Episode 82: How to Hook Your Readers (and Keep them Reading Your Novel)

The first pages of a book are so incredibly important to pulling a reader into your story, so they keep turning pages. How do you hook them? You include the 4 C’s and a Q which I break down in this episode. I also share specific examples from best-selling novels to model these five key elements.

Here’s what I discuss in this solo episode:

  • The 4 C’s & Q: character, conflict, context, care, and question that MUST be included in your first scene
  • What each of the 4 C’s are
  • Examples from three well-known popular books: Pride and Prejudice, Divergent, and Maid to help you in applying these elements to your own writing

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Amy Isaman 0:06
Starting a new project is often like the most exciting part of writing right you get these ideas we get to put our imaginations to work as creative writers we dream up we and fun characters fantastic settings conflicts that just starting a new project a new writing project is so much fun. As creative writers we get to put our imaginations to work dreamy app witty and fun characters, fantastic settings conflicts that would destroy anyone, but our stalwart protagonist, and plot twist readers never see coming. We get it all planned, or we have these all these ideas in our heads and we sit down in front of our computer to begin writing. And then where do we start? We want that first thing to confine our fingers and onto the page, but sometimes knowing how to start or what to include on those first few pages can be tough. Where does your book Start? What is the first scene? What do you include in it? And that's what we're going to talk about today.

Before we dive into this week's episode, I want to show that I'm hosting two more free co writing sessions in 2021. One is on Tuesday, November 30. And the next one is on 14th. They both happen at 10:30am. Pacific time and if you would like to join and just get some work done and write in community with others you can head on over to Amy isaman.com/write-together to get the link to sign up that will also put you on the newsletter list. So you will get podcasts alerts or you know what's happening in here.

Okay, let's jump into this episode, and really about how you hook your readers. So they keep turning those pages, because that's what we want, right? We want to start our stories in the right spot and we want to include information that will keep them turning those pages so you can pay attention to this as So this is important to kind of keep in the back of your mind when you're drafting that first draft. But I think it's actually probably more helpful when you're revising. And so when you're way back and you're looking at that first scene, do you have these things? in place? Are they working isn't really hooking your readers in? So you can you can this information.

So this information is important at all the stages actually pay attention to it while you're drafting but also really drill it down during those revision stages. After you've know what your story is about, you really know your characters, and you've got all that stuff drilled down in your head. The first thing you have to figure out is where your story starts. And oh my gosh, I could do a whole series of episodes on this and I probably will at some point. But for now you want your story to start just before the big event happens. The thing that sends your character on their adventure or changes their life in some way.

We need to see your characters in the world before their adventure begins. And if we're looking at the hero's journey, that framework for story, this is called the ordinary world. In other plot frameworks. It's called the status quo world, the normal world it's the regular normal everyday world that your character exists in before that inciting incident or before that big event that launches them into their adventure and your awesome story. So that's the most common starting spot which can be tough, right? Because you're talking about okay, how do we create a normal world that is engaging and makes the reader want to continue turning the pages. I'm going to talk about what you need to include and then I will also in the second part of this episode, break down several novels and how those are included how these elements are included in those novels. So you can actually see this in action. I think that's helpful.

Okay, so what do you need to include in your first pages of your novel? You need to include four C's and a Q. Okay, and I will break this down. The four C's are character, context, care, conflict, and the key is a question. So I'm gonna explain what each of these are. And then as I said earlier, I'm gonna show some examples. So, character that's the first C, you need to include basic information. About your protagonist. Who are they? We don't need the entire demographic rundown. We don't need to necessarily know what they look like, but we have to know a little bit about them. To decide on what your reader needs to know think about your story. What are the details of your character that you must know to understand this first scene? Maybe it's their age, maybe it's their gender, maybe it's something having to do with their personality. Maybe it's the conflict that they're stepping into whatever is important. That's what you need to focus on for the character introducing the character in this first name. You don't need this in the first line. You might not even have it on the first page but we do need to have something about the novel's protagonist in the first couple pages to pull the reader in.

The next C stands for context, and this refers to the setting or a little bit about what's happening in the story. We have to know where our characters are both we need to know where our characters actually are. Like, where are they in time? Where are they in space? And are there other characters there with whom they're interacting, readers have to know a little bit about what's going on in their lives in those first pages. So this is sort of like plot introduction, right? What's happening in the story.

Here's the first line of a novel. One of the all time great novels that you've probably heard about that gives a hint at the main character and the context and this is done in the first line. You don't need to do this in the first line. Here we go. And a hole in the ground. There lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of arms are an easy smell. Nor yet a dry bear Sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat it the hobbit hole and that means comfort.

Brilliant, right? It's the hobbit obviously Tolkien we know we have a MaineCare called The Hobbit who's a comfortable sort of creature. And this knowledge is enough to keep us reading. We're curious, right? There's this comfortable that lives in a cozy hole. Who is this? What is this? That pulls us in? So those are the first two C's character and context.

The third C is caring. We have to make our readers somehow care or be interested in these characters immediately. And you can do this through sharing a bit of their personality. You can do this through sharing their dilemma or their conflict, a strong voice or even humor, which is really highly effective.

And the final C stands for conflict because all stories about conflict, what exactly is the character's problem here? This needs me introduced right away in all three of the stories that I'm gonna write down here in just a minute, the major overall story where the problem is right there on page one, okay.

And the final thing you really need to include in these first couple pages of your book is a question or if you want to go with five seas, you could call it curiosity. You have to have your reader asking questions about something they need to be curious. They need to be wondering, and that's what makes them turn the page if they're not asking themselves the question about your characters, your conflict, you're setting the context. They probably don't care enough to turn the page. And that's the goal, right? We want to hook them in we want to pull them in so they do turn the page.

The whole book, your whole novel, your whole story will answer these questions that you set up right in the very first few pages. So let's break this down and see how it works in some novels. All of these novels have been bestsellers, and they range over a period of over 200 years. So the first book we're gonna look at goes back a few 100 years. And this is one of my all time favorite novels. And I chose this because it really makes the argument that this works because this novel has been a beloved novel for centuries.

The book I'm talking about is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This book was published in 1813. So 208 years ago, and it's still a novel that people read, and they love and miss used the four C's and Q in her first couple pages. So if you haven't yet read the book, which I highly recommend, this is a brief summary of the first two chapters or of the first chapter which is two pages. In the first chapter. Mrs. and Mr. Bennett are talking and Mrs. Bennett is sharing with her husband that a new single man and eligible bachelor has just moved into the neighborhood and she wants her husband to go visit him and let this eligible bachelor know that he has or that she and Mr. Bennett have five eligible daughters, any of whom would make great wives. Mr. Bennett could care less about this, you know, marrying his daughters off and this pretty much just befuddles his wife, as getting her daughters married to wealthy men woman is pretty much her like own hope so purpose in life.

Now, interestingly, in these first few pages in chapter one, we don't meet the main character. We meet her on page three at the beginning of chapter two, and that's Lizzie Bennet. However, everything else is there and actually in some ways, she is introduced. So who are the characters we have Mrs. minute and Mr. Bennett and their daughters actually mentioned on page two. Mr. Bennett is really funny. He's pretty sarcastic Mrs. Bennett is kind of daft. She doesn't totally get what he's saying. And she gets distraught over how he teases her. Elizabeth or Lizzie doesn't show up. But we know the world that she's in. She's living in a world where her mother is bound and determined to marry her off to a wealthy man, whether or not she wants to. Okay, this also sets up the fact that she doesn't have a lot of power or say in her life as a woman during this time period, which is one of the themes of the book. Okay, so it works really well actually do it this way. So the context, I've kind of already said that we have a new single gentleman, Mr. Bingley is moving in the neighborhood. None of the none of the daughters are married Miss of the Bennett daughters are married. And Mrs. Bennett sees this as a perfect day to marry one of them off, especially her favorite daughter, Lizzie. Okay. So there's the context. We care about this, because, for a few reasons Jane Austen uses humor to pull us instrumented. It's pretty funny and Mrs. Bennett like, is annoyed with him. It's a marriage, like marriages we have today. We also connect with Mrs. Bennett because she really does what want the best for her daughter. She cares about her daughters. And Mr. Bennett does as well so we care about them.

The conflict is really clear between Mr. And Mrs. Bennett. They have different goals in life. And we're also asked the question at the very beginning of novel if this is the goal of every man to be married to to a lovely wife, in fact, the first line the question Which brings me to the question, the story where the question that is asked, is actually in the first line of the novel, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And then we obviously ask, is that true? Does every wealthy man want a wife? Mrs. Bennett believes they do. And then we start asking other questions. Will Mrs. Bennett succeed? Will one of her daughters marry the much admired Mr. Bingley? Must they all marry wealthy men does love matter? Well, Mr. Bennett participate in the search for suitable husbands for all of his daughters, right. There's all these questions that we begin asking immediately, that pull us into Pride and Prejudice.

Clearly, this works. Clearly. Jane Austen did an incredible job with us. Because her book has been successful for hundreds of years.

Okay, the next book I'm gonna break down for you was published over 200 years after Pride and Prejudice was published. This is a dystopian, future oriented, young old novel about as far away from Pride and Prejudice as you can get. This one was a bestseller a few years ago, and was also made into a film. So I'm choosing books here that I think people will be familiar with. But if not, if you're not familiar with these books, you can hop on Amazon and read the first few pages of any of these books by using that little look inside feature. So this next book is divergent by Veronica Roth, and she wrote a four book series, and this is the first one it was also made into a movie as I said, and the author here Miss Roth does an amazing job of including all of these elements in the very first scene, and it's a super short scene. It's about 450 words. And yes, I counted because that's her to me. It's tiny, it's short. She does everything really well. So in this very first scene of the first book of the series, the main characters getting a haircut, it's her haircut day and she gets to look in a mirror, which only happens on the second day of every third month and her mother's really calm. And the main character kind of sneaks a look at herself in the mirror because it's not okay really to look at yourself, and then they briefly discuss it. Today is a big day in her life that this girl has given to her pet is going to take some sort of aptitude test to find out which faction she belongs to. And this decision will impact whether she stays with their family or abandons them forever.

So just in that summary, I can point out all of the main details so the character right away we know that she is a young girl, teenage girl, she's got Dovan hair she's curious. She wants what she looks like. She loves her mother, and she admires her mother. And she says some really high end things about her mother. So we already know she values her family. And she also wants to leave them which makes her feel kind of guilty.

The context which I shared is we learned that this character lives in a totally different world than the world that we are in right now. She's not allowed to look in the mirror. She must reject all behaviors that would be seen as self indulgent. She also has a father. She has a brother. She loves them. And it's a big day in her life. Why do we keep turning the pages because we immediately care about this young woman we relate to her. She has a teenager who loves her family, but she also feels really guilty cuz she wants to leave and go live her own life and do our own thing. And everybody has felt that way we can relate to that dilemma. loving somebody, but also wanting to go and do something different. Like this is a totally relatable dilemma. And it is so well done on these first pages that we keep turning the pages. That also is the conflict right? She loves her family, but she wants to leave what she going to do and there's the question.

And there are so many questions that francha set up in these first 450 words, what is the action? Why can't this main character look in the mirror? Why does she only get a haircut on the second day of every third month? Why can't just celebrate her birthday? What's the aptitude test? Which faction will she choose? Will she leave her family right? On and on and on? And we're like oh my god. Now I need to know because we have this character that I now care about, and all of these questions, so we keep turning the pages. Okay, she gives us enough information. We are super curious. We're not confused. We just want to know more.

Okay, now let's do a Current bestseller. And this is actually a memoir. And I'm going to talk about made by Stephanie Land. And this is different than the next Netflix version of her book that Netflix has put out that has been incredibly popular. The first few pages actually start in a different place in the book than it does in the film. So in the first few pages, we discovered the main character is homeless. She has a one year old daughter and she's moving to transitional housing. She is struggling financially. She is battling her daughter father over custody, and she has an estranged mother who is living in Europe. So I'm talking about the book here, not the Netflix version.

So this is the character. We have a young homeless mom with a one year old. What's the context? In the book, she shares that she's been living in a cabin like a homeless shelter cabin, and she has to move to a halfway house that feels like she's on probation like she's being punished for being poor and trying to survive. It's also super clear that despite her strong family values, she doesn't have any family support from her parents, grandparents, she is alone and she's struggling. And you immediately care because she's got a baby who's learning to walk and she's tried to clean this apartment but she can't get the dirt out of the floor and she's homeless and she's struggling and she wants a family so badly. But her parents kind of have moved on from her and she's been kind of abandoned and she doesn't want to do that to her daughter. So we immediately care like this is a good person.

The conflict is clear. She's struggling to survive with zero emotional or financial support from anyone right she is on her own. And the question is also clear, will she make it? Will she be able to take care of her daughter? Will she be able to keep custody of her daughter and support this little baby that she loves so much? So do you see how all of these work together to keep turning the pages? Grab one of your favorite novels off of yourself and read the first three pages see if you can identify these main elements that pull you as a reader that make you keep reading. And yes, this was an exercise I could talk about in episode 70. I feel like I rant about this all the time you thought or read like a writer if you want to be a writer, you have to kind of start looking at these things and say okay, what's working here? And how can I use this in my own writing? And now once you've done that kind of looked at this, look at your own work or your own novel What are you writing? Can you identify these elements that are Have you identified your character created a conflict created set up some sort of contacts shed something that about this character or about situation that makes us care about them? And do we ask questions? Now if you're too close to it, which can happen? This is where beta readers or critique partners or writing partners really can come in handy. share this episode with them and say okay, is this that was working in my pages? Have I had done this? If you'd like to look at a variety of first pages, you can hop on Amazon, you know, go buy a bunch of books or even go to library just hop on Amazon and look at the first few pages of bestsellers that are out there right now and there are millions and millions of books on books on Amazon, right and you can see how well it's an or not

I'll be doing an episode in the next few weeks on actually writing specifically that first line and crafting that first line like I shared with I think I showed two in this episode The Hobbit and Pride and Prejudice first lines, because those can be really cute hooking your reader as well. But before you get hung up on that play with the whole verse scene with that whole first chapter, make sure you've introduced all of those key elements or characters conflict context and a reason for us to care and a question, right, You've piqued our curiosity. And that's what I have to share today. If you would like to continue this discussion or have questions you can head on over to the show notes and leave a comment there and I will be sure to answer it. This is episode 82 And you can find the show notes on my website Amy iZotope comm Ford slash podcast. Thank you so much for listening. And I also want to offer before I sign off that if you would like one on one support and feedback on your own writing, I do work as a book and a writing coach. And you can find more about that on my website at amyisaman.com/coaching. And I also have a monthly writing membership called the let's write the book club where we have weekly co writing sessions to help writers in establishing a regular writing practice. We have weekly coaching calls, we can get your questions answered and work through your ideas. Exactly like this, like here's my first page do I have the first season and key on the first scene or how Where do I even start my book, and I also do a monthly writing workshop. The next two workshops in November actually this week on December are on dialogue and getting better dialogue and you can find the details about things on my website, Amyisaman.com

Now thank you so much for listening in. I appreciate you hit the subscribe button to this episode and this podcast if you haven't done so already or the Follow button now that Apple has changed it and I would be so grateful if you would leave the podcast a rating and review so others can find it. Have a super great day keep writing keep imagining and keep creating and as always have fun. I'll see you in the next episode.

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