As readers, we’re each a little different, searching for a unique set of dynamics that creates our perfect read. That said, there are common factors that tend to hook us and pull us deep into a story, and it’s a subject I find fascinating. Today, I’m taking a look at some of those elements that reel us readers in and hold us fast within the pages of a book.
Questions, questions, questions
When a story makes us ask, “What’s going on here? How did that happen? Where on earth did he come from? When will it all end?” or any variety of compelling question, we are hooked. We must read on to get our questions answered. We love a story that piques our curiosity and carries us along on a wave of questions, supplying the answers just ahead of our frustration threshold.
In your own life, doesn’t it just drive you buggy when you ask a burning question and the person with the answer strings you along, making you wait for it, forcing you to beg? When this happens in a book, we’ll keep turning pages to find out what happens next.
Let’s take a look at some examples
Tomiko M. Breland opens a scene in her story, Rosalee Carrasco, with this sentence: “Tomorrow, Charlotte will stay home from school, where she will lock herself in her bathroom and scrape under her fingernails with a toothpick, and then a metal nail file, and then a little Swiss Army knife.”
Questions, anyone? I encounter a sentence like that, and I’m reading on to find out what the scoop is. Here’s another one:
“On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria.” This one is from John LeCarre’s Absolute Friends. And doesn’t it raise a crop of questions that would keep you reading to find out?
One more, from my own book, Nocturne In Ashes: “Topper worked in the dark. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t go near the crater of an active volcano at night.”
I want my readers to be wondering what he’s doing at the top of an active volcano in the middle of the night and what makes it so urgent that it can’t wait until morning? As they read into the next paragraph to get the answers, I thread in more questions, deepening the intrigue and keeping them moving forward.
Questions create a tantalizing hook, reeling us in page after page.
Danger, and more danger
Another hook that most of us find almost irresistible is danger. How can we put the book down when peril is imminent?
Remember that enchanting flavor of risk we enjoyed as kids playing Kick The Can or Capture The Flag? That keen sense of suspense darting around the edge of being caught? We were able to relish the perks without the perils because we understood the danger was imaginary. It was just a game.
Reading fiction shares some aspects of that childhood play. We’re enticed by the scent of danger in our stories, enjoying it from the safety of our beds or beach chairs. It can feel very real as we’re reading it, sunk deep in the passages of a compelling book, but we savor it all the more because we’re in a protected environment. Safe.
Here are a few examples
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez.
We read an opening like that, and we feel the tension. Also relief that we’re not in the line of fire and curiosity about how the Colonel came to be there. We read on.
“The last camel collapsed at noon.” The Key To Rebecca, by Ken Follett
There’s a lot of peril packed into those six little words. They immediately convey a sense of setting—scorching hot, desperately dry, and deadly. We must continue reading to find out what’s going on and how it will turn out.
This last example is another from my thriller, Nocturne In Ashes, and occurs at the end of a scene late in the book. Because there is an unknown killer among a group of trapped neighbors, it carries an imminent threat:
“Oh hell,” he said. “One of my knives is missing.”
To paraphrase Chekov, if you put a gun in the story, it’s got to go off at some point. And if a knife goes missing in a killer thriller, it’s bound to turn up later in someone’s back. You’ve got to keep on reading to find out whose, how, and what happens next.
Nothing gets our attention like a surprise. Throw us a curve ball, and we’ll turn the page to find out how it bounces. We’re enticed by hints that all is not as it appears, little clues that something unexpected lies around the corner. And like a kid at a magic show, we’ll eagerly attend and trust that amazement will follow.
When it does, we’re hooked.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.”
This opening line from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is one of the best-known surprise hooks in all literature. Who can stop reading after that?
“The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.” Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
There’s a nice twist that sets up an intriguing situation. This next example is from my short story, Tickling The Tiger, which deals with the smallpox epidemic in Bangladesh.
“’Smallpox did not kill him, Dr. Mason.’ Jana’s dark eyes nearly swallowed her face and the flicker which danced within them grew still and solemn. ‘He was smitten by a pillar of fire.’”
Nothing more than feelings
We read for a lot of reasons, but in the end, what we want most from our fiction is to feel something, to be stirred. Grab our emotions, and we’ll keep reading.
Ideally, we’ll not only experience some of what the character is going through, but we’ll embark on our own emotional journey that can teach us something about ourselves or help us solve a dilemma in our life situation. An emotional hook is a powerful incentive to keep us reading.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Reading this, we can feel Humbert Humbert’s helpless despair in the face of his obsession and maybe relate it to our own dark passions, learning empathy or strengthening resolve.
“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
This description of fiery determination sets off a spark, perhaps reminding us of a time in our lives when we felt such an aching desire to achieve something meaningful.
“When the breeze whistles through green leaves at a certain pitch or the crumbling smell of damp earth permeates the air, I remember the day I helped murder an innocent girl. Days like that, my part in fulfilling a gypsy’s curse and perpetuating a legend of blood and violence sits on me like a heavy sweat. The hell of it is, I don’t even count hers as the first death on my score sheet, but I’d roll naked through a bed of razor-fisted Dungeness to make sure it’s the last.” A Touch of Native Color, Joslyn Chase
Regret for past mistakes—who hasn’t been haunted by such sorrows? Will George find redemption? We’ve got to continue reading, and hoping, to find out.
Hooked, and loving it
When it comes to reading a book, a hook is a welcome feature. We want to be caught and reeled in, held captive by an enthralling story. It’s one of the great joys of reading, to be held in such a grip. I wish it for all readers everywhere—get hooked and have a ball!
How about you? What keeps you reading? Did you recognize yourself in any of these hooks? Tell us about it in the comments.