Like any fiction writer, you’re wondering how to hook the reader with your story, especially those all-important first pages. (Heck, this should probably be “first page,” singular, since sometimes that’s all the opportunity you have.) Information plays a key role in how you manipulate an audience. Make no mistake, you’re not just telling a story or getting your character/plot down on paper. You’re trying, with every page, to make the reader care, which is your number one job as a writer.
How to Hook a Reader by Creating Suspense
As I’ve written before, confusion is not the same as mystery. You want to leave your reader hungry to continue reading, not flummoxed about what’s going on. Information release is the tool at your disposal to accomplish this.
Sometimes the most dissatisfying manuscripts I read are the ones that trying the hardest to hook the reader. Why? Because a lot of writers think that withholding information is the way to go. That’s the definition of suspense, no? The reader doesn’t know what’s going on. Right? This is what we want!
Unfortunately, it’s a very murky line between suspense and not enough information. If you don’t provide a lot of context for what’s going on, the reader might not care as much as they should. Or, worse, they might become utterly confused.
How to Combat Confusion
I’m of the school that some context and information about a suspenseful situation is actually desirable.
Let’s say that your character is wandering into an abandoned house. We’ve all seen that scene in a horror movie. Imagine, first, the “maximum confusion” version. The character arrives at the house and walks through the creaky front door. Everything is in shadow. The creepy music swells. The horror element may be just around the corner. The character tries a closet door and…
Scary, right? Well, kinda. There are a few pieces of information missing. The scene overall would be much more “grabby” if we knew any of the following ways to hook the reader:
- Motivation (Why is the character at this horrible house?)
- Objective (What do they need to get/see/etc. while there?)
- Stakes (What could go wrong in this scene and how might it affect the whole?)
- Antagonist (Who or what has the potential to be hiding in the shadows?)
- Past (What’s happened to lead the character here?)
- Future (What do they hope will happen after? What do they worry might happen instead?)
Some of this information will be situational. If you’ve done your plot work correctly, the reader should know why we’re at the house, for example. A lot of this information can be filled in via interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions– more on writing reactions here) as the character approaches the house and begins to explore. (A related post would be how to create emotional anticipation.)
With two or three additional pieces of context, the scene takes on more weight in a reader’s mind.
Your Goal is Creating Hungry Readers
Imagine yourself arriving at a cocktail party. If you keep from eating beforehand in anticipation of the event, most likely you’ll end up too hungry, show up, and start diving into whatever hors d’oeuvres you can find until you’ve satisfied that initial hunger. It doesn’t feel good to be that hungry, and you don’t really taste the first few bites.
On the other hand, if you have a little snack at home, then go to the party, you’re not desperate for food, so you’re able to enjoy yourself and taste the offerings. Each one might leave you wanting more, but you’re not starving for the next bite, either.
Think of a reader as this party guest. They satisfy themselves on information and emotion. If you go into a scene with too little of either, you’re making your reader hungry … and not in a good way. Wondering how to hook a reader? You want them craving more, instead of starving for it.
Are you pacing your writing correctly? Is it “grabby” enough? General advice can only go so far. Work with me as your novel editor, and I’ll give you actionable, supportive, hands-on feedback.