Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing in Traffic - Purpose, Hooks and Cliffhangers

by Linda Hall

Right now I’m in the middle section of a new novel, that part of writing that seems to go on and on, the part that’s slower than a car on the 401 between four and six p.m. (well, really, any time on the 401). Writing anything, from an essay (a blog post) and a novel to a nonfiction book is sort of like driving in traffic.

There are spurts of energy when the road up ahead looks absolutely clear, and if you can just squeeze into that left lane you’ll be home free, final chapter here we come. And then, just as suddenly, you are up against a brick wall of cars. Ideas have slowed to a standstill and nothing’s getting through.

When I’m in the confused, mixed-up middle part of my novel traffic, I like to remind myself of three things: Purpose, Hook and Cliffhanger.

PURPOSE: Each chapter in a book, each paragraph in an essay, each word in an article must serve a purpose. Every sentence must move the reader’s thoughts to the next point, idea or plot. If the chapter is just so much chatter, there is no reason for it to be there.

I’m guilty of chatter. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I write whole chapters of dialogue that really do absolutely nothing for the plot. They’re just people talking. In the final analysis, they will end up on the other side of the DELETE key. Sentences that serve no purpose are like the off ramps telling you to go here or go there when you know if you just stick with the traffic flow, however miserable it seems right now, you’ll get to the final destination much quicker.

HOOKS: Every piece of writing needs to begin with a hook - something that draws the reader in like bait on a fishing line. The first sentence of my current novel reads like this: I was in the middle of the Jesse dream when Kricket disappeared. Here’s one from mystery writer Stephen White’s Manner of Death: Adrienne’s tomatoes froze to death the same night that Arnie Dresser died. When you have a moment take down a book from your bookshelf, any book, and look for chapter hooks.

Hooks aren’t just for fiction, either. Malcolm Gladwell (The Outliers, The Tipping Point) is famous for his stories, and just about every one of his chapters start with one. And who can argue with the profound four words that begin The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren? It’s not about you. (Actually that’s the whole book in a nutshell. He could have ended right there!)

CLIFFHANGERS: You must leave the reader wanting more. Every chapter, every paragraph needs to end with something that makes the reader want to turn to the next page, read the next sentence. Another example comes from my current wip (Work in progress): She stared at the screen for several minutes. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

Agent and author Donald Maass says that you should take all of the printed pages of your novel and throw them up in the air. Then grab them at random. Every single page should make the reader want to read the next one.

With these three things in mind, getting through the traffic of your writing might be just a little bit easier.

6 comments: said...

I really enjoyed your article, Linda. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

Linda Hall said...

You're welcome , Lina! It was fun to write.

Carol J. Garvin said...

Good article, Linda. Thanks. Each sentence, paragraph and chapter is a building block for what comes next and I struggle to get each one just right. But I'm guilty of chatter, too. Sometimes it's the only way to get moving when I'm stalled. Hooray for the revision process! :)

jenny milchman said...

I love Donald Maass' advice--and you elaborate on it wonderfully, Linda! Good luck in the "boggy middle ground" of your WIP...

Peter Black said...

Great tips from a pro!
Thanks Linda.
And every success to you as you work towards completion of your present WIP.

Linda Hall said...

Sometimes I think 'chatter' is important. Even when we throw away the pages, there is often something there we can use.

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