Coloring The Reaction

A few weeks ago, when we were discussing just how many pages you give a book before giving up on it (WW 10-12-11), Peter made a couple of comments that I

Reader Coloring Reaction

felt merited further discussion.

He said he felt he was getting better at distinguishing between books he wouldn’t ever want to read and “books I may want to read, but not right now.”  Later, he gave a good example of this, mentioning Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon as a book he enjoyed when he returned to it “in a more patient mood.”

That response really rang some chimes with me as a reader – and made me think as a writer.  You see, writers and writers’ workshops often present narrative hooks as if a good hook is going to work with every reader at all times.

Peter’s comments – and reading between the lines on some of the other comments – show how much the reader brings to the process.

I have a good friend, a very intelligent woman with three small children, a family business, and a lot of outside interests.  She is also an avid reader.  She admits that, at this point in her life, she wants to read books where at least one character is in control of the situation.  She doesn’t care how wild the ride gets as the story unfolds, as long as she knows that this “control character” will, in the end, set things right.

I admit, I can see her point.  If your life is full of chaos, why add more in your down time?  I know that in such times, rather than seeking “control characters” I tend to re-read, but the impulse is similar.  I know where I’m going.  Uncertainty is diminished and so is artificial stress.

Recently, I came across a great example of a narrative hook that would work when I was in one sort of mood, but not in another.  It was in the prologue to Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey: “The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.”

I read this, then sat and stared at the page.  On the one hand, that sentence caught my curiosity.  How could someone be “ready to be shot”?  Odd phrase, odd circumstances.  On the other hand, the promise of violence, of someone in distress and maybe beyond rescue, made me a little edgy – and I was already in an edgy mood.

Initially, I put the book aside, but a few days later I came back to it and finished the prologue.  This ended with what might be considered its own narrative hook.

“An outcropping of the thing shifted toward her.  Compared to the whole, it seemed no larger than a toe, a little finger.  It was Captain Darren’s head.

“‘Help me,’ it said.”

Well, with that I decided to keep reading.  I’ll admit, neither of these hooks were what kept me reading to the end of a long novel.  My growing interest in the main characters kept me going.  Without that, not even the very interesting puzzles presented would have been enough.

So where do you stand?  Are there hooks that will work at one time, but not another?  How about chapter endings, like the one I found at the end of the prologue?  Can one of those tease you into reading just a little more?  Is there at time you’re more likely to read something with a tense and edgy opening?

Coffee mug is full and I’m eager to hear what you think…

11 Responses to “Coloring The Reaction”

  1. Peter Says:

    Ah, chapter endings, bane of my existence. When I read in unstructured time (as opposed to, say, reading on the bus on the way to work) I generally read by chapter – “I’ll read one more chapter, then go to bed/finish my marking/do the laundry/etc.”

    Many is the dawn I’ve greeted because a string of good chapter-ending hooks kept me going just…one…more…chapter as a result 🙂

  2. Dominique Says:

    More than a hook I would say it is the tone of the book, in those first chapters, that keeps me going. If an author can lure me in by setting a great atmosphere for a story to take place in, then I am going to keep reading. Most certainly certain tones speak to me more at certain times or moods.

  3. John C Says:

    One of Terry Pratchett’s greatest tricks seems to be, at least in the middle of his Discworld series, his use of short almost-chapters which leave you wanting more, then cut to another character or place.

    I’ve read books of his in one sitting because each little bit went down like a piece of popcorn, leaving me wanting just one more bite. And since I haven’t come to the end of a chapter, I don’t have a reason to stop.

    [Full disclosure: I don’t like popcorn, but cliches are an easy way to communicate.]

    • janelindskold Says:

      Oddly, my editions of Pratchett’s novels Going Postal and Making Money violate this usually standard Pratchett form.

      Not only do they have chapters, they’re old-fashioned Victorian style chapters with sub-headings at the opening.

      Anyone know why the change in these books?

      • Alan Robson Says:

        Having had many long discussions with Terry Pratchett about life, the universe and everything, I can tell you exactly why he chose to do this.

        Because he could.

        Because it’s funny.

        Because it makes people ask why he chose to do it.

        And both he and I are completely serious about all those reasons. There is nothing more serious than frivolity. Or more frivolous.


  4. Heteromeles Says:

    I always thought the best compliment to the author was, “Goddamn you, I stayed up til 5 am finishing that book!” As for structure, I figure that starting in the middle of one action and ending in the middle of another is a good way to structure the chapters.

  5. Paul Says:

    On reflection, I think you have to look beyond the narrative hook as some books don’t live up to their bang!bang! openings. You have to at least peep at some of the later chapters. On the other hand, some novels start at a leisurely pace and really end up as memorable stories — but even the leisurely openings have to have something to spark the reader’s attention.

    I couldn’t help wondering if the author of “Leviathan Wakes” was at all influenced by the ending of the 1958 movie version of “The Fly.”

  6. janelindskold Says:

    What Dominique says is interesting…

    Tone is SO much harder to define, but I agree. There are times a certain book “feels” right and what makes it do that is hard to define.

    As for chapter endings… I’ve had the compliment of keeping people up, but I’m not sure I’m as calculating as Heteromeles. In fact, I think if I was a reader, too much of that would end up peeving me to no end.

    I react badly to being manipulated!

  7. heteromeles Says:

    Yes, I guess that the old cliffhanger strategy is manipulative. The only advantage it does have is that it carries the momentum of the overall story between chapters, which is more what I was thinking about.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think the trick is to pull off the cliffhanger in a fashion that either the reader doesn’t mind knowing what’s being done or, at least, doesn’t notice.

      I mean, we all knew what was happening at the opening of the first Indiana Jones movie, but did we mind? Heavens, no! We grinned and said, “Let’s go for a ride!”

  8. Other Jane Says:

    I’m not a writer, so I don’t think in terms of “narrative hooks,” but I’ve sure been hooked – not as much by the first line or two of a book, but by chapter endings (including the Breaking the Wall series). I always read past the first sentence or two.

    Ahhh, but chapter endings can get me. I know I’m hooked when I have to get up early the next morning, but I’m so interested I have to read just the beginning of the next chapter…then well…I guess I have to finish it…

    Funny, I don’t think of it as being manipulated. I guess if I’m in that world and participating in the story, I willingly go along with it. Maybe when it’s done poorly it would feel manipulative. But if that’s the case, I guess I would have set the book aside and it wouldn’t be an issue.

    My reading time is limited, so my mood more likely affects the type of reading I’m doing. If I’m not in the mood for a novel, I’ll go to nonfiction or even technical reading. I’ve never noticed setting aside a book and coming back to it later based solely on my mood.

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