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?
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)?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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