to work on: ending in the middle of the conflict to keep the reader reading.

    So what had happened to Nancy?


  2. Thursday, April 3, 2008 12:08 pm

    Good timing to check out your blog again. I’ve been working through Bickham’s Scene & Structure myself and I think it was just a couple nights ago that I studied the section on hooking–where to end a scene or sequel.

    I tend to overuse the “Now he knew what he had to do.” final last words. Leaving the reader wondering what his decision really was. I need expand my choices and mix it up to surprise the reader.

    Great course, Kaye! You amaze me with all the effort you put into this and the forum! Thank You So Much!



  3. Thursday, April 3, 2008 9:48 pm

    Woohoo! A Dick Francis Quote! Woohoo!

    I’m beginning to get a glimmer of understanding here.



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