Monday, June 13, 2016

Double Jeopardy: Hooking the Reader's Brains and Heart

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

During a panel at World Fantasy a number of years back, Grand dame author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro hit the nail on the head when she said:

There are two hooks that need to be felt for the reader to really buy into the story. The intellectual hook, and the emotional hook.

She went on to explain (I'm paraphrasing here) that the intellectual hook is the plot stuff. The things we want to know because an interesting question has been raised (story questions). The emotional hook is the stuff we need to know because we've become emotionally invested in the characters and what to see how their problem turns out.

If these two things aren't in the first fifth of the novel, then odds are it won't hold on to the reader. They might keep reading because one or the other is compelling enough in their own right, but they won't be thinking about the book long after they've finished it--or talking about it with everyone they know.

It's a great summary of the difference between a good book and a great book. It could even be the elusive "something" that would take a novel from "I just didn't connect enough with it" to "Yes, I want to buy/represent/publish this"

Books that wow have both heart and soul, intelligent puzzles and emotional connections. Readers care deeply about the characters and have to know how their problems turn out. A great example here is Peak by Roland Smith, the story of a 14-year-old boy who gets into trouble for climbing skyscrapers and is sent to live with his father, the world's best mountaineer--who happens to be about to launch an expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest. Kids climbing Everest! How can you not be hooked by that?

Besides a fantastic intellectual hook--does he make it to the summit? It has a great emotional hook--what will it cost him to reach the summit? Will this climb fix the many problems he has inches life that are creating his reckless behavior?

(Here's more on asking the right story questions in your novel)

Another great example is the movie, Mama. This is a movie that keeps you guessing, wondering, questioning everything you see, but also makes you care about the characters--including the antagonist--and even better, question what you care about, because it's so...unusual.

(Here's more on why every writer should watch Mama)

My fantasy novel Blue Fire gave me problems in the first few drafts (there were five before I got it right) because the emotional hook just wasn't there. Nya's problems were interesting enough, but readers could have easily set the book down and come back later because that emotional hook was missing. Many of my revision passes went into developing the emotional hook so readers needed to know what happened with Nya and how she solved her problems.

Two Sides of the Plot Coin

From a plotting standpoint, two hooks driving the narrative offers double the opportunity for strong storytelling that appeals to a variety of readers. If one hook isn't pulling readers in, the other can take up the slack. We can even play them against each other to heighten tensions and flesh out the charger arcs. Add in the inner and outer conflicts (which will no doubt be connected to the hooks) and suddenly there's a lot to choose from to create the plot.

We can drawn on the emotional hooks when we want to deepen the emotions, and crank up the intellectual hooks when we want to bring out the mystery. For the really big turning points, we can hit readers with both for the most impact.

Intellectual hooks are the easier hook--a great story question, a neat twist, a fascinating premise. Interesting concepts readers haven't seen before (or haven't seen in this way before) that keeps them on their toes and guessing what will happen next. This hook is plot related, since figuring out the puzzle is an intellectual activity.

(Here's more on plotting with hooks and story questions)

Emotional hooks are the tougher of the two, especially in plot-driven stories. In order to evoke the right level of emotion, readers need to care about the protagonist. A good place to start here is with a universal theme--a child in trouble, a lost love, grief, etc. Things that everyone can relate to and emphasize with. Then work in a unique twist that fits the story and balances out the intellectual hook of the tale.

(Here's more on creating likable characters)

Chances are, the intellectual hook will be connected to the external conflict, and the emotional hook will be connected to the internal conflict. Depending on the story, (plot driven or character driven) we might be developing one over the other, since we tend to focus on plot in a plot-driven story and character in a character-driven story. Whichever type of story (plot or character), look for ways to develop the other side into something as strong as the main narrative. A thriller with characters we love will only be more thrilling. A literary journey that keeps us guessing will only suck us in more.

Using Both Sides in Our Writing

The emotional and intellectual hooks work in tandem with the character arc and the plot arc to craft a strong novel. They're like the conceptual foundations for those arcs really, providing the plot puzzle and the growth arc that gives that puzzle greater meaning.

To test your own story, look at your novel and ask:
  • What puzzle will make readers curious to see solved?
  • What concept or situation will make readers consider the various meanings and options of the story?
  • Are there questions raised all throughout the story?
  • What will make readers care about the characters and the story itself?
  • What (or who) will readers relate to?
  • What emotion will resonate with readers during (and after) the story?
Great novels make us care about what's going on with both the characters and what they do. Some sides might be stronger depending on the type of book, but the more we can pique curiosity and tug at heartstrings, the better our chances of crafting a novel that resonates with readers long after they've finished the book.

Does your novel have both hooks? Which is stronger? Can you think of any examples of stories that do both of these hooks particularly well (odds are they're your favorites)?

Find out more about conflict and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I am in so in love with your blog! Sorry, had to have a squeal moment there.

    This is an excellent post and so true. I think one of the biggest problems (for me anyways) is that I care so frigging much about my characters that its hard for me to tell if the emotional hook is really there or if its just me...

    I guess we shall find out when the time comes to senf it off to friends and family...

    I will try to keep it in the forefront of my mind though. Thanks.

  2. I have to agree with Michelle. Love this blog. Always full of amazing information.

    I have the problem of feeling the emotional hook in my mind, but not always putting it into the story since I worked so hard on the intellectual hook portion. I'm really working at how to weave in internal conflict in my stories.

  3. Thanks guys! Knowing it's helpful makes it all worthwhile. That's a good point about knowing it in our heads but not sure about it being on the page. That's a good thing to keep in mind no matter what part you're working on. ( I sense another post coming? I think I do. Thanks!)

  4. I like this naming of the external and internal conflicts -- intellectual and emotional hooks. This stuff is not always easy to wrap one's head around so the more explanation, the better. Another great and helpful post. Thanks Janice.

  5. I haven't been able to find the answer on any of your posts. So, sorry if this is a repeat. But how many books did you write before you got your first published?

  6. It was so fun to find you in the First Impressions column in WD! Congrats!!!!

  7. K.M., The Shifter is the fourth novel I wrote with the intent to sell. I wrote dozens more while learning, from sixth grade through college, but I Knew those were just for fun and practice.

    Thanks, Caroline! It was fun for me too :)

  8. Excellent advice here. I think you've set a good guideline for how much time a writer has to really grab the reader, too.

  9. Ha! Now I know what's wrong with my draft - what is in my head isn't on the page.

    Thank you as always Janice :)

  10. Paul: Thanks! It's a lot less time than you'd think. But it makes sense when you think how much time you give a book you buy and read.

    Sarah: Glad I could help :)