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Monday, August 19, 2019

Reeling Readers in via Curiosity

A few weeks ago, I did a post on stakes, which also related to hooks. And this year, I've been talking on and off again about pulling the reader into the story by getting them to look forward to what could happen, which is often done by getting the reader to fear or to hope something may happen (and then they have to turn pages to find out if it does). But there is a third way to do this. You make the reader curious.

You make the reader feel like they need more information. You make them want more information.

But this can easily go wrong if you handle it wrong. For example, a lot of beginning writers try to shock their audience, subconsciously thinking that it will be so shocking, the readers have to keep reading. It's like when there is a car accident on the side of the road, and you don't want to see it, but you can't take your eyes off it--that mentality. So you can find a lot of unpublished stories with openings that are unnecessarily graphic, overly sexual, or over-the-top vulgar. These beginning writers are trying to reel the audience in by making them feel like they need more information or they need to see if this continues to be shocking.

It almost never works. And it can even make readers want to stop reading.

That's not to say there are never reasons to open a story with such content, but more often than not, the writer is opening that way without legitimate reasons.

Hooks are so tricky to master largely because most people don't actually understand them, therefore they don't know how to do them consciously and intentionally. And most of the advice on them is seriously lacking (in my opinion). Often when I search for advice on hooks, all I get is something like, "Come up with a line that makes the reader want to read more." Well, I know that already, that's why I know to google hooks in the first place. I want some specific ideas of how to do that, exactly. Hopefully dissecting how hope and fear over what could happen has been as helpful to you as it has been to me.

So today, I want to talk about how to actually do the third one: spark curiosity.

Because sometimes we are reeled in because we are intrigued, and we are looking forward to reading more to get more information.

So how do we create that effect exactly?

Well, here are some specifics.

Pair Contradictions

I talk a lot about utilizing contrasts and contradictions on my blog, so hopefully you guys aren't sick of it, but it's so dang effective and almost no one ever talks about it! But this is exactly one of the ways to get the audience to want to know more. It might even be the most effective.

In my story structure series, I talked about how Into the Spider-verse largely uses contrasts and contradictions as hooks in the opening of the story.

When two opposing things are smashed together, we naturally thirst for more information, an explanation.

Here is an example I made up for another post:

Mom handed me my birthday present, and my stomach dropped.

Birthdays and birthday presents are usually something to be happy and excited about. So, when the protagonist feels negatively about one, we want to know why. It seems like a contradiction.

For years, I've loved this line Dashiell Hammet wrote in The Maltese Falcon.

[Samuel Spade] looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

"Pleasant" and "Satan" seem to contradict each other. And the "blond" is just specific enough to make me more curious. So now I want to read to learn how someone can look "pleasantly" like "a blond satan." And I want to learn more about this Samuel Spade.

Contradictions and contrasts are important because they help create specificity (sometimes even in a more literal, philosophical sense than I want to get into for this blog post), and as I've talked about before, the audience needs enough specificity to become invested in the story--to want to read more. Therefore, enough specificity is important for hooks and for reeling the audience in. Contradictions and contrasts create specificity by creating a boundary. For example, Samuel Spade fits somewhere between pleasant and Satan.

The line wouldn't be half as interesting if it was less specific.

Samuel Spade looked like a satan.

Sure, that can still be interesting. And it can still work effectively if the context of how we understand him seems to already contrast that line. But the line and concept in and of itself isn't as interesting anymore.

A lot of times we think we reel the audience in by being vague, but that can actually do the opposite. We need to be specific enough. Writers sometimes try to spark a reader's curiosity by not really saying anything, hoping it will make them want to learn more so they understand. Yes, if done right, this can work well in certain places, like teasers, but being more specific with contrasts is often more effective.

Look at this approach:

Samuel Spade looked pleasant yet unusual, in a strange way. 

Even though it technically still has some contrast (pleasant vs. unusual), it's quite vague. Honestly, it doesn't really hook me. I don't feel the need to learn more.

How about this?

Samuel Spade was blond and looked pleasant. 

This has no contrast and is therefore not as interesting. I mean, you will of course write sentences like this, but when you want to hook a reader and get them invested this doesn't work.

When you pair contrasts and contradictions, the audience will want to know how and why those things go together. Just make sure to deliver on that to some extent so the reader doesn't feel like this is a cheap trick.

Stretch Just Beyond What is Known

A year ago I did a post on how to create a sense of wonder in the modern audience, which I argue is quite different than it was even one hundred years ago. Audiences today often feel wonder most powerfully when they are exposed to something just beyond their understanding, that builds off something they already understand somewhat, as opposed to something that doesn't connect to anything. So you can have whole movies that spend a ton of money on making the film and setting feel magical when the audience is yawning. Or you can have hits like The Martian or Interstellar that stretches us just beyond what we know.

A sense of wonder makes us curious. I mean, that's why it's wonder.

But this can work on a smaller scale to draw audiences in too. You just want to touch beyond what is already known. Naturally, the audience will be curious to want to know more. This can work with speculative fiction, or really, just about any kind of fiction.

In His Dark Materials, everyone has a daemon of the opposite sex. So the protagonist, a girl named Lyra, has a male daemon named Pantalaimon. Daemons are part of a person's soul that lives on the outside of their body and assumes the shape of an animal. So everyone has their daemon from birth. But at one point, we get this line:

Bernie was a kindly, solitary man, one of those rare people whose daemon was the same sex as himself.

Okay, well, that's something just beyond our established understanding of daemons. So now I'm curious to learn more about Bernie. Why is his daemon the same sex as himself? And what does that mean?

But this can happen with a more realistic story as well. You just need to brush beyond what is already known or established as normal. It can happen with setting, character, or even plot.

Peach Days happened every year faithfully, except in 1998.

Okay, well, guess what I'm wondering now? Why not in 1998? I need to read on.

Here is another.

The Big Bang theory has long been accepted by scientists, but today a star was discovered to be older than the Big Bang itself.

This was a real discovery in the news recently. So what did you think I did? I read the article.

In some ways, you could argue this is just another form of contrasting, since we are contrasting something normal or known with something unknown, but I feel that the approach here is a little different, so I think it helps to have the different categories.

Share Something Surprising

When something surprising happens, we want more information. Even if it's a surprise birthday party, after the "Surprise!" everyone wants to talk about how they got to that point. There is the person that talks about almost accidentally giving the surprise away. Or the person that talks about trying to get the birthday person out of the house. Or the birthday person recounting their suspicions. After a surprise, we want a second to take it in and understand it.

In writing, sometimes the surprise is an unexpected response, something unusual that happens, or it may even be an interesting fact or statistic.

It might be Hagrid revealing to Harry that he's a wizard and that his parents didn't die in a car crash (how can you not want more information?). It might be the old guy, the Duke of Weselton, who wants to dance with Elsa in Frozen. It might be a nice meet cute in a romance.

Sometimes it's an interesting statement.

Squirrels are behind most power outages in the U.S.

Well . . . tell me more. I'm curious.

I've never read Gone Girl, but I love its opening line:

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.

Um . . . what? Not only is that surprising, but it implies something pretty sinister.

Like all hooks, just make sure you don't use the surprise approach as a cheap trick. If anyone is interested, I have a post on surprises in general, here.

Use "Negative Description"

"Negative description" in my terms means when you describe what something is not. When someone tells us what something is not, we almost always want to know soon after what that something is. In other words, it makes us curious. It makes us want to keeping reading or listening for more information.

Tolkien does this in The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat.

Okay, well, now I'm wondering what kind of hole it is.

Sometimes this is something simple:

Jessica wasn't like other girls her age.

Why not? And how not?

Just make sure you almost always follow up with what that something is, and it almost always needs to be interesting.

Jessica wasn't like other girls her age. The only craft she liked doing was taxidermy.

 Tell me more.

Make a Bold Statement

Bold statements sort of relate to surprises. When someone says something bold, we need more information.

Every man in Toonesbrook was a liar.

Or what about from The Raven Boys:

If Blue was to kiss her true love, he would die. 

That one also plays off the idea of fear.


I've never liked chocolate. 

Now that is bold. ;)

To be bold, often the statement is unusual or broad-sweeping. "I never liked chocolate," that's unusual. "Every man in Toonesbrook was a liar," that's far reaching. Something that goes against a generally accepted belief or experience is bold.

Employ Non-linear Timelines

Some people may consider this a no-no. After all, we are taught so much to stay in the present. But sometimes jumping around in time briefly, makes us want to know more. We want to know more about how one point in time connected to another. Or we want to know what happened in between.

When I met Sam Bywater, I was unimpressed, but that encounter would go on to haunt me for ten years. 


Peach Days happened faithfully every year, except last, but this year they had better security.


I wasn't excited about another boring dentist appointment, but looking back, I'd rather I'd gone and gotten my teeth cleaned--at least then I would have been safe.

Subtext can also be key to writing great hooks and/or reeling audiences in. The second example in this sections suggests something bad happened last year that led to needing more security. "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head" suggests the possibility of murder. So lines like that can make us want to learn more.

In some ways, you can argue that sparking curiosity is just another way we are getting the audience to hope for something. We are getting them to hope for more information. But still, I think it's a little different. When I talked about hope and fear before, I mainly talked about it in relation to the actual story. In these kinds of lines, that may not be the case. Your book may have almost nothing to do with Peach Days, for example. But the line still reels readers in.

Keep in mind that with all hooks, you don't want to throw them everywhere as a cheap trick. You still need to deliver on them most of the time (some would say you need to do it all the time, but I'd argue that point. That's another subject though.). And curiosity hooks alone will only keep an audience for so long, sort of like how a teaser can only sustain an audience for a few pages tops. There needs to be more. Nonetheless, they are an excellent way to draw your readers in.


  1. Thanks for the list of hook strategies. I've read articles on the subject before, but your post gave me some concrete examples to work with.


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