Monday, May 16, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge—Q is for Questions (Do you need them?)

Yes, a writer needs questions. You simply can't do without them. 

But why? 

Keep reading, and I’ll tell you.

I once worked under an arts-and-entertainment editor who gave me this classic piece of newspaper advice: “Tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em again!”

I knew what she meant. I had already learned about the journalism pyramid. You start with maybe one sentence that says what your article is about. Your second paragraph says what it’s about, but says more about it. Your final paragraphs go into more detail about the topic of your article. You tell ‘em about the topic of your article. Then you tell ‘em. Then you tell ‘em again. The reader gets the gist of the entire article in that first sentence. The rest is just the same thing in greater and greater depth. If you just want the headline, you’ll stop reading there. And if the headline grabs you, you’ll continue reading until you’ve reached the depth you’re looking for.

A classic piece of journalism advice, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized that format that worked so well for news didn’t quite work for feature stories.

People read the first pages of the newspaper to be informed, but when they read the magazine or the features section, they read less to be informed and more to be entertained. If you tell ‘em once at the very start what the feature piece is about, readers have no real reason to read the rest of the article. No, I decided. I need to find some other way to get readers to keep reading.

So I came up with my own rule: hook ‘em. Then hook ‘em. Then hook ‘em again!”

And it worked! Readers liked my feature articles, and I won praise and respect from my editors. In a short time I worked my way up from being a freelance arts-and-entertainment writer to the newspaper’s consumer columnist. I had two pages in the magazine, and another half a page in the middle of the week. Readers like to be hooked. I guess you could say we’re hooked on it.

But what exactly is a hook? And how do you hook ‘em again and again?

A hook is something in your story that grabs your reader and makes that reader want to keep reading. For example, if I start a book with the main character lying in bed wondering if he’s going to die by morning—and if that’s not the worst thing that could happen to him over the next few hours—that’s a pretty good hook. 

In the beginning of Why My Love Life Sucks(The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer,book one) the reader has to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next. And that is a hook.

Basically, a hook is a question the writer plants in the reader’s mind, a question the reader won’t know the answer to unless the reader keeps reading. It can be written as a question. The first words of Toren theTeller’s Tale are “Who are you?” It takes the rest of the book to get a complete answer, and it is a doozy. But it doesn’t have to be spelled out like that. In most novels and short stories, the hook is a conflict or problem the audience wants to see resolved. Will Cinderella escape life with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters? Will the Light Side defeat the Dark Side? Will Gilbert get turned into a vampire, and why did a gorgeous girl who could have any guy she wants pick this extreme geek, anyway? You won't know the answer unless you keep reading. 

Some writer once said that every novel is a mystery, and that’s true. The writer plants a question in the reader’s mind on the first page, and the reader has to keep reading to discover the answer to the question and solve the mystery. If the mystery isn’t solved by the end, the writer has broken the unwritten author-reader contract, a contract that basically says that if the writer plants a question in the reader’s mind at the start, the writer will provide the answer to that question by the book’s end. All important questions will be answered. All important matters will be resolved. It might not be a happy ending, but it will be a resolution. It's vital that the author fulfil his or her part of the contract. 

Hook ‘em. Then hook ‘em. Then hook ‘em again works with pretty much any piece of writing that isn’t news and isn’t meant to be boring. Just plant those questions in your reader’s mind, and watch how your reader gets hooked.

So why does a writer need questions? Are you still here?

Well, I guess that's your answer.  

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