Saturday, 18 April 2009

Narrative hooks and coherence


First some definitions perhaps.

A narrative hook is a sentence that raises an unanswered question - typically, "what happens next?" It is a device to keep the audience reading the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page and the next chapter.

Coherence is the flow of text, where one paragraph leads smoothly on to the next. In fiction, it would also be the way in which one scene drives on to the next.

Now, conventional advice is to incorporate something dramatic in your first page that keeps the reader - errm - reading. More importantly, perhaps, it keeps the agent and publisher reading!

So, your first sentence should be a narrative hook. The reader is almost forced to read on. But then end of the first paragraph also needs to be a narrative hook, so that the reader continues to paragraph two and so on.

We also have to hold the concept of coherence in mind, where paragraphs flow smoothly and imperceptibly into each other.

Have a look at this example, from "Phase-Up", a short story by - well, OK, it's by me. And why not?

The end

I can quite clearly remember the moment of my own death. The feel of the poison ripping through my guts: the pain, the sweat, the muscle spasms, the burning. The cold circlet of metal against my temple. A brief flash of light, then nothing. Just black, soothing, nothingness.

I always did like to be thorough.

After the end

When I was next aware of myself, my surroundings were so strange, so … alien, that for a long time I could do nothing but stare in disbelief.

Imagine if you will a vast grid of shining blue lines...

Apart from the sub-heading, which itself is a sort of narrative hook - I mean, who in their right minds starts a story at the end - the first sentence is a corker (or so I am told).

I can quite clearly remember the moment of my own death.

I might revise that now, removing the redundant word 'own'. But even so, the reader thinks - weird, what's next? Must read on!

Next comes the details - how did I die? Raising the question at the end of the paragraph - why poison and gunshot? Must read on!

The second paragraph answers the question. Why? Because I like to be thorough.

OK, so that's the end of the story, isn't it?

No! Because the next sub heading tells you that there is more - there is something 'after the end'. Must read on!

I wake up in very strange surroundings.

Raising the question - why are they strange? Must read on!

And so on. Each sentence, each paragraph, each page sweeping the reader on, as helpless as a paper boat in a torrent. Resistance is futile. The reader must read to the end.

Well, that's the idea anyway.

Remember the old adages about paragraphs. One paragraph = one subject; start with topic sentence, fill in the details, finish with a conclusion. Or, as Rita Webb says in her blog, when writing about scenes: "Hook, intensity, push". Frankly I prefer Rita's version. Hook the reader, build or reduce the intensity as desired, leave a push at the end to nudge the reader onwards to the next bit.

That's coherence.

Don't regard words as your building blocks when writing. Don't even think of sentences as the basic unit.

Think of paragraphs as the building blocks that create a scene or a chapter. Start with a high, fill in all the bits that the reader needs to know to enhance understanding of action, setting or character (but no more detail than that), and end on a high.

So we have hook, detail, hook ... hook, detail, hook ...

Easy, isn't it?


  1. Very well said.

    Every word should raise questions in the reader's mind. Every sentence should answer a reader's question and raise more. It's only in the desire to find those answers that the reader must move on.

    Thanks for the link to my blog!

  2. My pleasure Rita. Thank you for a great blog!

  3. so do you just post your workshops on your blog or what?

    (This is Marisol, btw. Sshh!)

  4. Yes, Amy (M) why not? BTW, your secret is safe with me! I intend to put up lots more stuff here when I get the time, but that won't be for a while yet.