Author Toolbox: the three hooks

One of the biggest problems I’ve had with my writing is excess flab.  I have a bad habit of putting in scenes that I like (important, wonderful, fantastically written scenes) just because I like them, and not because that’s where they should actually go (or be in the novel at all). This led to really big, unsellable books full of tension killing, scared cow scenes that went nowhere. It took me a lot of editing (and a lot of bad feedback) to finally learn my lesson: just because a scene is good does not mean it has a place in your novel. The good ship book is a small vessel. There’s no room for scenes that don’t pull their weight. But I’m an author. I generally like everything I write on some level (otherwise, why would I write it?) So how do I know what DOES belong?

To combat this problem, I created a checklist I call “the three hooks”. Whenever I am planning a novel, the first thing I do is write out everything that happens. If I don’t know what happens, this is when I figure it out. Some authors can just get an idea and go, and I do that a lot, too, but in the end novels always come back to their essence: a pile of scenes leading the reader from the beginning to the end. Once I have this pile of scenes, either in finished or outline form, I take each scene and I apply a set of standards. For the scene to pass, it must:

  • Advance the story
  • Reveal new information
  • Pull the reader forward

Without all three of these elements, a scene, no matter how good or beloved, is just wasted words. A scene that does not advance the story, like a flashback revealing character information that is not pertinent to the story, may be brilliantly written, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not reveal new information, say a talking head recap scene, may be chock full of snappy dialog, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not pull the reader forward, say a break in the narrative where everyone is happy and all their needs are met, may be very cathartic for the author, but it does less than nothing for the book. In fact, I’d say a scene like that would give you negative progress. Resolved tension leads to put down books, and that is not what we want!

These hooks don’t have to be obvious (in fact, the more creatively you can hide them, the better things get), but they do have to be there to keep the story rolling. These are the hooks that keep your reader reading, the tiny little claws of interest you constantly need to wiggle into the reader’s brain to keep them turning pages. If every scene in your novel moves the plot ahead, reveals new and important information, and gives the reader a reason to turn the page and move on to the next scene, then you’ve got a book that a reader can not put down, and that is what it’s all about.


18 Responses to “Author Toolbox: the three hooks”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    April 30, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    You practice what you preach, because that was probably the best, most concise rundown I’ve ever seen about knowing what is excess and what is necessary. Huzzah!

  2. May 1, 2010 at 3:02 am

    That’s a great summarised way to tackle excess flab. I’m getting quite fond of cutting paragraphs with glee because they don’t fit the story (even if they are half-decent). I shove them in a separate document for recycling.

  3. May 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Very concise explanation of how to recognize flab. 😉

  4. May 3, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    This will become my new mantra:

    Advance the story
    Reveal new information
    Pull the reader forward

    I know these rules but don’t always remember to apply them. Thank you.

  5. 5 Glenna Fairbanks
    May 5, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Thank you. Clear. Concise. Easy to follow advice. And I didn’t have to spend valuable time reading the directive to get the point of the message.

  6. June 3, 2012 at 2:26 am

    This blog site is really good! How can I make one like this !

  7. June 3, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for your great contribution to the world of writing.

    Just finished my first thriller. Took 2 years and 11 drafts. Although worth it,(because a lot of it was learning how to write and edit), I don’t intend to take 2 years to write the sequel.
    Your site has pointed me in a good direction.
    Scott Hunter.

  8. August 22, 2014 at 6:00 am

    It’s actually a nice and helpful piece of information. I
    am glad that you just shared this helpful info with us.
    Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  9. October 22, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    This is the kind of post that I hate reading because it cuts to one of my writing weaknesses.

    However, I did have to laugh at the “scared cow” typo… I’m guessing you meant “sacred”? 🙂

  10. 10 James
    February 15, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    I’m guessing you meant to write “sACred cow scenes” rather than “sCAred cow scenes”? Although, that image is amusing.

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