I’m going to think about this question as pertaining to my writing journey because I think we all have plenty of Ah-ha! moments in our lives that it would be difficult to talk about just one in particular as being the biggest.
When I first sat down to get serious about my writing, I made all the mistakes every newbie makes: no understanding of point-of-view, lack of consistency in tense, white-walling, stilted dialogue, as-you-know situations, purposeless prose, rambling scenes, tangents galore, zero conflict/tension, inability to differentiate character voices, etc., etc.,
Some of these mistakes are naturally solved merely by the writing of the stories. For instance, you cringe when you read your dialogue out loud, you can’t imagine the world when reading back the scene, your head-hopping becomes confusing even to yourself. However, one problem in particular kept eluding me because I couldn’t understand it: Hooking.
A hook, like in fishing, is that barbed piece that claws into the reader and doesn’t let go. It makes sure the reader turns the page, scrolls down, doesn’t get distracted. And for a long time I thought ‘hook’ was synonymous with ‘interesting.’
You might be thinking, “but shouldn’t a hook be interesting? Wouldn’t I want the story I’m about to read be interesting? Why wouldn’t I keep reading if the story isn’t interesting?” And those are all the questions that I harbored that made me continue to not comprehend hooking for an obscene amount of time.
I would write stories with intriguing beginnings, interesting settings, characters with unique voices and all the while I racked up rejection after rejection after rejection where the editors and first readers didn’t look past my opening paragraphs. It was killer.
Then one day, one random day, I stumbled on a slush reader’s blog where the reader talked about their first foray into first reading. They talked long about a story that ultimately was pretty good, however, it took six pages to get to the moment when the door opened and a monster stepped in. For that first six pages prior to the monster, the author discussed characters, setting, historical details from days prior. The first reader went on to say that had they read that story later, they never would have gotten off the first two pages. It would have been a flat rejection and they never would have known that there’d been a good story buried on page six.
That was my first huge clue.
The second came from a book I read. A murder mystery that I began to read AND SET DOWN because it wasn’t keeping my interest. I had read through a good 8-10 pages at that point and just couldn’t take it anymore.
Six months later, I picked that exact same book back up and this time pushed through that first chapter to the end…where the character found a dead body. And then we were off! And the novel became one of my favorites by the author. But for six months I didn’t touch the book. I may never have gone back to it. May have never known it was any good.
And that’s when it finally hit me square in the face. What put the body on page one truly meant.
Hooking primarily is conflict. It’s a problem that must be solved in some way. It’s not interesting words, characters, setting, etc., It’s merely a problem, an issue that now needs to be faced. Ergo, put the body on page one. If you’re not writing a murder mystery, it’s the same thing, just not a literal body. That first page has to have some sort of problem, some sort of issue, that forces tension into every word thereafter, manipulating the reader (in a good way) to keep turning pages to discover all about your interesting characters, setting, and prose.
Readers won’t ever get there if you don’t give them that conflict, that hook, to care about.