Hooks by S.B.K. Burns
Over a year ago, I was experimenting with setting up a blog site on which I could quickly review some of my favorite authors and reads.
The more I learned about critiquing and editing my own work, the more difficult it was for me to buy into novels, especially when their first chapter hooks left me cold.
Recently, a fellow writer from my creative writing group gave me an article with the news about how Amazon was going to change its strategy for paying authors. Just because authors priced their novels low enough, to get the books in the hands of readers, didn’t mean a particular author was any good as a storyteller. So Amazon decided they would pay the author based on how much of their book the reader actually read, and not how many copies of the book were downloaded.
The article specifically ended with, “. . . per-page payouts is a system that rewards cliffhangers and mysteries.”
Our San Diego Chapter of Romance Writers of America has held monthly workshops (http://www.rwasd.com/chapterMeetings.html) that many times touch on the value of hooks in storytelling. Hooks aren’t a great mystery. The cover of our books are the first hook (a talented cover artist, though sometimes costly, knows what works). And it costs nothing to make dramatic the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, and the first scene of our stories.
If you aren’t sure what works, there is a great book written with screenplays in mind called, “Writing for Emotional Impact,” by Karl Iglesias. Another book specifically on the topic of hooks is “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. Or just spend some time taking notes and watching your favorite movies, how they hook the audience around every corner.
An example, following the first paragraph of a possible prologue for my work in progress (WIP) Flat Spin:
 Anthony Harbough Wilsoner, president of the United States of North America put the headset, his Secret Service man handed him, over his ears.  The external noise canceling ear guards caught a few hairs from the sides of his head, most probably those that had turned gray during his administration.  How long did they expect him to pretend his wife was in this secret medical facility for a devastatingly quick onset of Alzheimer’s and not what she was really there for?
If you had to select from one of the first three sentences, which one, taken as is, would make the most compelling hook? If you said that you were mostly engaged emotionally when you discovered something had happened to the first lady, it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, and some group of people had something over the president, forcing him to lie to the public about it—you’d be right in selecting number 3.
Before a scene ends, try to start some kind of compelling action, then make the reader wait a scene or until the beginning of the next chapter for the conclusion. That’s the cliffhanger referred to. Some authors put a cliffhanger at the end of their novels so the reader will want to buy the sequel. This technique usually backfires because it sometimes refuses to the reader a satisfying ending.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any further questions you might have about hooks.
Susan (S.B.K. Burns)