Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 21, 2010

Hooking Your Reader – Part 1

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is hook your reader, agent, or editor.  I have talked before on this blog about Les Edgerton and his skill building book FINDING YOUR VOICE.  Well, Les has done it again with his book titled, HOOKED.  Here is an excerpt:

An opening scene has ten core components: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing. Let’s take a quick look at each and how they work together to help the opening scene achieve its unique goals. This is only an overview, as these elements are discussed in greater detail in later chapters.

The Primary Components
Each of the ten components is important, but some are more important than others. The four most important, in almost all stories, are the inciting incident, the story-worthy problem that is introduced by the inciting incident, the initial surface problem that is directly created as a result of the inciting incident, and the setup. The importance of the last six ingredients varies according to the individual story, but even though important, they usually take a back seat to the first four.

1. The Inciting Incident
As noted in the previous chapter, the inciting incident is the event that creates the character’s initial surface problem and introduces the first inklings of the story-worthy problem. In essence, this is the “action” part of the story, the part that is plot-based. This happens to the protagonist, then he does this to resolve it, then this, and so on.

2. The Story-Worthy Problem
The inciting incident sets the stage for the story-worthy problem, which functions just beneath the surface of the story on a more psychological level. Consider it the driving force behind the initial surface problem as it’s ultimately what the protagonist must reconcile at the end of the story. The inciting incident introduces this problem by either bringing to the forefront a buried problem or creating a new one, thus beginning the gradual revealing process that will encompass the rest of the story as the protagonist’s—and the reader’s—understanding of the true nature of story-worthy problem deepens.

3. The Initial Surface Problem
This is the problem that occurs as a direct result of the inciting incident. And while it may seem at first glance that solving this problem is what the story is really all about, it’s not. As we just discussed in the previous section, every story is ultimately about solving the deeper, more complicated story-worthy problem that is slowly revealed as the story progresses. So why does the initial surface problem qualify as a primary opening scene component? Simple. It propels the protagonist to take action (he wants to solve it, or at least he better for your story to work), and assists in the eventual revelation of the story-worthy problem.

Keep in mind that the initial surface problem can evolve into or create additional, even larger surface problems, but that these must rise organically from the initial problem and always be firmly moored to the story-worthy problem.

4. The Setup
The definition of the setup is just that—it “sets up” the opening scene by giving a snapshot that allows what will take place in the following scene to be clear to the reader. The last thing you want to happen is to force the reader to “backtrack” to make sense of what’s taking place in the scene. That’s why opening directly with dialogue is usually a mistake. Unless the dialogue is crystal clear as to who’s talking to whom and about what, the reader may have to go back and reread the dialogue again once she figures out the context and who the participants are and their relationship to each other. At the least, such backtracking—either literally or on a subconscious level—represents a speed bump. At the worst, it can create a complete stall for the fictive dream. There are, of course, exceptions, but it’s usually safest to not take chances and to avoid beginning with direct dialogue.

Setup can take any number of forms or combinations of forms. The overall “rule” is to only give what’s absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the scene that will follow and no more. Remember, this is the beginning and the beginning is the place the reader will decide whether to invest any more time in the story. That means little or no backstory—save that for later. (That’s why I’ve listed backstory as a secondary component instead of primary component despite that fact at least a small amount usually appears in opening scenes—to remind you to use it with care.) You also shouldn’t include excessive detail or description in your setup. Save it. Your setup should contain at least a hint of the trouble to come, either directly or indirectly. It may be something as simple as showing the reader a man and a woman seated across from each other in a restaurant and the man refusing to meet the woman’s eyes as she begins talking. At the other extreme, it may need to show that the restaurant is an abandoned, dust-covered dining room in a Western ghost town and it has recently been designated as an atomic bomb test site. In any case, only provide the bare minimum that will serve the scene that follows and orient the reader sufficiently that what ensues is clear as it begins to take place.

Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go
by Les Edgerton
Writer’s Digest Books, 2007
ISBN 978-1-58297-457-6
$14.99 paperback, 256 pages

If you are thinking about getting this book, Writer’s Digest has it for $8.00 with discount code WDS132 – but it expires today 3/21/10.  I know it is good, because I used it to purchase this book.

Tomorrow, read Part ll as Les discusses Secondary Components.



  1. Excellent post.

    One worthy of a gold star in Google Reader.

    You’ve got me hooked 🙂


    • Wendy,

      Thanks for reading and letting me know you liked the post. I thought this one was something every writer could use.



  2. Hi Kathy,
    I was knocked out by your extremely nice words about my book Hooked and just wanted to thank you. It just made my day to think that the words I scribbled may have helped another writer–I can’t begin to describe what that meant to me.

    I’m going to list your blog on mine and hope you get a ton of new readers! Best of luck with your own writing.

    If interested, my blog is at

    Blue skies,
    Les Edgerton


    • Les,

      I think you are great and everyone should read your books. As Regional Advisor of the New Jersey SCBWI, I am always looking to learn more about the craft of writing, so I can share it with my members. It is so great to see them develop as writers and get published. I’m honored that you are going to put my link on your blog and as soon as I get a few minutes, I am going to put a link to your blog on mine. Where are you located? Anywhere on the East Coast?



  3. Kathy,

    You’ve done it again. Just what I needed to read this morning. The first paragraph of my book has been my Achilles Heel for three years. That damn “Hook” is a term I’ve learned to respect.


    • Henya,

      That’s great!. I went back to check a couple of my novels to see if they hit the mark.



  4. Kathy, I have to be in Indiana because that’s where my stuff is and someone has to watch it. In a little town called Fort Hooterville. Although, on maps it’s called Ft. Wayne…

    My home town in New Orleans.

    May I recommend another book–actually, a series of books–that I recently discovered myself–for you and your readers? I’m speaking of the series of “Save the Cat” books by recently-deceased Blake Snyder. Even though these books are aimed at screenwriters, an awful lot of the info in them is helpful for fiction writers.

    Blue skies,


    • Les,

      I can see why you recommended this book. I’ve been over at Amazon reading the excerpts from the book. Looks like there is a lot of great info. So now I have it on my list to order.




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