Empathy and Mystery Hook Your Reader

Wednesday, April 15, 2015
I’ll be one of the first people to admit it. I’m a fickle pickle of a reader. Fail to hook me in about 20 pages, if I’m feeling generous, and I close your book and move on to the next. Thank goodness for my library card.

A lot of writers try to open with an exciting, seat-of-your pants scene to hook the reader. Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t. Too much drama, too early on can make your reader roll her eyes. It’s too much too soon so it seems overdone.

Instead, give your reader a reason to empathize. Stir up her curiosity.

I’m reading Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell. When I started the book, I didn’t know who Huguette Clark was so that wasn’t going to work as a hook.

Instead, Dedman relies on reader empathy. He tells about his search for a new home and, finding nothing in his market, searching way up the scale. At one time or another, whether we were car shopping or shoe shopping, we’ve all failed to love what we could afford and ended up looking beyond our price range. We get it and we empathize.

Dedman saw something about an enormous gated home in the area. He wasn’t allowed on the grounds, but the caretaker divulged the owner’s name – Huguette Clark. The man had held the job for years but never met Ms. Clark. Then Dedman chanced upon a second Clark property when he was in California with much the same results. He was determined to find out about this mysterious woman who owned, but never visited, luxury properties.

Talk about a great way to hook the reader – mystery piled on top of mystery.

When the reader meets Huguette Clark, she is an old woman being visited by a doctor who doesn’t actually know her. While he anticipates eccentric, he doesn’t expect a woman whose face is so ravished by cancer that she hides behind a towel.

We all know what it’s like to be embarrassed but . . . wow. How can you not feel for this woman and wonder what led to this situation?

Dedman didn’t start the book with a car crash or a natural disaster which he could have done. After all, Huguette had a ticket for the Titanic. Instead, he starts the story by hooking us with a mystery and building empathy for this amazing character, a character who just happens to be real.

Can you use any of these techniques to hook your readers?


SueBE teaches our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.  The next section start May 4, 2015.


Angela Mackintosh said...

Great insight, Sue! This is how to read like a writer. :)

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