What a Bestselling Author Can Teach You
About Hooking Your Readers

image of fishing hook

Pulled away. Distracted by Twitter, e-mail, Facebook. Every reader has it happen several times a day. Will your readers be any different?

Not unless you hook them.

And the secret to hooking your readers comes from the storytellers of the world.

A storyteller can’t rely on the copywriter’s standby WIIFM, because, well, the only thing that’s in it for the audience is the storyteller’s ability to engage their interest.

That’s why they’ve made an art of hooking the reader, and why screenwriting guru Robert McKee has crystallized that art into one key lesson.

Steven Pressfield relies on this key lesson, which has helped him sell well over a million copies of his novels and non-fiction worldwide. He’s also had his novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, made into a major motion picture. His non-fiction The War of Art has become a handbook not only for writers but for entrepreneurs, artists, and “creatives” of all types — just the sort of crossroads beloved by Copyblogger readers.

So what was this one key lesson, the secret Steven learned?

The inciting incident

Steven Pressfield learned about the magic of “inciting incidents” from screenwriting legend Robert McKee. Here’s how Steven put it in an interview he recently granted me:

McKee has given me (and thousands of others) so many valuable lessons, it’d be hard to pick one out, but here it is:

The ‘inciting incident.’ I had never heard this term or focused on this concept before taking his Story Structure class. I did it in my writing, but only on instinct; I had no idea what I was doing. Having that idea crystallized helped me tremendously.

I now ALWAYS ask myself, even in short blog posts, What is the inciting incident? What event or moment gets this story rolling? It’s been a huge help.

And here’s a bit more about inciting incidents as described by Robert McKee in his book, Story (emphasis mine):

Bring in the Central Plot’s Inciting Incident as soon as possible . . . but not until the moment is ripe.

If we writers have a common fault in design and placement of the Inciting Incident, it’s that we habitually delay the Central Plot while we pack our opening sequences with exposition. We consistently underestimate knowledge and life experience of the audience, laying out our character and world with tedious details the filmgoer has already filled in with common sense.

The “rule of the first third”

Most first drafts suck precisely because we “habitually delay the central plot with exposition.”

In other words, we spend too much time on dull background, rather than jumping into an exciting opening.

Print out your post’s first draft, divide it in thirds, then chop off that first third. You’ll cut away all that unnecessary exposition and end up with both a stronger beginning and a tighter post.

Even better, starting in the middle of things leaves story questions to be filled in later, while also leaving details to the imagination of your readers. Both of which engage readers and keep them reading to find out how all the pieces fit.

Beginning with the end in mind

You want to hook readers into reading your entire post — not just the first few paragraphs. Here’s how:

  1. Uncover the crux of your message. In other words, the big idea that you’re trying to convey, and why it matters to your audience.
  2. Think about how to embody that big idea with a compelling mental image. What would clothe that “big idea” with imagination and emotion? What details are essential to making that image vivid? You’ll wrap up your post by painting this image in your readers’s mind, leaving them with a powerful impression of your idea.
  3. Determine whose perspective you’re using to convey this mental image. Is this a personal revelation, a story about your readers, or a case study about some third party? What angle will make that mental image the most powerful?
  4. Ask yourself what kicks off this person’s journey toward that final mental image? Note that the inciting incident that kicks off a good story is usually some kind of trouble. Inciting incidents and headlines alike benefit from trouble, because trouble hooks readers into wanting to know the rest of the story.
  5. Experiment with how much you can leave out. What can you leave to your readers’ imaginations? What can you strip out of the beginning to enhance the mystery or suspense? Pare the post down to its essence.

Follow these steps and you’ll not only know where to end, but you’ll know how to start and what to leave out.

Examples of inciting incidents from Steven Pressfield’s blog

To cement this technique in your mind, I’ve pulled some examples of inciting incidents taken from Steven’s blog titles and opening lines. They certainly hooked me; did they do the same for you?

  • The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned: My first job was in advertising. I worked as a copywriter for an agency called Benton & Bowles in New York City. An artist or entrepreneur’s first job inevitably bends the twig. It shapes who you’ll become. If your freshman outing is in journalism, your brain gets tattooed (in a good way) with who-what-where-when-why, fact-check-everything, never-bury-the-lead. If you start out as a photographer’s assistant, you learn other stuff. If you plunge into business on your own, the education is about self-discipline, self-motivation, self-validation. Advertising teaches its own lessons . . .
  • Sex Scenes: I once did a rewrite on a porn flick. Before I began, the producer wanted to get together with me, to give me my marching orders and to make sure that I didn’t slow the project down by making avoidable rookie mistakes. We met for breakfast at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. In that meeting, I got two of the best lessons in writing I’ve ever received . . .
  • What the Muse Wants: The issue that comes up more than any other among aspiring artists and entrepreneurs is this: “How can we chase our dream when we’ve got kids, a job, demands and deadlines? How do we find the time, the self-discipline and the energy when we’re dealing with all this real stuff in the real world?” The Muse can be a tough taskmistress. But she does have one soft spot, if we know where to look . . .
  • Write What You Don’t Know: Probably the most classic kernel of writing advice is “Write What You Know.” On the surface, that seems to make a lot of sense, and I’m sure it has worked for thousands and thousands of writers. It didn’t work for me. . .
  • The Writer’s Voice: How do you find your writer’s voice? A lot of humbug has been written on this subject. The myth is that in finding that voice, the writer achieves a kind of personal enlightenment. She discovers “who she really is.” Not in my experience. . .

Notice that each of these examples hooks the reader by violating clichéd writing advice (write what you don’t know) or normal expectations (he learned about good writing from a porn director?). You’ll have to click through to the posts to see how these inciting incidents are wonderfully organic to the “big idea” within each post.

So there it is in three steps. Figure out 1) a stirring (possibly trouble-filled) inciting incident to kick things off, 2) the vivid mental image you want your readers to leave with as they finish your post, and 3) what to leave out.

Add these three things to your writing and you won’t just hook your readers, you’ll keep them reading all the way through.

About the Author: Jeff Sexton was the longtime instructor for Future Now’s Persuasive Online Copywriting course and a faculty member at Wizard Academy, where he co-teaches Writing for the Radio and the Internet. You can find him online at www.jeffsextonwrites.com

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Reader Comments (65)

  1. says

    Awesome article, Jeff! My fiction and my blogging have an entirely symbiotic relationship, one constantly feeding the other. Still, as you’ve said, I tend to cram too much exposition in the beginning. Yours is an excellent reminder. I have a 1400 word post that I need to trim today. I know just where to start. Thanks!

  2. says

    Jeff, What are your thoughts on advising writers to start their inciting incident (i.e., the opening of their book / blog post) with power verbs?

    I’m surprised I don’t see more people giving this advice. I think there’s no better way of “jumping into an exciting opening” than opening with exciting verbs.

  3. says

    Great advice here Jeff! Regardless of the topic – you have to get back to your writing basics when it comes to hooking readers in. Foreshadowing (thinking English 101) is one of the most valuable tools of the trade. Thanks for the wisdom!

  4. says

    I think Alfred Hitchcock called the inciting incident “the Macguffin”; whatever it was that got the plot rolling. I don’t know why he called it that. I would go look, but that would distract me, and I’ve got my own blog post to go write!

  5. says

    Shane,

    I think you’re right on the money with that. Writing with powerful verbs might be well-worn writing advice, but it’s advice I frequently admonish myself with during editing. Even those last two sentences bear evidence of that ; )

    I’d just add to your idea that weak verbs are sometimes the fault of picking the wrong subject for your sentence. Changing the subject of the sentence often frees up room for the writer to play with and leverage better verbs.

    – Jeff

  6. Sonia Simone says

    @Jodi, the Macguffin is a device (sometimes it has no real intrinsic value, like the Maltese Falcon) that drives the plot along. I like Hitchcock’s quote on it, “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”

  7. Steve Rae says

    Vaulting to the middle of the mine field has its distinct advantages when writing anything. Thanks Jeff for always providing target oriented advice.

  8. says

    Nice article, Jeff. Your own title and opening graph practice what you preached … and then I read through your list of Pressfield’s blog titles and got an altogether different mental image of, umm, hooking your readers when I saw “Sex Scenes.”

    I look forward to reading through more of Pressfield’s work … and the comments thus far have me thinking about how well Hitchcock used angles and filters to shape his films.

  9. BmoreKarl says

    You know, your text in Google reader headlines: “What a Bestselling Author Can Teach You
    About Hooking” Hmm. sounds interesting. …

    No, wait, it’s just false advertising. there’s a fishing lure placed prominently on the page. Those damn wiley Copybloggers!!

  10. says

    Great post Jeff and congratulations on guest posting! I loved Pressfield’s War of Art and this is a good reminder to re-read it.
    Warning: Blatant plug for Jeff’s class. Jeff is an awesome teacher and there is no better or cooler venue than the campus of the Wizard Academy in Austin.

  11. Paul Boomer says

    If only more people would read your post and apply these tips and techniques. Congrats on the post.

    After reading this, I’ve already gone back to a project and massaged it a tad.

  12. says

    When I teach kids how to write they always come alive when we start talking about “Opening Big”. Their imaginations run wild with aliens and vampires, jellybeans and giraffes. And then they figure out how to connect that energy with what they really want to write about.

    It’s nice to see that the same thing works for adults and has been working for all writers through the centuries. Great job, Jeff.

  13. says

    Thanks for a great post!
    Steven Pressfield is one of my favorite writers, both for impact and inspiration (The War of Art) and historical fiction (Gates of Fire). I have recommended and given these two books more than any others -except for the Scriptures.
    I look forward to digging in and learning more from the blog of this writing master.

  14. says

    I love this post. I used to do a similar thing with blog posts – I would delete the first 100 words after I’d written the post. Now, I’ve learned to write a bit leaner, but the strategy still works.

    I like the inciting incident example though, because you’re right, that’s what gets you hooked. Time to think of things in a new light :)

  15. says

    The “rule of the first third” is equally painful and powerful. Writing shorter posts that suck your reader right into the story surely is a great advice to follow.

  16. says

    You had me hooked from the start, Jeff. Congrats on the guest spot. Love how you hooked along before finally revealing the inciting moment idea fully. Nicely done. I recall both that porn post and the most important lesson one as well. Thanks for stirring them off the bottom of my fish tank memory. Dave’s right: Jeff’s a great teacher–in person or online. I’m following Wanek’s idea and bookmarking this one for future reference.

  17. says

    …I want more.

    This post kicks it up a notch and exposed the art behind the science. The nuance behind the process which I often overlook when I write.

    Plus there is a bonus – take a look at Steven Pressfields blog – it knocked me completely on my rear end. I’m a little gob smacked by how much I don’t know.

  18. Sonia Simone says

    @Stan, Pressfield’s blog is amazing, isn’t it? I’m grateful to Jeff for turning us on to it.

  19. says

    Thanks for the great insight, Jeff. Only the best teachers can break a complex subject like this down into understandable – and doable – pieces. You gave me my much-needed lesson for the day!

  20. says

    Awhile ago I read here at Copyblogger the idea of dropping your first paragraph so the lead in to your post was more interesting. I gave it a try and it really did work. The blog post was far more compelling without that paragraph. I can now see it was probably because by dropping it, the inciting incident was brought out in the beginning and not lost amongst unnecessary detail.

    I shall keep the 3 steps at the ready from now on. Great tips Jeff. Thanks!

  21. says

    Attention is so scarce in this new Social Media age. Really enjoyed your tips Jeff!

    It reminded me a lot of writing copy. You’ve got to have a good headline that grabs attention but if the rest of your copy sucks, you’re definitely not going to get the sale.

  22. Sonia Simone says

    @Sami, some writers call those first paragraphs “throat clearing.” They’re often useful to write, just not so enjoyable to read. :)

  23. says

    Jeff,
    Great article. I would like to write a bit about it on The Wizard Times this week; and then give a link to this site and the article . I particularly say, “amen” to the 5 points in Beginning with the end in mind.
    We do that as well when planning our shows at the Kentucky Opry.
    Mr C

  24. says

    I have learned a lot here. I have read many good books but I can’t seem to dissect the secrets of its success. By your interview with one of the greatest author I have grasped the secret.

    Thank you for sharing it here. I always wanted to be a great writer and these are important lessons for me. :-)

  25. says

    Definitely something to aspire to with these ideas. I still need a lot more pratice but hopefully I’ll be able to pull it off soon. Off to check out Pressfield’s blog now. Many thanks for sharing it and your tips with us:)

  26. says

    Leaving stuff out is so effective. And difficult! Hence the metaphor, “kill your darlings.”

    I’m always, command-x. Undo. Command-x. Undo.
    Like Boyz II Men say, it’s so hard to say goodbye.

    And then I remind myself, “no one but me will know this absolutely brilliant passage ever existed. And no one but me will miss it.”

    Command-x.

  27. says

    Jeff, the “throw away the first third” is great advice. Its a great way to create business letters, too.

    I recommend throwing out the first paragraph (which is usually just “mumbling”) and moving the last paragraph (usually a great synopsis) to the top.

    Sign it, and out the door.

  28. says

    I just finished “How to Tell a Story” by Rubie & Provost. Very good. Not a difficult read, but doing the exercise and applying their advice will keep you very busy indeed.

    They discuss inciting incidents in detail.

    Typically, I try to throw that first paragraph away and rewrite it completely, especially that first sentence.

    Checking out Pressfield now.

  29. says

    I’ve been blogging since about 2006 and I am astounded at how much I just don’t know, and how much I have managed to figure out on my own.

    Thanks for helping me close the gap a little more between what I know and don’t know.

    I use the “inciting incident” (not that I knew that was what I was doing), but do not implement the first third as described here. I try to re-read my blog posts to minimize typos but clearly don’t spend enough time refining the entry for best performance.

    Thanks again!

  30. says

    Sean,

    Thanks for the comment, buddy. Pressfield is awesome. Make sure to subscribe to his Wednesday writing feed. And good luck.

    – Jeff


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