Writing a Good Hook

First, sharpen your knives, next ready your line. Wait. That’s fishing. Have I got your attention? Good, I succeeded. You continued to read to find out where I was going with this. That is the purpose of a good hook—to capture your reader’s attention. I know, you get all of this already, but how do we write a good hook?

Emotions

The first step, for real this time, is to take a moment and reflect on the emotion in your opening scene. Make a list as you reflect. Continue exploring all the degrees and variations in emotion until your brainstormed list is as long as you can make it. Now, set the list aside.childrens-eyes-1914519_1920

Keywords

Next, think about what you want to say in the first sentence. Brainstorm synonyms for all of your keywords and ideas. Again, keep the list going as long as you can. When you feel you’re done with this list, go back and read through your first list for anything else that may come up.

I hope you’re starting to get the idea of what needs to be in the opening hook by now. Yep. It’s the emotion. Human beings are emotional creatures, meaning we respond to emotions whether we like it or not. Investing good time and energy into the emotional part of the opening hook will get you a long way. The best part is the specific emotion does not matter, just that it is a strong emotion. Now, the caveat is to make sure you don’t turn your reader off with too strong of an uncomfortable emotion. It doesn’t mean you can’t use that emotion, just be careful.

The Message

message-in-a-bottle-1694868_1920Now you have the emotional aspects figured out, go back to the message of your opening sentence one more time. What is the very first thing you want your reader to picture as they start reading your story? I’m not about to give you rules here. Enough of those are floating around already. To me, it isn’t as important to focus on whether you start with dialogue, action, or description as it is on giving your reader a reason to keep reading. Pick what you’re going to start with and really think about how you’re going to paint that first picture. What is the most crucial detail of the first scene? This is what you should direct your reader to.

Finally, write the opening. Read the opening out loud to see how it sounds when youbook-1014197_1920 hear it. If needed, rework the sentence, or sentences, until it is good and comfortable. Then test your opening on others. Have some people you trust read through it. Open up some of your favorite books and study how they opened the story. Check your first sentence in the context of the opening scene. Are you certain this is where the scene needs to start?

Unfortunately, there is no sure fire guaranteed way to write a good opening hook. But, with some understanding of psychology and practice, we can find good guidelines. As always, let me know how it goes!

How Do I Say That Though?

Let’s go back and revisit some dialogue again, this time with a slightly different focus. We’re going to look at how the construction of dialogue works. I’m not talking about things like punctuation. This is more about how we put together sentences when we speak aloud. After all, when we write dialogue, aren’t we trying to make readers hear the conversation as if it is happening?

Word Selection

The first thing to think about is the word selection. By paying careful attention to the words we are putting into our characters’ mouths, we can do a lot to show emotion, to build character, and to create tension. For example, there are certain phrases and words we just don’t use unless we are frustrated, angry, and yelling. If you don’t believe me, try it. Think of a phrase you’ve yelled before and try saying it out loud in a calm level voice. Chances are it sounded awkward and ridiculous. One of the best ways to cut down on arguing is to concentrate on not raising your voice. You will automatically adjust your vocabulary as a result. This is a common therapy trick.

Non-Verbals

Another thing to think about is the body language and non-verbal cues that accompanygestures-2158259_1920 dialogue in real life. We get quite a bit of information from these, sometimes more than the words themselves. Rather than relying mostly on dialogue tags to indicate who is talking, try adding in the non-verbal parts of communication. They will give your dialogue more weight, create a more vivid scene, and will solve a large chunk of the telling issues that are a hazard with dialogue tags.

Speaking Style

old-man-1739154_1920Finally, think about the way we talk. This is part word choice, part non-verbal, and part brain function. All of these things, plus more probably, come together to make how we speak different from how we write. That means we need to pay attention to those subtle differences and incorporate them into our writing. I don’t have any nifty tricks to help with that, though. It just takes practice. As I said before, go out and listen to people speaking. Not to what they are saying but to the words and how they sound. Then go home and try to replicate what you heard, but do it on paper. Read the dialogue out loud. If you can, get someone else to read the exchange out loud with you. Make notes of where you stumble and what it was you wanted to say in those spots.

Take a shot at writing a few practice dialogue scenes and let me know how it goes!

Gender and Communication

While we are on the subject of dialogue, let’s take a little bit closer look at how males and females communicate because there are some distinct differences.  Before going there, though I need to set two ground rules for this discussion.  First, about 80% of people will fit the general patterns as described below.  About 20% of males will trend toward the “female” style of communication and about 20% of females will trend toward the “male” style of communication.  Second, culture and ethnicity will alter some of these patterns.  This pattern tends to be most true for Caucasian Americans.  Finally, as always, there will be exceptions to all of this.  Clear?  Now, let’s get started.

Biological Basis

Many of the differences in communication styles have their roots in the biologicalbrain-2029363_1280 differences that occur before we are born.  Remember that hormone burst that occurs at the tail end of the first trimester during pregnancy?  That peak time for morning sickness?  While it is responsible for the outward sex characteristics that traditionally define male and female, it also alters the brain structure.  This is part of what science is looking at for why women usually multitask better than men and why men can often compartmentalize better than women.  These structural differences set up a life long pattern of different communication styles.

Communication Purpose

After we are born, social pressures teach us to further alter our communication styles.  Women, even as young as two and three years old, tend to aim their communication at finding common ground and to relate to each other.  Men tend to compare and compete, focus on activities, and work to establish a hierarchy amongst themselves.  Women also man-2026464_1280tend to use much more polite language than men.  Things like “I’m sorry” and asking for things are second nature to many women, yet can be frustrating for men.  Men do not tend to see the efforts at connection, feelings, and relationships in this language.  Men, in turn, tend to avoid feelings and language that makes them appear vulnerable because this tends to be seen as a liability.

Giving Direction

Now, there is a catch that women can end up trapped in.  That’s when a woman is in a position of authority.  If a woman comes across as too direct and firm, she is vilified and called derogatory names.  Yet, if she is polite and asks, then she can be seen as weak and an ineffective leader.  This pattern does not typically hold true for men.  They can be direct and blunt, which is taken to mean the male is an effective leader.  Thus, effective female leaders tend to either learn to ignore criticisms of being direct, or find ways to be direct while retaining the polite language typical of most women.

Application

Remember, not everyone will conform to these general patterns.  For example, I tend to drift more toward the “male” style of communication, though I still retain some of the “female” aspects.  Hopefully, though, they will help you start to pick out how to write dialogue for characters of every gender.  Again, the best way to study and practice this is to go out and listen to conversations.  Then write some and read them out loud.  Do they sound similar?  Plus, think about all of the conflict you could create with misunderstandings generated by these differences in the way we talk.  As always, let me know how it goes!

Writing Convincing Dialogue

Who here has made comments to the effect of “I can’t write good dialogue”?  *Counts show of hands*.  Yep.  Many authors have.  There are a few reasons why dialogue can be challenging.  Let me give you some pointers using psychology to help develop better dialogue.

Speaking Is Not Writing

The first piece to understand about writing good dialogue is that we do not speak the way we write.  When we write, we are searching to create images with words.  Therefore, we construct sentences and paragraphs as a visual experience for the reader.  Dialogue is like music.  It needs to be heard, not seen.  So, go out and listen to people talk.  Don’t worry about the content of what they are saying.  Listen to the rhythm of their speech, the choice of words themselves, and the tempo.  Do this for a while.  Then try writing some dialogue.  Again, when you’re writing it, the content does not matter.  Mimic the rhythms and tempos you discovered.  Read it out loud. Like I said, dialogue is an auditory experience, not a visual one.

Emotions Matter

emotions-2028612_1280When you’re thinking about dialogue, emotions matter.  Is the character angry?  Chances are, he or she will not be using polite and diplomatic language.  Is the character sad?  Probably not going to wax on eloquently about something (unless it is a Shakespearean tragedy which is a whole different ball game).  How about excited?  The speech patterns will be much more rapid than a calm person’s speech.  Also, the more emotional the character is, and this holds true regardless of the specific emotion, the less clear the language will be.  Now, this is a general rule, but go out and listen to people again.  Emotion crowds out more rational thought, which means our ability to string together complex sentences and articulate speeches becomes much more limited.

Gender Matters

No.  I’m not saying this because I am a woman or that it is National Women’s Day.  It is a art-2026066_1280simple fact that males and females communicate differently.  This starts with structural differences in the brain that occur prenatally and builds from there.  Don’t believe me?  Go listen for a while.  Most males will focus their conversation on things they can compete with, concrete numbers and statistics, and physical activities.  Most females use communication to connect, to find commonalities, and to build people up.  Now, there are always some that defy these gender norms, but as a general rule, this will hold true.

Convincing dialogue is not always easy.  Rule change when we switch from descriptive prose to dialogue.  Take some time to go out and listen to people.  Look for some of the things I’ve shared here about how we don’t speak the way we write, how emotion colors dialogue, and how gender changes the way we speak.  Then try your hand, reading what you write out loud.

 

Erikson’s Ego Integrity versus Despair

Woohoo!  We’ve made it to the final stage in Erikson’s psychosocial development theory.  This is the stage of ego integrity versus despair.  I know, sounds depressing, but there is hope.  I promise.

Ego Integrity

This is from about 60-65 years old until the end of life.  What is the big milestone that happens at this age, or at least used to be in this area?  Preparation for retirement-ahead-editedand retirement.  If people have found a way to leave their legacy for future generations, they can make this transition into retirement a little easier.  Then they spend their time reflecting on what they have accomplished and incorporate that into their sense of self.  Erikson said the characteristic of wisdom is what comes from this self-reflection and feeling of accomplishment about one’s legacy.

Despair

However, this transition can be a significant blow to one’s ego, particularly if the sense of identity had been tied in to one’s job, or if there is no sense of a positive legacy being left behind.  These things can feed into feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, which oopslead to depression.  Unlike other stages, there is not as much pressure to resolve this one to continue development.  There is no next stage to move on to address.

Character Development

So, how can you use this for character development?  You could create older characters who are struggling with coming to terms about the final stage of their lives.  Or you could set up circumstances where someone is forced to address this stage of life prematurely for some reason.  What if someone had to resolve this developmental task to be able to die and move on?  While the possibilities do not seem as endless at first, twist your world around some and you may find some interesting ways in which you can use this developmental stage to help your characters grow.

I hope this exploration of Erikson’s psychosocial development theory has been helpful for your character development.  Stay tuned and we’ll cover other concepts in psychology and how they apply to writing.  As always, let me know how it goes!