Hook, Line, & Readers: Using Storytelling to Ensnare Your Audience

When I went wandering the streets of Galway, Ireland, I did so with the express purpose of taking the wrong roads. By the end of the night, I’d watched zombies dance, helped promote a local tattoo artist, danced five miles, faced bomb threats, and learned a hell of a lot about storytelling.

Storytelling isn’t about taking the right roads. In my years of freelance writing, I’ve become accustomed to the traditional “essayism” of the modern blog entry: You start with a short hook that pitches reader value, break up your content into digestible sub-headings, and conclude by reminding your readers how useful your content was. By choosing to detour from the right path and, instead, tell a great story, you can pull your readers quickly and deeply into what you have to say.

Quilting a Blog Entry

Image courtesy of Flickr by VirtKitty

My first paragraph was a promise that I’m not going to come through on; sorry, all, but this blog entry is about hooking readers, not about finishing off your hooks. The opening I used presents an opening for a “quilt” format, where—after introducing the general concepts in a chaotic way—I tell the scenes, creating a more cohesive story of how my night went. (For the truly curious, details on that night are written up in this blog entry.)

When hooking your readers with a “quilt,” it’s important that the pieces of your quilt seem interesting, but also that the way they relate—or fail to relate—creates a sense of mystery for your readership. You can do this even if you’re not relating personal experience.

For example, if writing about the top ways to motivate employees, you could say, “Keeping people motivated is simple: Pay them less, ignore them, give them elephants, expand your stairwells, let them bring their dog to work, and—above all—make sure you hire failures.” All of these suggestions, by the way, are based on stories told in The Happiness Advantage (one of my favorite books), and I could easily write that article.

Start with a Gun in Your Mouth

Image courtesy of Flickr by TaylorContagious
Most of us are familiar with the film Fight Club, where the story begins with Edward Norton’s character being threatened at gunpoint by Tyler Durden. Starting at the pinnacle of the story creates a driving, compelling question that the remainder of the movie addresses. We call these opening scenes “grippers.”

Applying this to a blog is a matter of finding the most important experience or result that applies to what you have to say. Rather than building to this peak, start from it. Let’s say you’re writing an article about multivitamins. Your introduction could read, “I sat on the park bench, the warm light bathing my skin. I’d been sleeping better, working harder, and playing a lot more. It was hard to believe this happened because of a tiny pill.”

The Introduction of Conflict

Image courtesy of Flickr by Polina Sergeeva

Conflict makes stories go round. One of the best ways to get a reader’s attention is to have the central conflict of the story stare them in the face from the moment they look at the page. In blog entries or articles, the conflict is often the problem you’re trying to resolve for your reader.

To reverse the multivitamin example, we can start with the problems that lead to the writer’s multivitamin research: “5:23am, and I still couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t so much the ticking of the clock that got to me. It was knowing that, all day, I would be a groggy mess—finding it difficult to work and impossible to really relax. I wasn’t just exhausted: I was tired of feeling like the living dead. Something had to change.”

The Tangent

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Another option is to start with an interesting fact that relates to your topic only by a thread. Here’s an example:

When the TV series Firefly was canceled, its fan community was outraged. They wrote swarms of hate mail to Fox, drafted petitions, and even conducted wildly successful charity drives. In the end, their efforts allowed the movie Serenity to be created as a sequel to the series. The fans of Firefly had come to feel that the ever-moving spaceship Serenity was, in some way, their home. Even today, you’ll find countless fan sites and t-shirts broadcasting the words, “You can’t stop the signal.” Despite this, and many other, examples of how loyal consumers impact business success, most modern corporations still make common mistakes that alienate the people who could keep their business flying.

These tangents are often seen as a waste of space because they are a non-mandatory part of expressing the core article concepts. However, as an easy-to-digest story that demonstrates a broader concept for exploration, an introductory anecdote or factoid can work both to draw readers in and support the major points of your article.

These four strategies for opening a blog entry are just a small smattering of the possibilities. The important thing to remember is this: Techniques for telling a great story don’t stop applying just because you’re working on the web.

While the “tried and true” forms for snappy blog entries can work to great effect, it’s crucial to differentiate your site from competitors. Even more importantly, you need to find your voice. After all, isn’t that why we write in the first place?

About Rob Blair

Rob Blair (@_RobbieBlair_) is an author, poet, educator, and the founder of the Creative Writing Guild. You can find a variety of Rob’s creative work—including poetry, fiction, and personal narratives—at RobbieBlair.com.

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