A couple of years ago, I read an article about hounds hunting for rabbits. Researchers had found that when a hound is hunting for a rabbit, each time that the hound caught a rabbit’s scent, the dog’s brain released dopamine as a reward, to keep him hunting. It wasn’t until the hound actually caught a rabbit and got a little blood in its mouth that the brain released a gush of serotonin in order to reward the dog for catching the rabbit.
Readers are very much like those hounds. We’ve evolved to be hunters, and a cagey writer will let the reader “hunt” for the information and emotional rewards in a story. Let me explain.
Imagine an early human waking in the morning. She’s hungry, and she thinks about what she wants to eat. She might be hungry for hazelnuts.
So what does she do? She goes to a grove of hazelnut trees and searches the ground. Maybe it’s a bit too early for the nuts, so she has to hunt for last year’s nuts among the fallen leaves. She scratches around, and finds that the wild boars and squirrels have taken the good nuts away.
As she hunts, each time that she sees the shell of a nut, her brain releases a little dopamine, rewarding her just for searching. She might see a shell and find that a squirrel or boar already got to the nut and it’s empty. She might find a four-year-old nut eaten by worms. But if she keeps looking, she’ll find a good one.
When she bites into it, the brain releases its serotonin for a reward.
So how does that apply to readers?
Imagine a reader who has a taste for a novel. There are a lot of novels out there, each offering its own kind of reward—wonder, horror, humor, romance, adventure. As the reader goes to the bookstore and begins searching, she will see which part of the store holds the books she wants. Let’s imagine that she wants a romance. She’ll feel a little thrill of excitement when she sees the romance section.
As she draws closer, she’ll see novel covers. Perhaps she likes bodice rippers, and so she feels another little jolt of excitement when she sees the covers she likes.
Eventually she finds one that strikes her fancy: a bare-chested pirate. Everything about the cover and the title combine to excite her into a purchase. She’s looking for romance, and this novel promises it big time.
But as she reads, she doesn’t get her payoff right away. This reader is looking for romance and adventure. A wise writer will tease the reader, make her wait for the romance. The Pirate Laird won’t show up on page one with his shirt off, kiss her, and say, “Let me take you to my treasure island, where you will be the greatest gem in my hoard.” Nah, he’ll have to capture her first, think about feeding her to the sharks, maybe even consider selling her off to slavers. The reader is like that cave woman, hunting for hazelnuts. She gets glimpses and promises, raising her excitement, until that final moment when the Pirate Laird takes her in his arms and announces that just as he has captured her, she has captured him. The payoff feels so much greater that way.
And so as writers, no matter what emotion we are promising our reader—wonder, horror, romance, thrills, intrigue—we have to tease our readers first. We use hooks to pull them into the story and reward them for reading on, until we get to that emotional payoff.
So, to a huge degree, the art of storytelling requires you to learn the art of writing those little hooks that drive a reader crazy.
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