This article is by Craig W. Van Sickle & Steven Long Mitchell.
While novels, graphic novels, television or motion picture scripts each present writers with different formats, narrative challenges and audience expectations, they all have one very simple commonality at their heart: telling a great story that hooks, pulls in and holds its consumer.
Simple, right? Well, as they say in novel writing circles, if writing were easy, everyone would be Stephen King.
Truth is, no matter what medium, defining and learning how to hook your audience can actually be very simple if we just break down the elements of storytelling into small, manageable segments.
One nifty little visual that always helps us as we begin to create and construct a story is that we imagine we are sitting around a campfire with family and friends. We’ve found this visual immediately opens up our imaginations to the very roots of storytelling itself and challenges us as storytellers to create surprises and hooks that will keep an audience on the edge of their logs and into the story long after that campfire burns out.
Building Your Story Fire One Log At A Time
So what’s first? Well, the first tool a writer has at their fingertips to hook their audience seems obvious: your story’s title, right? Using a very black and white example, would you rather read a dystopian epic with the title Journey Into Blue Skies or one called Death Trek Into Darkness? One clearly implies conflict, the other doesn’t.
Two recent immensely popular works illustrate great titles: Hunger Games, which in two words implies danger, competition and survival; and Twilight, which plants a seed about the onset of darkness and in the case of vampires, brings the audience to the cusp of the deadliest time of day. Both titles evoke feelings inside the audience’s imagination and at the end of the day, that is what great storytelling does.
With our franchise, The Pretender, we strove to create a title that tapped first and foremost into our hero; it’s a word that on one hand is childlike, an important aspect of our man/child hero, Jarod, while on the other implies a variety of feelings like trickery, deceit, lies and deception. It’s also relatable in that we all played pretend as children, (and fortunately we as writers are still allowed to, thank you) so in every way it’s a title that piques the imagination of our audience to have a feeling from it and want to know more.
You get the point, your title is your first hook – it intrigues, teases possibilities, instantly opens up your audience’s imagination to your story’s dramatic possibilities.
What’s your first line, or in the case of TV, film or graphic novels, your first image? It’s your next hook, right? These first words must instantly build on the possibilities your title has just promised. Does it pull your audience into a world they have to know more about, see more of? Does it instantly enlighten them as to what a character’s dilemma is and make them want to see that character succeed or fail? Does it pull them into a character’s head and make them want to know more about that character? And most basic of all, does it make them want to read the next line and the next and the next, etc.?
Hooks – The Bigger Picture
One of the very first lines in the pilot episode of The Pretender was a four-year-old Jarod looking at the camera and asking – ‘Where are my mom and dad?’ From page one it raises many intriguing questions, not the least of which was who is this boy and why doesn’t he know where his parents are? In a very human, very relatable way it also served to tell the viewer exactly what Jarod’s overarching goal is – to find his parents.
By now you’re surely seeing a pattern: title; first line builds upon that; then a line at a time to a paragraph that ends with a tease or hook into the next; and finally a string of paragraphs that build your chapter, which too must end in a way that makes the reader start the next chapter and has promised them something they care about enough to want to stay in your world.
It’s basic, sure, but many times we fall so in love with our wandering, colorful and poetic writing that we forget this very basic notion: that good writing is really just building blocks with words, sentences, paragraphs and chapter. Or as one of our mentors, the great Stephen J. Cannell, was fond of saying about good writing – “That writer sure can slap a noun up against a verb.” Basic, but so true.
Surprise – You’ve Got ‘Em Hooked!
Last, the true lifeblood of the hook is that of surprise. Great stories are full of surprises; that is, a writer’s choices that you don’t see coming, the ones that plant a cliché in fresh soil, that astonish us and fuel our reading/viewing appetites to want more.
We used this technique in The Pretender television pilot script, which we wrote spec and was such a page-turner later sold in one day, as well as with The Pretender series of novels. Our personal mandate before we wrote word one was to make sure every page, every scene ender, every act break, every chapter left the audience with a hook. Nowhere is it more important as it is in television script writing to structure hooks at the end of act breaks. And yes, it is because of all the reasons cited in this blog to be sure, but mainly because it is what leads into a network’s commercial break – that scary segment of time where there is risk your audience will leave you if you don’t give them something great to come back for.
Some years later, the head of the network pulled us aside and showed us The Pretender pilot’s audience testing results. At every single act break, our audience numbers went up, ending with the very last image of the pilot, giving us the highest testing series pilot since Bonanza. He even had it framed in his office, so that might tell you that publishers, networks and most of all, your audience, do notice story hooks.
And isn’t being hooked what we all want, not only as readers, but as writers trying to build a career portfolio of great stories a dedicated audience will constantly come back for more of?
Pssssst – perhaps for our next Mythic Scribes blog, should they be open to inviting us back, we will share with you all the secrets of how to guarantee your writing will make you millions in Hollywood.
Now how’s that for a hook?
For Further Thought
What other great titles can you think of that have built-in hooks and have inspired your own appetite for reading and writing?
In what other ways besides character can your hooks inform your world and foreshadow action?
Think about and share your favorite hooks from literature, television and feature films and share what it is about those hooks that kept you engaged?
About the Authors:
Steven Long Mitchell and Craig W. Van Sickle have have created numerous television series, most notably, NBC’s The Pretender. The first in The Pretender series of novels, Rebirth, was released in 2013. The second novel in the series, Saving Luke, is coming soon.