Monday Motivation: Sink your hooks into your reader – fast
I’ve spoken before about the implicit contract a writer strikes with her reader – a contract that includes such clauses as: I promise to tell a full story, paying proper attention to my characters’ various motivations; I promise not to confuse and discombobulate my reader with clumsy sentences and incomprehensible references; and I promise to resolve the story before the end.
Peter Selgin in his book, Your First Page, points out that within the first few paragraphs of your story, if not your first page, you must contrive to establish some sort of bond between your protagonist and your reader.
He says it works very much like the first encounter between people. Meet someone on the road who asks for directions to the nearest hotel, and you’ll establish a tenuous bond with that person while you speak. If another person holds out a tin mug at you and rattles the coins within it, you might choose to walk on, making no contact at all with the beggar. No bond forms. If, by contrast, you fall into a conversation with a stranger in the seat next to you on a long plane journey, you could end up exchanging telephone numbers – and, in time, quite possibly, vows of eternal fidelity*.
Clearly, you’d prefer your reader to form bonds with your book, and the characters therein, that last at least until the end of the volume.
But since no one is compelling a reader to read your book (unless it’s a school or university text book they’re obliged to read), the only reason they’ll persist beyond those first few paragraphs are the hooks you sink into their imagination.
And those hooks are?
Well, an attractive and compelling character is one such hook.
A vibrant and intriguing “voice” is another.
An immediate and overwhelming question established in the opening pages of your story will have your reader (even if he’s irritated) reading on to find the answer. **
But perhaps most importantly, we need to feel an emotional connection with the protagonist and/or the story. It has to resonate with us. It has to speak to us. It has to matter.
The tightest bonds we form with other people are emotional. And these can be both with those we love and those we hate. Love speaks for itself, I imagine, but hate? Think about it. The emotional charge of those moments in which a long standing quarrel or feud begins can linger for years, for decades.
But, of course, writing is never simple, and what you need to do in order thoroughly to engage your readers requires work on a wide number of fronts. Let me end with a quote from Selgin’s book, which lays out in all its complexity the many challenges we face, from the first page of our story to the last:
“Establishing viewpoint, controlling diction, grounding readers in setting, action, and scene, pinpointing the inciting incident of a story, engaging and perpetuating plot, setting-up and paying-off moments, knowing when to obey and when to flout conventions, differentiating between events and routine, descriptions and opinions, conclusions and the evidence from which they are drawn, between authenticity and clichés, between style and mannerisms – all these things matter. And they matter starting from the first page of a book or a story.”***
* My father proposed marriage to my mother just eighteen hours after they met, not on a plane, but at a party.
** I’ve just started reading The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. I found the short opening chapters just that: irritating. The protagonist is observing her neighbours through the telephoto lens of a camera. I didn’t like the fact that her spying seems unmotivated, her attitude mordantly frivolous. But a bond was created by my curiosity: what was she up to and why? So I read on, and within a few more chapters was completely captivated by my sympathy for her predicament, and the elegance and economy of the writing.
*** All these topics, as it happens, are covered in our Creative Writing Course, both online and face-to-face.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: What characters want‘
Guide to Creative Screenwriting: 15 March – 17 May
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