The fable of the hook

Readers seeking excitement prefer a story starting with the main character fleeing down a dark alley, reeling from an initial enemy strike, or near the edge of Niagara Falls. This immediate danger creates an adrenaline rush. Even if the reader knows nothing about the character, they will have time to get to know the protagonist later. If they are not stopped cold by one of the many pitfalls of a dramatic beginning.

The exciting beginning is a promise of continuing drama. If the situation turns out to be a false alarm such as a dream, or a computer simulated war exercise or a simply-solved hoax, the readers will feel cheated. I know I do. Generally, I never read a book by that author again unless there is an excellent reason for that deception on which the rest of the story depends. 

If the danger is real and recedes too quickly  I will wonder what kind of too perfect protagonist I have just encountered. On the other hand, if solving the problem is put off by shifting back to a prior time to introduce the character, I am tempted to skip the intervening backstory. I will skim ahead until I find how this character is going to escape such a deadly dilemma. If it is more than a few chapters later, I must truly be invested in the character to not give up and stop reading. But, often my patience is running thin from an overflow of backstory.

If readers want mystery, a dead body in the first page should keep their attention. Won’t they continue until the end to find out who did it? Not necessarily. I recall reading a few mysteries in which one death kept the investigation going. The suspects were introduced, and clues unfolded so that the thrill continued at a reasonable pace. However, I’ve heard mystery writers say that when the pace starts dragging in the middle it is time to drop another body. Whenever I find a clumsy mystery in which the author waits until the end to reveal the entire story, I just skip to the ending. If the investigators require a number of bodies before they figure out what I already know, there is no need to skip to the ending, or to continue reading.

Often having a likable or sympathetic character should hook the reader. But sad tales to get me to take the side of the protagonist leave me feeling as if I missed something when problems dissipate into thin air. Sometimes the solution is so easy because the character had a secret ability that the author simply wasn’t letting me know.

I may stay longer in a novel that does exactly what authors are told not to do. Describe the weather, the scenery, or the city around the main character. In those cases I am still hoping to have some action happen. But, I am willing to go through some nicely written world building, even if I am not reading a science fiction or fantasy story. I don’t even mind a brief history of the past before the main characters appear on the scene. But, the main character is still under pressure to be involved in a conflict that draws me in. I expect the drama to continue to build up from that point.

How do surefire hooks backfire? The scene that instantly grabs the reader only works if the book continues to engage the reader. The beginning should lead into events in the book and not be a detached incident that is only there to grab the reader’s attention. The existence of a hook so strong that it will compel the reader to finish the book is nothing more than a fable.

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