What Makes us Keep Reading?

I start reading a lot of books. I finish, maybe, a quarter of them. Occassionally I will delete a book from my kindle with a growl of disgust, wishing that I lived with the primitive people of the 20th century, and could experience that atavistic catharsis of throwing a wood-pulp book across the room. More often though, I just flick the kindle joystick to the left and press down with a shrug and a “meh.” That book just didn’t grab me. It didn’t give me that little shiver of excitement. I had better things to do than read it.

Why? What’s the difference between a book that grabs you and a book that doesn’t? Let’s call that difference a Hook.

A Hook will be different things for different people, of course. Personally, I will continue reading a book if there’s a promise of learning something new and interesting about the world. I read through Fragment mostly because I wanted to know what kind of monster was going to eat the next character. My wife, on the other hand, wouldn’t continue (or probably even pick up) Fragment, but she enjoys books about how people solve personal problems. The books of the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, for example, are sweet and well written, but would be improved by some more monsters eating people.

So my own personal psychoses aside, what hooks work on people? Here’s a list of emotional reactions that some people find enjoyable.

Fear—what horrible thing will happen next?

Suspense—how will they get out of this one?

Fighting—watch the blood fly! Biff Bam Pow!

Wonder—look at the size of that mountain!

Discovery—what kind of aliens live on THIS planet?

Romance—will they or won’t they?

Anger—oh I hope that character gets their comeuppance

Humor—And the horse says, “look, a talking dog!”

Human interaction—And she said…

Education—now let’s pause the action for a moment to describe EXACTLY how a nuclear warhead works.

Mystery—he killed that guy HOW?

Wish-fulfillment—let’s read more about how someone just like me gets revenge on all the people who wronged him.

Contentment—and then a cat came and curled up next to the baby. Aww.

Notice how closely this list maps onto the genres you see in a bookstore? Sci-fi, Romance, Literature? That isn’t a coincidence. What genre you like is what Hook you respond to. The guilty pleasure that will pull you through a story that has no other redeeming qualities.

Now, as a writer, how do you make sure your reader finishes your book? Obviously, put in a Hook or two. But you have to be careful to:

Choose a Hook that you find interesting and exiting yourself (this is why I will never write a teen vampire romance.)

Make promises—let people know from the first line whether they can expect a book that will appeal to them

Keep your promises—keep track of reader expectations and, if possible, top them.

Get bigger—whatever your hook is, make sure it becomes more powerful as the story progresses. You had small monsters eating people at the beginning? Make the monsters bigger. The main character had a delightful luncheon with the elegant Mr. Bakersworth? Make the next meal a formal dinner.

Be balanced—All joking aside, a book that appeals to only one kind of person isn’t as good as it could be. It takes skill and experience to juggle several Hooks at once, but it’s worth it because you’re catching that many more readers. Plus monsters eating people is all well and good, but what if the monsters also get into epic battles, have tragic personal problems, and are hilarious? That’s what you’re striving for.

Yes, I was talking about Lois McMaster Bujold.

Did I miss any Hooks? Let me know in the comments!

Or come and talk about it with me in person!

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