The Recall (or: Hook Your Readers!)

What’s the single most important command your dog needs to understand?

Dog running toward camera

That’s right! The recall.

Being able to get your dog back to your side whenever and wherever you want is super critical. Not just for convenience, but for safety. Imagine if you see him running in a high-speed game of chase with another dog toward a road. Or what if an aggressive-looking dog is heading your way, or a dog you know yours won’t like for some other reason? Or maybe you see a herd of deer that your beloved pet will be quite interested in disturbing, or a raft of ducks, or a clowder of cats. Even just one cat.

Without a recall, you’ve got zero control. A dog-owner relationship can’t really happen, in fact, because you won’t have a dog most of the time. Instead, you’ll have a loose fluffy cannon that’s likely to get itself lost, run over, taken home by someone else, or spend a delightful afternoon chasing rabbits or deer in the woods (delightful for your dog, not so much for you or the wildlife, of course).

Dog running away

We’ll talk more about training the recall in a moment, but let’s take a quick turn inward toward our writerly selves. We need to ask the same critical question about our stories as we did about our dogs:

What’s the single most important part of your story?

Open book
Photo credit: Kourosh Qaffari

Yep. The hook. Most readers, agents, and editors agree that they simply won’t continue reading without a good one.

If, like me, you’ve been querying publishing professionals for some time, you already know that both queries and pitches contain a single line that captures the essence of what your protagonist wants and what’s keeping them from getting it. This is the hook. Add another line about what happens if they don’t get what they want, and boom, you’ve got the stakes of your story.

Of course, in the story itself, setup of the hook can take many pages. The obstacles to a character’s chief want may not actually present themselves until the end of the first few chapters, but readers should have a solid idea of what the character wants on page one or by the end of chapter one, depending whom you ask. And by the time readers are ten percent of the way through your story, they’re gonna want to know what it’s about. Smaller hooks work great at the end of each scene or chapter.

In other words, a story hook answers the question: why do we care enough to keep reading?

Agents often say they read queries and sample pages line by line. If they don’t feel intrigued enough to go on at any point, they’ll put it down. This goes for readers, too. So it’s good idea to begin to get the essence of your hook out there from the very first sentence. Can you hook your readers into sticking around?

Likewise, can you hook your dog into sticking around?

Pack of trotting dogs

There’s actually a lot of similarity here. Picture your dog as the “reader” and yourself as the “story.” What can you do to make your dog care enough to come back to you?

The simplest solution is to divide that question into three smaller ones:
1. What do they want most in the world?
2. How easily and successfully can they get it? (specifically, are there any obstacles or distractions in their way?)
3. What happens if they don’t get it? (i.e., what are the stakes?)

Let’s answer those three questions for Tock:
Q. What does he want?
A. Tock: “Pinecone, please. If we (translation: Wendy) can’t find one, then I’ll take a snowball. Or a frisbee. In desperate situations, a stick.

Dog about to catch pinecone

Q. How can he get it?
A. Tock: Wierdest thing. Wendy always wants me close to her before she throws the darned thing. So I get close. Who cares about what other dogs, squirrels, or deer are doing if something’s gonna go hurtling through the air that I get to fetch?

Dog next to person holding stick

Q. What are the stakes for him not getting it?
A. Tock: Obvs. If I don’t come back right away, I don’t get to play my favorite game! And if I’m really bad, not that I ever, ever am (clarification: Tock may have a faulty memory of his younger days), I might find myself on the boring end of a leash for a while.

Dog on leash

Now, not all dogs have a pinecone receptor in their brains like Tock. They might prefer playing catch or tug with another kind of toy, or getting to inhale a treat. But—and this is important—it better be the most fascinating toy (preferably one they only get to see during recall training) or the most delectable treat ever! No boring kibble, unless that’s the thing they love most. And little treats in a row are way better than just one. Dogs can count. They know when they’ve hit the jackpot.

Dog getting treat reward
Tock getting the first of many treats in a row for a good recall.

Some dogs might like being petted and fussed over by their human more than anything else.

Person patting dog
Tock is 99% work, but here he is getting love anyway.

The biggest rule to live by is to keep yourself interesting to your dog! No matter what the reward, lots of dogs love to engage in a game of chase with their person right before getting it. Just as a live squirrel is way more fun for a dog than a dead squirrel, so is a “live” toy or treat that the dog has to chase and perhaps tug away from you. A recall should always be a fun game in which you get to be an active participant!

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When either training a dog or thinking about your story hook, it’s best to start simple. Many beginning writers throw too many enormous life or death obstacles at their poor protagonist right away. But your readers might not care about the characters enough at that point to get why those problems even matter. Remember to start with: What does your protagonist want? (Note: this doesn’t mean lots of backstory. Make sure characters aren’t too passive and keep as much of the action as you can in the present time.)

Likewise, it’s tempting to try recalls with dogs all the time, all over the place—at the dog park, on the sidewalk, in the hills. But your poor puppy might not know you well enough yet to want to come back to you in the presence of all those fun distractions (translation: he might not understand the stakes he’ll be missing out on.) Start your recall training inside with lots of great rewards (trust me, if your dog isn’t crazy over-the-top about them, they’re not good enough). Start by calling your dog a very short distance with zero distractions! And don’t jack up the difficulty until you’re 100% sure they’ll do it. Otherwise you’re diluting the power of their name. They’ll learn that they can ignore it when the Great Outdoors offers them something more interesting than you.

Dog in a sit-stay, waiting for treat

Back to writing, try crafting a simple hook before you even start your story. This can help it gel in your mind. Most importantly, this hook helps you bond with your story – because if you don’t understand it, how will your readers? Next, keep that hook in mind while you’re writing the first draft of your first few chapters. Re-visit it and make sure it’s compelling. Envision your hook like an invisible leash, pulling your readers—or your dog—back to you whenever and wherever you want.

Dog recalled to handler, getting treat

Happy Tales!

2 thoughts on “The Recall (or: Hook Your Readers!)”

  1. Great article! It’s true, the recall is such an important command to teach your dog for their safety, and the parallels drawn to writing a compelling story hook were very insightful. Thanks for the tips!

    Liked by 1 person

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