I once had a client who got a book deal at one of the most prestigious publishers in the world.
She had written a book like so many millions of aspiring authors have. She spent years working on her content, also like so many others have. And she wished and hoped to see her name on that book cover as it stood proud at Barnes & Noble and Target stores across the country…
…like everyone would love to see for themselves.
And yet, I wasn’t remotely surprised by this outcome.
In fact, I knew this would happen within 1 ¾ pages of reading her book.
But how could I have possibly known this?
In response, what I would like you to do is consider the following five images:
- A beautiful, tropical beach as the sun sets over the horizon
- A serene lake with a mountain reflecting down on its glass-like surface
- A quiet meadow with a patch of wild flowers nearby and a line of trees in the distance
- A picture of Adolph Hitler
- A thin, steady waterfall cascading down amidst a vivid rainbow
Huh. How do you like that? There you just were, reading image after image of some lovely landscape that belongs on an inspirational poster or the back of a postcard, and then you were suddenly picturing one of the biggest mass murderers in the history of the world. Why on earth did I do that?
Believe it or not, this admittedly bizarre exercise very much relates to the reason why my client got a book deal – and why I predicted this would be her outcome.
The very first time I read this book, which happened to be a novel, I read a prologue that introduced the main character making a deal with a male college friend of hers to be each other’s backup. If, by the time they were 32 they weren’t married to someone else, they would marry each other. Except, by the end of this page-and-a-half prologue, we find out that she is actually smitten with him.
Then, the first chapter places her at the wedding, where she comments on how so many details about the bridal party were absolute perfection. But a quarter of the way down the page, we find out something else.
That he’s actually getting married to her best friend.
My client had spent the prologue setting up one reality – of them one day being together – only to completely steer the reader into a different reality. Similarly, when I inserted the image of Hitler into the four scenic landscapes, I established one reality of serenity and turned that on its end with one of violence and hatred.
In both cases, the reader is disrupted with the unexpected.
My client got a book deal some time after I read that early draft. I knew that this would happen because of how deft she was at doing what so few authors of content actually do – she hooked me. She set me up to think that one reality would happen – that the main character would marry the love of her life – only to show me how thoroughly improbable that reality would turn out to be only a few words later.
Successful fiction authors and screenwriters also make tremendous use of the unexpected when they set the audience up for one of two possibilities, and then a surprise third possibility happens instead. We famously saw this take place when we’re on our seats wondering if Luke is going to make it to the exhaust port that will bring down the Death Star in Star Wars. Will Luke evade Darth Vader? Or will Vader destroy him? Evade? Destroy? Evade? Des—
Nope. Han Solo comes from out of nowhere. He surprises Vader – and all of us.
Interestingly, we can hook a reader in non-fiction as well. I once ghostwrote a book on yoga and Ayurveda that told of two men who had made changes to their life – one made changes to his diet, the other to his creative process. After reading both stories, the reader finds out that they were describing the same man. I used this device to demonstrate how the work we do on our body is inexorably linked to the work we do on our mind. And because the content hooked the reader, they were far more receptive to whatever information followed.
I’ve actually read books on submitting material to publishers that tells the reader to “have a hook,” but then they give absolutely no advice on how to do that. And admittedly, there are a number of ways to do this, but one is to simply frame something for the reader in one way and then disrupt that pattern by taking the reader in a completely different direction. It can happen in fiction, it can happen in non-fiction.
But in either case, the reader will stay hooked.
Your audience’s investment in your writing is directly related to how much they feel they must recover from something you’ve disrupted in their reading experience. To her tremendous credit, this is what my client did before I even helped her with her story. In the end, I truly wasn’t surprised by her eventual good fortune.
For within 1 ¾ pages, she already had me hooked.