Friday, November 04, 2011

You Had Me at Chapter One: Different Ways to Hook Your Reader

No, this isn't really us
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When the weather gets cold, the hubby and I have a tradition. We throw the logs in the fireplace, snuggle up in front of the fire, and read. It got cold early this year, so we spent the last several days in book mode. I read three very different books that all had one thing in common.

They each made me want to keep reading.

What I particularly noticed, was that they each did it in different ways.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan was quiet and character driven. If I were to write a pitch for this book, I’d say it’s about two guys named Will Grayson who have a chance encounter that profoundly changes both their lives. I can’t give you a core conflict plot-driving issue because there really wasn’t one. This was character journey all the way.

But boy what characters. They were endearing. Deeply flawed, but deeply worth saving. Incredible voices. I wanted to hear their stories, share their lives. Never once did I feel “when will this get to a point?” because it was obvious from the start that the point was the story of these two guys and what happened when they accidentally meet.

Green and Levithan did two things I felt were sheer genius from a storytelling standpoint. One was to balance the two POVs with a character so utterly opposite to them. Tiny Cooper is the light to their dark, the hope to their pessimism, the over the top to their under the radar. A story that could have gone so dark and hopeless was kept bright by how this guy connects to the two Will Graysons. He’s the linchpin of the story.

The second thing is an event (a musical Tiny puts on) that provides a framework for the story. It’s not the core conflict, but it is the event that keeps the book moving forward. It’s the skeleton the story is built around, and it gives it the strength to stand.

If you’re writing a quiet, character journey novel, read this and see how two masters did it.

The second book was the complete opposite. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare was all about the plot. My pitch for this one: A girl with blocked supernatural powers gets pulled into a secret war after her mother is kidnapped, and must help find a legendary cup to save them all. There’s character stuff going on of course, but the plot and whether or not the protag gets the MacGuffin (the general term for an item that everyone in a story is trying to find for whatever reason) is what’s driving this one.

There’s a strong core conflict between the forces of good and evil, a clear bad guy with a clear plan, and lots of steps along the way to get you from “oh wow, there’s a problem and a world I never knew about” to “give me that MacGuffin you evil bad guy or else.” The hunt is the point, even though other things happen as well.

This plot and the need to know what happened next is what kept me reading. Twists and turns and reveals and secrets, all layered upon each other in interesting ways. I wanted to know how this problem was solved.

If you’re writing a plot-driven or plot-strong novel, this is great example to read.

The third book is a combination of the two. Hourglass by Myra McEntire has a plot, a core conflict, yet a strong character journey aspect. My pitch: A girl who sees “ghost” discovers her power isn’t what she thinks it is when she’s asked to use her gift to help prevent a murder than never should have happened.

What I found interesting about this one is the core conflict is trying to prevent this already-happened murder (yes, it’s a time travel story). But this part of the book doesn’t show up until way later in the story. The bulk of the tale is about the protag discovering what her visions really are, her relationship with the guy hired to help her (and who wants her to help him), and why they can’t be together even though they oh-so-want-to.

The need to know why kept me reading. Ordinarily, a book like this would have had me skimming, wanting them to get to the point about the murder. But it didn’t. What the ghosts really were and what the deal was between the two characters was compelling enough to pique my curiosity, even when McEntire quickly answered a lot of my questions. But she also dangled just enough carrots to keep me moving.

The characters have a journey, and you want to go with them on that journey. But that journey also ends with a major plot point and core conflict that has been driving the story from the start. Just in a very subtle way. The protag spends a good deal of the book getting ready emotionally to deal with the plot aspect of it. And that character growth is critical to the plot.

If you’re writing a quiet character journey that surrounds a plot event, this is a great example to check out.

There are many ways to hook your reader and keep them reading. I focus on plot a lot because, well, I write plot-heavy novels, but that isn’t the only way to do it. The most important thing is to make your reader want to turn the page. How you do that is up to you.

Are you more character driven or plot driven? Are your stories more about the journey or the problems? How often do you mix?


  1. Mmmm. Like this post a lot, Janet. It's getting me thinking. And it gives me more titles to put on my "to-read" shelf on GoodReads. :) I have come to read almost exclusively plot driven novels the past few years. Much of that is because I want escapism, and the character-driven ones seemed to have the protag going throughout their mundane, stressful life emoting, making destructive choices and then finding a light.

    Bah! Too pessimistic. I like when an outside force makes the character sit-up, act out, dig deep and move those feet! I have to have the characters well-developed. But if thats all there is...not fulfilling to me.

    And that's what my writing style has become: Plot-driven, heavily spiced with action with some great characters on the side, please.

  2. I guess Amelia and I couldn't be more different if we tried.

    For me, this post is a prime example of how what we read doesn't have to match what we write one to one.

    Janice, though you may be plot centric in your own writing, you can appreciate character driven stories, that still have a plot, but not as tight a plot to what you employ. That gives me hope because I have problems having a tight plot that doesn't feel too heavy a burden to my creativity.

    That's what's giving me headaches in my Nano novel right now. It's the one about the "Curmudgeonly Camel" from my pitch experiment.

    Unlike my last novel, the external conflict's there, but how to connect that to personal struggles is anything but obvious, and I wish I knew how you and other pull this off without tearing your hair out.

    For once, I know the external conflicts of the world at the outset, but have no idea how the internal struggles which given our past exchanges is usually my best thing. After this post I know for sure I have problems making the personal universal, or the other way around.

    I know how to get personal, but apparently making it universal and have a "How what X characters do change the world, good or bad" is something that I can't seem to get right.

    How can these things co-exist without sounding unforgivably formulaic? That feels like my biggest struggle right now, which goes hand in hand with my deep stigma of query letters and synopses, which are all about marrying the personal yet universal ideals in a tight space.

    Can you at least tell me I'm not alone, because it certainly sounds like I'm not, but examples help.


  3. Amelia, I've also found that too-depressing stories don't interest me, and too much angst is no fun. But I do enjoy a good solid meaty personal problem with folks dealing with a major issue. Depends on my mood. But I have found great character-driven stories that aren't all about the angst.

    Taurean, you're not alone. One thing to remember, is not every problem has to be about saving the entire world. Larger ramifications are good, but it's more about saving THE CHARACTER'S world. The thing in their life that would be ruined if X happened. Universal means more about having a problem and stakes everyone can relate to, not so much about having a issue that affects everyone.

    If having to go to bed without supper is the worst possible thing in a 5 year old's life, that's the major problem they face in a story about that. Why going to bed without supper is that important is the author's job to figure out, but it's a perfectly acceptable problem if done right.

    And to a point, it will be a bit formulaic. Stories follow a formula. There's structure. You want to avoid the cliches and the predictability, but certain things are going to happen that fit your basic story. The trick is to be original and let the expected happen, just not in the obvious way. You know the protag is more than likely going to have a dark moment at some point in the story where they feel all is lost. What that is and how it affects the plot/story/protag is up to you. You can be as original or as cliched as you want there.

  4. What a wonderful and helpful post. Thank you o much for giving such clear examples of books that accomplish a certain thing and how they do it. I've read City of Bones (and the rest of that trilogy - loved it!) but you've made me really want to read the other two!

  5. Thank you so much for posting this. I've been meaning to read Will Grayson Will Grayson and it had slipped from my radar. I'm going to order it now.

  6. Personally, my ideas are a mix, but with a character-driven lean. I usually flesh out characters first before the plot. I fall in love with characters, but not with the plots.

    Really, my main project is all about the relationship between the two protagonists, and how other people and the spirits around them affect that as it strengthens more and more.

  7. Yes! You are spot on about City of Bones and Hourglass (I loved them both). I haven't read Will Grayson, Will Grayson yet but I it is on my TBR list.

    Have you read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline? I really enjoyed it and have thought a lot about how it opens. The beginning is a bit info-dumpish imho, but it is filled with so much voice that works anyway. I couldn't put it down.

  8. Cheryl, I haven't read that yet but I'll have to go take a peek. Infodump works when it's the character doing the dumping. Voice lets you get away with a lot ;)

  9. Thanks Janice. Will Grayson, Will Grayson sounds like exactly the kind of book I need to read before starting on the story idea I have milling around in my head right now. I'm so glad you post links to previous posts on Twitter.

  10. Heather, me too! And this is why. You never know when the right post will find the right writer.