Fishing for readers


I’ve been reading about first lines, opening lines, first paragraphs, first pages, first chapters and the necessity of persuading readers into buying/reading ones novel. The common term used for the first ‘whatever’ is ‘hook’. Since I’m an occasional angler who only last month caught the biggest fish of my life—a measly eight-pound northern pike–I’m naturally thinking about fishhooks (story hooks) and catching fish (readers).

Comparing a reading hook to a fishing hook is an apt analogy. The trick to landing a fish after catching it is to get it into your landing net without losing the fish. Also, in this day of catch-and-release fishing, it’s important to do as little damage to the fish as possible, which means trying to hook the fish just right so it won’t swallow the bait completely and get the hook stuck in its throat, which can kill a fish if not extracted gently and properly.

A reading hook should work the same. Dangle the lure in front of the reader in the form of the first line, page, or chapter. Entice them; make them hunger for what you’re offering. Maybe tease them a little. Nibbling is good, a solid strike the best, but once you feel the tension in the line, don’t jerk as hard as you can in an effort to manhandle the reader into the boat. Use some subtlety. No need for the atomic bomb to go off on page one of your thriller. No need to have the serial killer covered in his latest victim’s entrails on page one. No need to tell us the complete life story of the hero/heroine in the first chapter.

Be subtle. Foreshadow. Hint at things to come. Tell us just enough about a character for us to form a connection with that character, and make us want to read further and learn more about the character. Play your fish carefully. Too tight of a line and you’ll rip the hook from the fish’s mouth. Too loose, and the fish may spit the hook. Keep a steady tension on your line. Sound familiar? Keep a steady, if not growing tension/curiosity in your story so the reader remains engaged. And don’t just let the bait sit motionless in the water. If nothing is happening, the bored reader will swim off to another pool of books.

All of a sudden, I have an urge to eat salmon for dinner. How do you play your readers with your hook?

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