An old story from Eastern Europe tells of a village boy who’s had a dream.
“I’ve had a dream,” he tells his mother.
“Tell me what it was,” she says.
“No,” he says.
His mother beats him, but he still won’t tell.
The king of the land intervenes, but still the boy won’t tell.
All kinds of bad things happen to the boy because he won’t tell the dream. His situation gets worse and worse.
“Just tell someone the dream!”
But he doesn’t.
Instead, to keep his dream secret, he snubs a princess. That’s not good. It makes the king angry.
Somehow, he narrowly escapes the hang-man’s gallows, and is exiled to Hungary.
Eventually, he ends up imprisoned in Buda by the King of Hungary. The King wants to know what his dream was, and the boy won’t tell.
While in prison, the boy – now a young man – impresses the King of Hungary with his wisdom. The King offers the boy his daughter’s hand in marriage.
So, he becomes a prince, and when the King dies, the young man becomes the King of Hungary. Finally, he reveals his dream.
He dreamed he would become the King of Hungary.
“But I couldn’t tell anyone,” he says, “because then the King of Hungary would have had me killed.”
This is how a good story works.
You have a secret.
You say to the reader, “I know something you don’t know, and I’m not telling.”
You create a messy situation. And you do everything you can to make it worse.
This whets the reader’s appetite, arouses her curiosity.
And what’s the secret you’re keeping from the reader?
You know how the mess will be resolved.
“I know how this is going to sort itself out,” you say to the reader.
“Impossible,” the reader says.
“Well, I do,” you say. “But I’m not going to tell you unless you read to the end.”
Then you turn the messy situation into a disaster. The reader shakes her head in disbelief, and keeps reading.
Your job as a writer is to keep your promise.
You must sort out the impossible mess. And you must do it in a way that’s believable. But you mustn’t do it until the end of the story.
Break your promise, you’ve lost a reader.
Sort out the mess before the end of your story, you’ve lost a reader.
Shout about your dream of becoming the King of Hungary, and he’ll have you killed.
Keep your promise, keep your story messy until the end, create an impossible situation and sort it out in a believable way.
That’s how to hook your readers.
And keep them coming back with a begging bowl for second helpings.