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There are ten perfect words—or maybe it’s nine, or perhaps it’s a dozen—anyway, the point is, if I start my story with those words, I’ll have the keys to the kingdom. My readers will be entranced. They’ll hang on my every sentence, never looking away, barely daring to breathe, until they turn that last page, finish that final paragraph. And then they’ll beg me for more.
Well, there’s no point in pussyfooting around it. Just hand over the words and no one will get hurt.
Sorry, what? There is no single set? Everyone is expected to come up with his own? What kind of half-baked system is that?
Yes, it sounds ludicrous, the idea that some special words will bind my readers to my book. So why do we accept it? Why put such pressure on ourselves? Why allow others to do it to us?
No one, if questioned directly, would admit to believing in a magic hook. But the suggestion is insidious. It creeps in through cracks and knotholes, and lodges itself in places where we rarely shine light. Before we know it, we become certain we’ll know those words when we see them, even though few of us appear to agree on any one choice.
What’s that? There, at the back of the room, a meek-looking little fellow is holding up his hand, but he’s ducking, too, as if he’s afraid that someone is going to throw something. Don’t worry, it’s mostly writers in here. We just throw around words. Of course, some of them do get heavy.
Anyway, he says he’s a reader. He just wants to read a good story. He has more faith in strong writing than in magic hooks. And he wants to know if, maybe, we couldn’t have a little faith in him, too. If he wanted a whole story in ninety seconds or less, he wouldn’t bother picking up a novel. He says, make it inviting. Don’t just toss him in. And don’t drone on and on—he gets enough of that with Uncle Benjie’s home movies—but expect that, if he likes the place and the people, he’ll want to look around a bit. He says, he likes to keep moving, but too much speed turns everything into a blur.
Maybe we should listen to him. If we really want our readers to get to that last page, that final paragraph, perhaps we need to think about making every scene inviting. Maybe interesting a reader isn’t a one-step process. Maybe there are no magic words.
It’s probably just as well. By the time I’d used them in every scene, those special words would likely be pretty wrung out.