Almost sixty years ago I was a five-year-old hunched precariously on the high dirt bank of Herb Den Dulk’s pond. My line was a stick yanked off a tree, my line a white string, and my hook a safety pin. The lure? A worm dug from our back garden, now limp and lifeless after the half-mile walk in my sweating fist.
As I sat watching the lone goldfish drift a few feet from the bank, I believed mightily that fish love worms and that one would be biting the safety pin any minute now. Faith dies hard in children, and I held onto that pole for three hours in the relentless California sun before throwing it down and heading home.
I still believe in the power of lures, however. A good lure, well crafted, draws readers into your story like fish gathering around a bit of sparkle, feather, and fake eye bobbing in front of them.
And—as any avid fisherman will tell you—making lures is fun.
Story lures derive their power from what’s left off the page, rather than what’s added. They are holes of missing information, shadowy bits of backstory, mere hints of future catastrophe.
Lures are a discipline every growing writer needs to master. Because your first inclination as a writer will be to tell the reader all—splat! A hefty scoop of information ladled out in the first pages. Won’t the readers be pleased, you think. All the information they’ll need for the rest of the story: not only the protagonist’s age, date of birth, shoe size, and favorite chewing gum, but also his childhood trauma, family secrets, problems at work, and hidden vices.
Unless you’ve got a voice as entertaining as Twain or compelling as Tolstoi, however, you’re going to lose your readers right there. Right at the >splat<.
So learn to leave holes. Dig one on every page. Even your opening line can be a lure, as in this famous one: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Right away, the reader’s ears prick up. What made it the best? The worst? A lure draws them toward the hook.
As Diane Holmes, author and pacing guru, says, “Lures are about the desire to know more.” That’s what you want to stimulate in your readers. When you hint that one of your characters is telling a lie, keeping a secret, or discovering a new clue; when you bring readers to edge of a cliffhanger; when you make them shiver at a foreshadowing of evil things to come—these all make them want to keep reading.
You know you have a great lure when it generates questions not only in your character but also in your readers, when the readers feel such anxiety for your character that they experience stress and worry, feeling driven to in some way help the character survive.
Planting lures on each page isn’t a cheap literary trick. It’s how life works. We’re all trying to figure out this mystery, whether a dream will live or die, how a relationship will thrive, or even how long we’ve got yet on this planet. How will these things end? We’re constantly trying to read the signs: stock market reports, the six o’clock news, our boss’s next evaluation, our partner’s tone of voice. Which of us has the entire picture at any time in our life? When you plant big holes of the unknown in your story, you’re giving your readers a slice of real life.
Next time you feel compelled to bare all for your reader, remember that the Victorians had something going. They were mostly covered up from head to toe. But just the flash of an ankle, the white skin at the throat, a soft and tiny wrist—these excited imagination and desire more than does the vast expanse of skin we see today.
So cover up. Let just a little of the bare truth show through—with the promise that if readers keep going, you’ll reveal all just at the right time, and with so much more pleasure!