How To Hook Your Audience

This article is by Craig W. Van Sickle & Steven Long Mitchell.

the-pretenderWhile 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.

Connect with Steven Long Mitchell: Blog / Facebook / Twitter
Connect with Craig W Van Sickle: Blog / Facebook / Twitter
Rebirth: Amazon / Amazon UK / Smashwords / Barnes &Noble

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Susan
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Susan

Great post! And I loved “The Pretender”, it was a fantastic show and we never missed an episode. So many enduring images, Jarod sitting on the church roof, the creepy concrete bunker, and the absolutely horrible Mr Raines with his creaking oxygen cylinder pulled along behind him. Hope I have that name right there, it’s been a while.

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

Thank you Susan. Check out our web site for more Pretender info and keep writing!

P.H.
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P.H.

Nice, I framed it and put it on the wall!

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

You’re so sweet, thank you.

KC Trae Becker
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KC Trae Becker

This post was well written, thank you. I’d love to see a few more examples of good and bad hooks to help me get a firmer grasp on what makes a good one.

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

Thank you. Think of hooks as a message a friend leaves on your cell phone. One says, I’m having a terrible day, I need a hug. The other says, You won’t believe what my husband just told me.

Which one of these calls will you return first?

Joe
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Joe

I don’t know what it was about the Twilight series, but it sure kept my girlfriend hooked.

I had a good friend that was hooked by the Lord of the Rings movies too.

Lorinda J. Taylor
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Lorinda J. Taylor

I have no idea how I write – I simply get an idea, work things out in my head, and start hitting the keyboard. I think I come up with good titles and hooks, however. Some of my titles are better than others. The Termite Queen isn’t particularly compelling, but it fits the book perfectly – I can’t imagine using any other title. Some of my other titles are much catchier – Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder, The Storm-Wing, Beneath the Mountain of Heavy Fear. As for openings, The Termite Queen is interesting in that the second chapter was originally my first. I wasn’t satisfied with how it started and I realized I should open with the second chapter, in which we are presented with the suffering of the alien intelligent termite as it is dying as a captive of Earthers. It’s a short, moving piece, and personally I don’t see how anybody can resist it! LOL

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

Would love to read it, sounds like a great hook to me. I’m there

Lorinda J. Taylor
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Lorinda J. Taylor

Would love for you to read it! You can find buying links in the sidebar of my blog which is cited at the end of the post.

Mike
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Mike

I thought the initial hook in Lost was very impressive and kept me captivated the entire time. Without the proper hook I tend to drift away and never come back.

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

Hooks, hook.

jadedsidhe
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jadedsidhe

One of the See Also links was about Lost. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I lost interest in the series early on (It was a little too Twin Peaks for my taste). As important as hooks are, even the best hook in the world can’t keep an audience if there isn’t a payoff. 

How does one find the right balance the tidbits of information and the hooks?

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

So right. The hook is the treasure map, but there sure as hell better be a treasure!

DaniMay
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DaniMay

I have such a problem with hooks. I think I’m getting better at them, but before I was “explaining” too much. Eventually, I got better at omitting unnecessary parts to get to that hook right away.  Great tips on the title as well. Something you assume would be the easiest part of the story, is actually one you need to put a lot of thought into to be able to catch the attention you want!

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

Less is more. Tell them the part that begs more questions. You’ll get it.

Jess
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Jess

Awesome! I loved this article, full of great tips to really enhance your writing and craft that important HOOK to really get readers into your work. Catching the readers’ attention is such an important skill to attain, especially to newbies who are just starting out in the industry. Thanks for posting!

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

Like anything, the more you do it the better you’ll become. Thanks.

Annie Marie Peters
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Annie Marie Peters

Great tips!  I really like the campfire idea.  It’s funny how sometimes as writers getting the first line can be the hardest part.  Thanks for sharing your tried and true process from your experience with writing The Prefender.  Very helpful.

Craig Van Sickle
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Craig Van Sickle

You’re most welcome.

Tony Dragani
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Tony Dragani

The ending sequence of the latest Doctor Who Christmas special had a pretty effective hook. After regenerating into Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor asked Clara how to fly the TARDIS. This left Clara – and the audience – with a burning question: how much does the new Doctor remember? Many viewers will tune in this fall for the answer.

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