In part one I talked about the importance of brevity and of establishing stakes. Today I’ll pick up this discussion of making writing thrilling by looking at hooks and then will talk about the traps that a writer can fall into when they try to write thrilling and forget to write well.
Hooks are deceptively simple. They’re little bits of text whose whole purpose is to make you interested in the story. Here’s an example of a famous one:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
This immediately establishes that the story will open with the birthday party of an elderly gentleman. It demonstrates that this is an occasion of significance in the community.
And that’s it. If you haven’t read the Hobbit you don’t know who Bilbo Baggins is or what his significance is to Hobbiton. Even if you have read the Hobbit you won’t know the reason for his remarkable longevity.
The sentence entices you that things are going to come which will interest you, but it doesn’t give too much away.
A hook doesn’t have to come at the end of a chapter. Here’s an example from one of Butcher’s Dresden books that lies at the end of a chapter half-way through the book:
I’d sent the phages after Molly.
Again the hook is simple. It communicates a simple idea – in this case that the protagonist has inadvertently sicced dangerous monsters on his friend’s daughter. It doesn’t provide much more in the way of detail but it keeps you wanting more.
Butcher does this well, but he sometimes tiptoes up to the boundary of a mistake its possible to make when trying to make a thrilling book.
Doors behind doors
I think I owe the metaphor for this to Sandra Kasturi. It was at a panel, possibly at WFC but I could be mistaken about that. Notwithstanding that she’s one of the best poets I know and also one of the amazing editorial voices behind Chizine Publications – publisher of many of my very favourite books and you should check her out.
The idea is that some authors do the above – but they do it at the end of every chapter. So the protagonist discovers a mysterious door. He opens it and discovers…
A room containing nothing but another door! After a brief inspection of the room the protagonist goes to the other door and with some trepidation opens it revealing…
A room with another door and a tiger! He runs from the tiger as it claws at his backside, reaching the door a moment before the tiger he opens it and discovers…
Another room containing nothing but a door.
The problem with this is that it’s a cheater’s hook. Yes, it’ll drive readers through the book quickly, but it won’t give them an enjoyable experience, rather just a continuous feeling of frustration when each door the protagonist opens just leads to another door that MIGHT have something behind it – but that probably doesn’t.
This is a big risk when you’re writing a book that you want to be thrilling. But it’s not the most damning risk.
Who cares about the characters? this is a plot driven story!
The greatest sin that bad thrilling writing can do is to drop characterization in favour of thrills. When you’re writing tightly paced, compact, hook-filled stories you run a serious risk of letting the plot drive the bus, hauling the characters along as not much more than an after-though, a mobile perspective point to the action.
No matter how tense your story is, no matter how little time there is on the ticking clock and how big the explosion your heroes must outrun you have failed as a storyteller if your audience doesn’t identify with your protagonists and enjoy spending time riding along behind their ears.
Never forget that a thrilling story is not an excuse for spectacle empty of characterization.
What do you think? Are there other elements to make a book thrilling? What other risks do authors face when trying to write a thrilling book?