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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

G.R.I.P. Your Readers by guest blogger Tammy Barley

Tammy Barley is an award-winning, best-selling author, manuscript editor, and fiction contest judge. Her clients and their books have been spotlighted via national television, radio, and newspaper, as has Ms. Barley. Faith's Reward, the third book in her Sierra Chronicles trilogy, was just released and rated "Compelling. A page-turner" by Romantic Times Book Reviews. Her trilogy is currently being considered for film production.

G.R.I.P. Your Readers

On page one, Dean Koontz grabs you by the throat. On page one, Nora Roberts plunks you down beside characters you instantly know, care about, and laugh with. Steven King makes you question your sanity. John Grisham makes you want to run. Fast.

These authors sink their hooks deep into us readers. They know what we fear. They know what intrigues us, what we love, hate, yearn for, and what compels us to cut and run.

We read the first few sentences and think, “This is going to be a GREAT book!” We can’t bear not to keep reading.

Great authors know how to G.R.I.P. readers:
• Generate an emotional response.
• Rock the reader’s world.
• Ignite their sense of justice.
• Provide a cause to fight for.

Generate an emotional response.
To grip a reader, you must ensure that he or she emotionally invests in your character and your character’s situation. The emotion you generate within the reader will depend foremost on your genre. A mystery will generate intrigue. A romance will pull at the heartstrings. A suspense will deliver worry, fear, or cause the reader to recoil.

So, based on your genre and your main character’s situation, what emotional response do you want your hook to generate within your reader? Grief? Despair? Fear? Wonder? Hope? Think about this carefully, and make the emotion specific. For example:
• Grief at losing a child.
• Despair that one’s boss will stop making work unbearable.
• Fear that a young mother will escape the crazed, armed man holding her hostage inside a kindergarten classroom.
• Wonder at being inside a deep-sea submersible that is hovering five feet off the railing of the Titanic.
• Hope that a man’s dream to design and build his own log home is almost within reach.
Once you have determined the specific emotion, write it down.

If you are in the middle of writing a manuscript now, ask yourself if your hook generates an emotional response, and whether it’s the specific emotional response you intended. The emotion can be subtle or powerful or anything between, but the emotion itself must be distinctive. If you or your crit partners react to your hook in the way you intended, so will your reader. If not, be sure you have built a situation your reader has either experienced or can identify with, one your core audience will emotionally respond to. Once you’ve pinpointed the specific emotional response you want to generate, read on.

Next, write and rewrite your hook until it generates the specific emotional response you need the reader to experience. Rather than state that your character “feels” a certain way, try to avoid use of the “feeling” words and instead employ dialogue, internal monologue, and gestures that the reader will identify with. Is your Regency-era heroine angry at being forced into an arranged marriage with a self-involved, pampered, tightwad? Rather than state “She was angry,” show it: “She slammed the fireplace poker into its stand.”

Once your reader is emotionally invested in your character, you’re ready to up the stakes.

Rock the reader’s world.
Now that your character is caught up in the middle of a situation your reader feels strongly about, make matters worse. Not only is your Regency-era heroine being forced into an arranged marriage, but her father informs her that the wedding will take place in less than three weeks.

Not only does the elderly main character’s cherished wife have memory gaps, and not only has she forgotten who he is, she is also afraid of him and demands he stay away from her.

Not only does the main character find the corpse of her estranged husband floating in her backyard pond, but she’s also the police’s prime suspect, and a knife covered with her fingerprints is found between the pages of her wedding album.

Ignite their sense of justice.
Readers want things set right. The more you make matters wrong or overwhelming, the more readers want justice done. They want the Regency-era heroine to escape the forced marriage and to be free to marry someone she loves. They want the elderly man’s wife to remember him and not fear him. They want the real murderer found and the innocent woman acquitted.

Set up plot points to be realistically unfair to the main character, so that both the main character and the reader are compelled to seek justice.

Provide a cause to fight for.
You’ve ignited the reader’s sense of justice. Now provide a cause to fight for. This is the character’s story goal. The Regency-era heroine determines to escape her father’s house and to fall in love with a good man of her own choosing.

The elderly man determines to patiently read to his wife from a diary kept throughout their marriage, until she remembers who he is and how much he has always loved her.

The woman suspected of murdering of her estranged husband hires a P.I. to find the real perpetrator and to discover why she was framed.

G.R.I.P. your readers.
On page one, you’ve sunk in your hook. For the remainder of the novel, develop frequent new challenges that prevent your character from reaching his or her main goal. Constantly G.R.I.P. your readers.

Faith's Reward
The Sierra Chronicles

The year 1865 starts out as a nightmare come true for Jessica Bennett. The cattle she and her husband, Jake, fought to save from drought the summer before now face the threat of freezing to death. Her fears worsen when Jake contracts pneumonia.

Springtime brings trials of a different kind—the snowmelt causes the ranch to thrive so much that Jake must sell off the last of their cattle to make room for their horses and the young foals to be born. In the meantime, Jess endeavors to recover her rightful inheritance, which mysteriously disappeared from the bank. When she discovers a link between the banker and a group of murderous Unionists, who continue to target Southerners even though the war is over, Jake launches an undercover investigation.

The conspiracy runs deeper and wider than either of them could have imagined. Jess must put her life—and the life of her unborn child—at risk to stop the ringleader and save the lives of many others. Yet, Jess refuses to give up hope in the God she serves—a God of love who often provides above and beyond our greatest dreams.


  1. Great advice, Tammy. At first, I was thinking since I write women's fiction, the sense of justice doesn't really fit. But then I realized it DOES! It's simply not the same kind as suspense or thrillers, but it's still the same thing. So this is good info for all genres!

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  3. That's the book I want to write - a book that will grip the reader by the throat and doesn't let go

  4. Wow--great advice! I used to really struggle with how to grip the reader on page one (or sometimes line one). Now, I can't imagine starting a novel without some kind of hook. It truly does make a difference in whether the reader sticks with the story.

  5. Happy Birthday, Ane! My family will celebrate a birthday tomorrow--January is a great month for birthdays. =)

    Banned or not, if a book grips you, analyze how the author does it. One that grabs by the throat and doesn't let go is the kind I attack with highlighters and write notes in all over the margins and between sentences. In that way, I've learned techniques that I've never read about in how-to books.

  6. Hi, Paper Doll,

    Yep, I've discovered the same about hooks, whether they grip the emotions, the intellect, or the imagination. Since I write primarily as a romance author, I usually go for the emotions.

  7. Thanks, Tammy. And happy birthday to whoever it is in your family.

  8. Tammy, this sounded so much like advice I've been handing out to some of the writers with whom I work that I forwarded it to them. Grabbing the reader's attention and keeping it is probably one of the hardest elements for new writers to achieve, isn't it?

  9. Hi, Normandie! It's great to see you here. =)

    Yep, it is a challenge to hook the reader, then you need to keep hooking her on every page. Anyone else do this: I find myself typing along on a scene, and I think, "I haven't surprised the reader recently" (recently is usually a page or so), so then I write in a new hook, to keep the reader engaged. =)

  10. I think this is especially true in this electronic age where short videos, and mini sound and word bites prevail. Even hardcore readers have so many more entertainment options--if you do not grab their attention quickly and make them care enough to continue with your story, they will simply move onto the next offering.

  11. This was a wonderul interview and some truly helpful advice. I'm totally tweeting this. =)

    Love your acronym, by the way.

  12. Thank you, Raquel. Love your NAME, by the way. =)

  13. This is the same advice I received from Patrick Quinlan, author of suspense thrillers. I write police procedurals. Patrick reviewed what I thought was going to be the first chapter of my current work-in-progress and suggested it be chapter 2. His suggestion for the "new" chapter 1 was exactly what you said - Grab the reader by the throat and don't let go."

    Thanks for confirming what I hope I have done.

    Glenna F.

  14. Glenna, police procedurals sound like a hoot to write (and also a lot of work). If it's so exciting that you don't want to stop writing, that's when you know you've got the elements right. =)


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