For Want of a Hook

Dan Walsh is the award-winning and bestselling author of 14 novels, includingThe Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and When Night Comes. He has won 3 Carol Awards and 3 Selah Awards. Three of his books were finalists for Inspirational Book of the Year (RT Book Reviews). Dan is a member of ACFW and Word Weavers. He lives with his wife, Cindi, in the Daytona Beach area where they love to take walks and spend time with their grandkids. Click here to connect with Dan or check out his books.

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In recent months, I’ve been talking about things you might call the behind-the-scenes issues in the publishing world. This month, thought I’d actually share just some good old-fashioned writing advice. Whether you’re writing under contract to a traditional publisher, as an indie, or as a hybrid, there’s one thing that will always be relevant and always matter — Are you able to write books people really want to read?

My title for this column is a clue. What prompted me to head in this direction today was the fact that I’ve started to read several novels recently, only to put them down (for good) 4-5 chapters later. That’s one of the odd side-effects to being able to buy all these ebooks temporarily marked down to $1.99 or 99 cents…I don’t feel any compulsion to finish them if they don’t grab me fairly soon.

I’ve taken some time to study the main flaw they all have in common (well, I’ve already said it, haven’t I)? They don’t grab me. They fail to suck me in and keep me turning the pages. I want a book that demands I pay attention to what it has to say, that keeps me so interested I don’t want to stop. A book that at least tempts me to change my plans (and keep reading).

Sometimes–and I’m being serious here–I think the difference between books like that and these books I’ve stopped reading recently might just be this — the lack of a good, solid hook. It’s clear to me, these writers don’t get how important it is to learn the skill of ending every chapter (if not every scene) with a great hook. 

I’m calling it a skill, because it is something we have to learn. Something we must be committed to in our writing. But it doesn’t come easy to many of us because writers are all about explaining things. That’s what we’re good at. We explain what the reader should be seeing in a scene. We explain what our characters are saying, how they’re saying it, what they’re thinking and feeling (or at least we should). We want the reader to get what we’re trying to say. We want them to get it all.

And that’s the problem. That’s how too many of us end our chapters. Explaining too much, giving too much away. We need to end our chapters abruptly. We need the reader to feel frustrated at where we’ve ended the scene. We need them to insist we keep going and finish what we’ve started.

And we will. But not here. Not at the end of the chapter. 

To find out more, they must turn the page. They must stay up a little longer. They must feel the need to silence their better judgment and keep reading. 

My goal is to end every chapter this way. To end every chapter with a solid hook (except the last one, of course). Here are some samples of how I’ve ended some of the early chapters in my newest suspense novel, When Night Comes

Chapter 1 – To set this up a little, Sgt. Joe Boyd shows up on the scene, an apartment building. A dead body has been reported, likely a college student. It’s a small town. They haven’t had a murder in years. Boyd’s been a cop in Pittsburgh. He’s seen over a hundred murders. The cops who’ve already seen the dead college kid are acting all freaked out. Here’s the last paragraph (catch the hook):

Homicide or not, they definitely had a dead body in that bed. There was no mistaking that familiar smell. Boyd had never understood why people described it as sickening-sweet. Nothing sweet about it. He guessed by its intensity the boy probably died late last night, or in the early evening. He walked to the bed and looked down at the body, then at the kid’s face.

Yeah, that’s weird.

The chapter ends (do you want to keep reading?)

Chapter 4 – We’re introduced to a shadowy character named Nigel Avery. We don’t know why, but he’s following a college professor at the same school the dead kid attended. 

At the moment, his orders were simple: tail a certain professor named Thornton and build a file on his schedule, habits, and close relationships. But he had a feeling his other skills might be called upon very soon. He’d already concluded Thornton had little in the way of a social life. No romantic connections. He was highly regarded by students on campus. Kind. Considerate. The smartest professor at the school some had said. Apparently not smart enough, Avery thought, walking now about fifty yards behind the professor toward the Murray Building. 

Else I wouldn’t be here numbering your days.

The chapter ends (do you want to keep reading?). 

I hope you do. In fact, the #1 comment I’ve received from Amazon customer reviews for When Night Comes is: “I couldn’t put the book down.” I’m telling you…I think one of the biggest reasons for this is what I’m talking about here. Write the hook. Commit to the hook. Do it with every chapter (except the end). I try to do this even with my Nicholas-Sparks type novels, not just my suspense books. 

Okay. I’m all done. Why don’t you share with us some of the better hooks you’ve written, or that you’ve recently read?