For Thereby Hangs a Tale (Using the Hook in Writing)

by Linore Rose Burkard

Don’t you love a television serial where every episode leaves you hanging? Each installment reveals something new while resolving the prior hook you were left dangling from. Then, just when you’re taking a sigh of relief—your protagonist is safe! Again! A new hook arises, peril is re-introduced and—the episode ends.
They did it again—they left you hanging.
And you loved it! You can’t wait for that next episode to see how your endangered favorite characters are going to get through this one unscathed. You are poised on that closing hook–captured by the writers–just where they want you.
Recognize that this is a formula and make it your template.
When I write YA/Suspense, you better believe I’m putting hooks at the end of each chapter, and sometimes (since my current series has three protagonists) at the end of each scene. Not all hooks are equally compelling, but they will make your reader eager to keep those pages turning.
This isn’t ground-breaking technique for writers of suspense. However, if you are NOT using the hook as a regular feature in your novels–no matter the genre–you’re leaving money on the table, so to speak. Your stories are probably not page-turners.
The Handy Red Herring
Sometimes a hook is nothing more than a red herring, but these hooks are handy because they allow you to quickly resolve the peril and get back to the real story. It’s not a letdown or contrivance, though: It has to seem like a real threat—that just happens to have a real reason for not remaining a threat.
An example is in order: (You’re getting a peek into my soon-to-be released novel, RESILIENCE.) A brother and sister pair of survivors have come across an older man on a farmstead who, after briefly assessing them, decides they’re safe enough to bring inside and offer water. In a post-apocalyptic world, water is life, so Sarah (the POV character) and Richard, her brother, accompany him with high hopes.  The old man discloses gruffly, 

“We old-timers have a good amount of information you young people have no clue about. We know how to survive!” As we entered the house, he stopped to face us. “That is, if we’re left to do it. People keep trying to kill us, though. Don’t they, Martha?” 

“They do,” said a voice to our left. And there, on her feet in a little side room stood “Martha,” the littlest old lady you can imagine. She had on a nightgown and robe, and an old-fashioned sleeping cap, from which white curls stuck out on the sides. She would have been cute, like anyone’s grandma–except she glowered in our direction and held a shotgun, pointed right at us. [END SCENE] 

The next page moves to a second protagonist so the reader won’t know if Martha takes a shot until the narrative returns to Sarah’s POV. But Martha is a red herring. Sarah, who is physically and emotionally fragile, bursts into tears–which melts Martha’s maternal heart. The danger ends quickly–but not until the reader reaches that next “episode” in the book. The hook serves to draw them there. 
What Happens Next?
A hook is an upside-down question mark.

An effective hook begs the question: What happens next?
Remember: A hook is an upside down question mark. Leave the reader with a question they must  know the answer to–and you’ve hooked ’em. 

2nd Example: Andrea is now the POV character. Shortly after her little brother is taken hostage and used for leverage by ruthless marauders (endangering his life), the following occurs:

The alarm wailed at us and we jumped to our feet. “Get those kids inside and downstairs!” Mrs. Martin cried, hurrying ahead of me. I soon passed her, my feet flying. No way was I gonna let my brothers or any of the kids face another hostage situation! I ran to the yard and looked frantically around. The children were nowhere in sight. [END SCENE]

How to Create A Hook
If writing hooks is new for you, here’s a tip: When people hear a story they naturally want to hear the end. For a smaller story you’ve got going (within the greater story of the novel) simply cut off the end–save it for the next chapter. You’ve just created suspense, even if it’s mild suspense. If you can stop the action at  a pivotal point you’ve created a hook. Your hook doesn’t require a life-or-death situation, but the greater the stakes involved, the more the reader will need to see what’s next.

Does it Work?

Judge for yourself: I quickly grabbed a few lines from Amazon reviews for PULSE, the book that precedes RESILIENCE in the PULSE EFFEX series.

 “Grips the reader from the first chapter and has you begging for the end.”

“A page turner from the very beginning.” 

“Never a dull moment when reading (Linore Burkard’s) stories!”

“Had trouble putting it down. I kept reading, wanting to know what happened next.” 

“Such an exciting story…I absolutely loved this book! I kept reading it and reading and reading. I just couldn’t put it down.”

“Sizzles with tension.”

Action Step
Try and plant a hook at the end of the chapter you’re working on.  Keep doing so, and like those television serials we love to watch, your hooks will keep the story from sagging, holding it up even throughout the notoriously difficult middle section. Who knows? You may even discover that thereby hangs your tale!

Linore Rose Burkard writes historical romance and, as L.R.Burkard,  YA/Suspense. Linore teaches workshops for
writers, is a mother of five, and still
homeschools her youngest daughter—preferably with coffee in one hand and an iPad in the other. Her newest novel, RESILIENCE, will release on April 29th.