Monday, September 6, 2010

Keeping the Reader Hooked - 5 tips

Before I get too far into my post, I want to place credit where credit is due. This post-idea came from a FABULOUS post at Seekerville last week by Marylu Tyndal. You can check out her post here.

Now – on with MY post :-)

I’ve talked before about what makes a good ‘beginning’ hook, but what keeps a reader keep reading to the end? Well, we know it has to do with characterization, plotting, conflict…etc, etc., but we also keep flipping pages because the author keeps on hooking us.

Tension does it best.

But tension can be expressed in different ways. Here are the top five elements I’ve seen that keeps readers turning the page. The top five ‘hooks’ authors use to keep readers reading.

The Unexpected
Fear (which can be physical, emotional, something unwanted, etc)

I’m reading Denise Hunter’s new book, Driftwood Lane, and smack in the middle of chapter five, Denise adds the sexual tension of the hero/heroine first meeting. The heroine, Meredith, wants to fix up this old B & B and get out of town as soon as possible with the three step-siblings she’d just discovered. The hero, Jake, thinks Meredith is probably crazy and doesn’t want his niece and nephews in her care. Meridith does NOT want to fall in love. Nope. BIG FEAR of romance.

So, Jake shows up (Meredith doesn’t know he’s the kids’ uncle. She just thinks he’s a repairman :-)

“Nice place,” he said as they entered the kitchen. “Had it long?”

“Uh, no.” She crossed the room, her heels clicking on the tile. “The dishwasher’s been leaking.” She moved in front of the sink.

“Let’s have a look.”

Meridith turned on the faucet and washed her hands, then dried them on a nearby towel. When she turned, Jake was inches away. She hadn’t realized he was so…broad. There was something about him. He was like a cougar ready to spring. Contained passion. She pressed her spine to the sink ledge.

His jaw sported at least two days’ stubble. His upper lip dipped in the middle, just the right size for a fingertip.

“Need in there,” he said.

Under the sink. Of course. Heat flared up her neck, into her cheeks. She bolted across the room while he opened the cupboard and sank down to his knees, straining his Levis.

He was so not getting this job.

How about embarrassment? Does that keep us reading? Let’s check out a short scene from Julie Lessman’s new novel, A Hope Undaunted.

Male voices rumbled in the dining room, and Katie zeroed in on Brady with a bright smile. “Happy Birthday, Bra—“

The smile died an ugly death as the pitchers slipped from her hands and crashed to the floor. Sticky puddles pooled at her feet, but all she could do was gape, drawing in little or no air despite the extended drop of her jaw.

Pandemonium erupted – Collin yelling for a towel and her mother rushing in, and everyone blotting and mopping and babbling words Katie couldn’t comprehend. Instead, she stood like a statue, mounted to the sticky floor as surely as if lemonade and tea were glue. The heat of humiliation curdled her stomach, rose to her throat, and bled into her cheeks, confirming once again that Cluny McGee – aka “Soda Jerk” – possessed a true talent for misery.

That last paragraph is phenomenal, isn’t it? You can just feel the humiliation happening. A wonderful book, if you haven’t read it yet :-)


Well, nobody does it like Mary Connealy. Here’s a brief glimpse.

All of a sudden Silas figured something out that he should have known all along. "We aren't taking a baby on a cattle drive."

Belle stepped away from his side, where just a second before he'd decided it was to be the two of them against the girls, and liked that just fine. She lined up with her daughters.

The whole gaggle of women froze. Even baby Elizabeth stopped her cheerful torment of Emma and stared at Silas.

Sarah took the eggs off the stove and, with a towel wrapped around it's handle, held the hot pan like it was a weapon. Lindsay set down the tin plates she was laying out with a sharp click

The five women stood shoulder to shoulder against him.

They didn't look much alike. Lindsay and Emma some, but otherwise they were as different as if they shared not a drop of blood. But their eyes, whatever the color, held the same cold glare.

Belle could have slit his gullet with the sharp look she was giving him. She said quietly, but with a voice that spelled Silas's doom, "What kind of a man are you that you would go off and leave children home alone for so long?"

Not his doom as in he was fired. His doom as in he was going to have to go on a cattle drive with five woman, one of 'em wearing diapers.

Shock, or the unexpected, is another way we hook the reader. We do something that the reader doesn’t expect. Maybe our character responds in an unexpected way. I’m going to try to use an example from my own novel, Here to Stay, so bear with me :-)

Eisley Barrett is staying with some friends of a friend as she researches a story in England. Mr. Harrison, her elderly host, picks her up from the airport along with his gorgeous son, Wes. Eisley does NOT want romance. Wes does NOT trust women because they’re always trying to ‘use’ him for their own gain.


“Since father’s heart attack two months ago and then the incident with the paparazzi, I’ve been rather cautious of new people. Some strangers sold highly private photos of my father shortly after his attack, and it isn’t the first time our privacy has been violated. I’m very protective of my family.” He stepped back, his expression unreadable. “I shouldn’t have made foolish assumptions. I beg your pardon.”

It seemed physically impossible to look away from his probing gaze, like he wasn’t quite sure whether to trust her or not. Well, she couldn’t blame him really. His excuses were pretty good. Heart attack and paparazzi? If her father had recently had a…wait. Paparazzi? She caught her breath. Her throat tightened, so she swallowed. Her gum. Halfway.

She produced a series of unladylike coughs and had the overwhelming desire to flee this scene of climactic embarrassment. Wes touched her shoulder and leaned so close she saw the stormy gray swirls in his eyes. The sweet scent of leather and spice followed. She decided death by bubble gum might not be so bad.

No. Get Thee behind me hormones.


She sucked in a gasp at the sound of her name on his lips, but it was a bad idea. Coughing ensued, right in his face. Come quickly Lord Jesus. Preferably right now. Her coughing melted into a humiliated laugh. “I swallowed my gum.” She shrugged, met that thought-blanking gaze again and a new explosion of heat lit her cheeks. “Did you say paparazzi?”

Wes exchanged a look with his father. “Well, yes.”

Eisley’s lips came unhinged as she stared at Mr. Harrison. “Are you famous?”

Mr. Harrison grinned. “No, dear. The paparazzi were after Wes.”

Wes? Eisley examined Wes’ face, which wasn’t difficult to do at such close proximity. Somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind the fog began to clear. Wes Harrison? Christopher Wesley Harrison.

She grabbed his arm. “You’re the actor, Christopher—”

“Shhh.” He covered her mouth with his hand, his breath fanning her face, and all caution in his smile seemed to disappear completely. “I prefer anonymity for now, thanks.”

Eisley stared back, dumbfounded. His hand softened against her lips and his leather cowboy-cologne soaked each breath. Words, thoughts, and feelings crashed together inside her head. Christopher Wesley Harrison? No wonder she’d been attracted to him. He wasn’t like a real person. Everything slowed down. Her breathing, her thoughts, her heart rate. Then the realization hit her. She was safe.

One more? Let’s try peril, and if you don’t mind I’ll use another example from my own writing. One of my wips. A supernatural entitled Heartless.

There Sophia was, dangling upside down from a rock cliff over a mountain gorge. Well, she certainly couldn’t die in such a useless way. She had to get back on solid ground. She squeezed her eyes closed and drew out a long, calming breath, trying to clear her mind, her fingers inching up the rock outcropping in search of a reliable handle. The stormy current of the river churned hundreds of feet beneath her and echoed off the canyon walls. She doubted even the strength of her superhuman abilities could withstand a drop like this. If she hit the river just right, maybe?

“Well, well, what do we have here?”

Sophia froze, hoping her face was as hidden from his view as his from hers. She didn’t need to see him. Her senses told her what he was.

“Poor lost lamb.” Another male voice joined in, thick with sarcasm. Red blazed behind her eyes. They were very hungry. “Should we put her out of her misery?”

Sophia needed to remain anonymous. Faceless. Unless she could kill them without a doubt, they couldn’t know her people knew their hiding place. Not this early in the assignment. Pebbles scattered from above her and pelted her like hailstones as feet shuffled onto the rock ledge.

She looked down, another whoosh of cool air pushing up from the river. There was no other choice. With one last prayer for help, Sophia loosened her grip and free-fell into the oblivion of her next breath…if there would even be one.

There are more ways writers keep a hook in the readers, but here are a few of the top ones.

What tools do you use? Got any examples?


Casey said...

FABULOUS post, Pepper!!! I didn't think it was too long at all. :) Love all the examples and I just read that excerpt from Julie's book last night, marvelous scene, I certainly wasn't going to put the book down during THAT one! Love your excerpts, I SO need Denise's new book. I will have to watching your blog for a review. :)

Pepper said...

Thanks, Case. You're so encouraging. So far, Denise's new book is great (no surprise there). When I get half a second to finish it (and RUTHY'S) - I'll try for a review.
Time is so elusive :-)

Casey said...

Don't I know it. It slips away faster than water through the hands.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Ooo, very nice, indeed! Love all the examples. I don't know that I really thought of "hooks" while I was writing mine. Except for maybe the hooks at the end of chapters.

Well done!

Pepper said...

Thanks Sherrinda,
I hope you all have had a fabulous Labor Day. :-)

Krista Phillips said...

I've read denise's book. Um, yes, a "must" read for SURE. I think I finished it in a day, which is a VERY good sign.

Great post pepper! love the examples:-)