Welcome guest Karen McCullough, author of Hunters Quest!
What Writers Can Learn From Clickbait
I fall for it all too often: those enticing little boxes at the bottom of news stories or in sidebars on many sites. They always feature an intriguing image and promise to tell you about the best ten movies you’ve never seen, or the twenty worst celebrity plastic surgeries, or fifteen brilliant tips for paying off your debt. Those clickbait boxes are nearly irresistible.
In just a sentence or two and with a related image, they hook you into wanting to hear the rest of the story. Which is just what we authors are trying to do with our blurbs and book covers. Those clickbait boxes are very good at it. I know I’m not always so brilliant about hooks.
What can clickbait teach us about using covers and blurbs to hook readers? I think I’ve identified four things. None of these are really new, but clickbait provides good illustrations for just how effective they can be.
- Your story must have a strong hook and you have to be able to express it in just a sentence or two. That means your novel or short is built on a deep and significant issue or problem facing your protagonist, one he or she struggles to resolve. Novels, in particular, usually involve multiple layers of complications, so boiling down the main conflict two just one or two sentences isn’t easy. But easy or not, it’s essential that you be able to do it.
- It has to be broadly relatable. Clickbait appeals to things that are intriguing to most people – curiosity, celebrity gossip, the fear we might miss out on something, and concerns about health and finances. Our stories have to be about what is most human in us – the need to satisfy our curiosity, the desire to understand ourselves and others better, our fears and insecurities. A story that doesn’t try to mine some aspect of the human condition or individual concern won’t be interesting to many people.
- Don’t tip your hand all at once. Structure your story so that there are multiple questions to be answered, but be sure that answering one just leads to more questions and then more questions. I like to think of it as building a ladder of revelations that eventually lead to the overall solution to the main story problem. At the same time, you can start out with all the background. You want your readers to care about the characters and events, so they need to meet them in action, in the depths of their issues and problems before you feed in how they got to that point.
- Sound bites – You need a strong through-story-line to keep readers moving forward. In clickbait, the goal is to keep you clicking through slides so more ads can be served to you. That means that they release the full story in small pieces, ending each slide with a bit of a hook to make sure you want to look at the next one. Authors need to be building the story in a similar way, dropping hints and clues, setting up a larger story through smaller ones, and ending each chapter with a hook.
- Keep the best for last – Don’t tip your hand too quickly. You want to wind the suspense so tightly, people can’t flip pages fast enough. And when you get to it, make it a doozy – a climactic fight, a hair-raising chase, the time bomb ticking down to the very last second. You want your readers to finish the story wrung out but satisfied.
- Your cover is the equivalent of the little image that accompanies the clickbait tag. It conveys the obvious information of title and author, but the image itself should tell the reader something about the story too. Color, objects, people, fonts, etc. should all help build the mood and offer something to entice the reader. Whether it suggests mystery or terror or humor, it needs to show itself to the target audience in an appealing way that invites them to share an interesting ride.
Blurb for Hunter’s Quest
Kristie Sandford’s vacation is interrupted when a man jumps out in front of her car. She avoids hitting him, but when she stops to see if he’s hurt, he demands she help him escape from the people chasing him. Kristie has an odd “gift” – she occasionally gets warning messages, and she gets one saying he needs her help or he’ll die. Jason Hunter is an NC SBI (North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation) agent working on his own time searching for a friend, an investigative reporter who disappeared while tracking down rumors of corruption in the bureaucracy of a small mountain town. Jason is grateful to Kristie for rescuing him, but dubious when she insists she has to continue helping him. Kristie is attracted to Jason, but the edge of danger she senses in him reminds her too much of the abusive family she escaped as soon as she could.
Still, the message said he’d die if she didn’t help him, and the messages have been right before.
Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.