What’s the first thing you do after taking a book off the shelf in a store and reading the blurb? You flip to the first page, right? The first page of your novel is arguably the most important page, followed by the first chapter. It not only tells the reader your writing style but also convinces them not to put your book down! What you need is a hook that ends up with your reader sitting on the bookstore floor, buried in your book until a member of staff kicks them out.
In today’s post, we’ll be exploring a variety of hook-worthy ways you can introduce your story to your reader. Each technique we’ll discuss will better suit different writing styles, plots, stories, and genres—and there is no wrong choice for you! Choose what feels right for your novel, and maybe even mix and match!
It’s not entirely uncommon for me to leave quite a frank comment on a client’s manuscript saying ‘I put the book down here.’ This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on editing (not a chance!), it just means if I was a reader, this is the point I’ve lost interest and moved on to another book in the store. Most of the time, this happens within the first couple of pages, but upon reading on, I discover a brilliant scene, setting, piece of dialogue, series of thoughts that immediately have me regretting even thinking about putting the book down. At which point, I’ll recommend to the author to push their first moment forward (or pull it backward) in order to launch into the most engaging moment possible. So don’t be averse to a slight restructure if you find your first moments are uninteresting.
So, with that out of the way, let’s continue on.
Get their heart pumping!
A car crash, a murder, a building collapsing, a battle, an argument! Otherwise known as starting in medias res (in the middle of a scene), starting with something that gets the adrenaline pumping from the moment your reader’s eyes land on the page is a great way to hook their interest. Check out my post on writing sudden events for tips on how to keep your pacing high during a scene.
There are two things you want to keep in mind when beginning with action:
The action should be relevant to your story. Keep stakes, goals, and conflicts in mind; don’t just write action for the sake of action. If you’re going to excite your reader from the get-go, don’t take it away from them by revealing the scene was irrelevant. It may be that the event is directly relevant, such as your inciting incident (such as a murder or an accident), or it may be indirectly relevant, such as a part of your world building or characterisation. For example, starting with your character barricading their home from zombies might not be ‘new’ for the characters if they live in a post-apocalyptic world, but it will paint a pretty good picture of your world for your reader. Starting on a petty argument might have nothing to do with the plot, but it sets the tone of a relationship between two characters.
Consider keeping the action vague until a mid or end point of the scene. It is one thing to keep your reader engaged through movement, but try adding another element of intrigue for your reader by being vague about the reason behind the action, or the context surrounding it. Encourage them to ask questions that they will read on in order to answer.
For example, take a look at the opening paragraph of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.
Using heated imagery, Bradbury conveys danger and excitement. Close narrative distance shows us what is going on in such vivid detail that the wider picture isn’t clear—but that’s a good thing. This means the reader is wondering what’s going on, and they will keep reading until they find out. The trick to this, however, is to not keep this vague-ness going for more than a couple of paragraphs. Being unclear is intriguing at best and irritating at worst.
Imply an incident with your first line.
Get your reader wondering what you mean (but not in a confusing way!). This technique is often used in literary fiction, memoirs, or drama. Novels where the narrator is all-knowing or wise, looking back on a life where mistakes were made and learned from. You can often expect wisdom from these narrators. A vague first line with implied context will keep your readers asking questions and reading on. For example (and I’m pulling this out of my head); ‘When you choose something, you lose something.’
A line like this is going to imply the theme of your story, or perhaps your MC’s state of mind at the ‘time of writing.’ You can set out the tone of your novel, but at the same time let your reader have a guess at what it’s going to be about. Considering my example above, we can guess the story is going to be about a choice made that resulted in a loss; perhaps something along the lines of Sophie’s Choice by William Styron?
Lines like this can also be clever. If you’re vague enough, you can draw your reader in with the line’s poignancy, familiarity, and relatability. When was the last time you had to make a choice between two options, but you wanted both equally? Many of us have likely been through a similar situation, and so from one line, you’ve hooked your reader through a shared sentimentality. They already feel as if they can empathise with the MC.
Take this first line from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Anna Karenina is a tragic story, and I bet you tell that from the first line. It has a melancholic tone to it, referencing both the happy and the unhappy in regard to something we’re all familiar with, whether on good terms or not so good. On top of this, I’m now asking questions: What has happened to this narrator’s family to make them unhappy? I want to know more. Do you?
Spark their curiosity.
Make your first line a phrase that confuses and yet intrigues your reader. This technique is ideal for main characters who exist in odd circumstances. Highlighting that as your first line is a great way to hook your reader.
This technique can be mixed with others; especially if beginning with action. Is your character living amongst zombies in a post-apocalyptic world? Your first line before launching into the action of escaping said zombies might be; ‘Back when I taught college students, I used to say Monday mornings were like greeting the walking dead; well, turns out I wasn’t wrong.’
Take this example from Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m thoroughly baffled, but at the same time mightily interested. In a single sentence, Eugenides has explained the premise of his story, albeit in a way vague enough to have you asking ‘Wait, what?’ (The book is actually about a hermaphrodite, and once you know this, the first sentence makes complete sense!)
Set the tone
Whatever is going on, you’re going to be starting with a particular mood in mind. Happy, sad, celebratory, gloomy, exciting, tense… Utilise your first paragraph to show your reader ‘this is what we’re dealing with right now.’
You could be describing the scene, setting, people… Whatever it is, make sure to include action alongside your descriptions once you get past the second paragraph to ensure you communicate a sense of movement; this will avoid your reader feeling like they’re not getting anywhere and putting your book down. It is your choice whether you are clear or vague about the cause of the particular mood you’re conveying. (But whatever you do, don’t start with your MC waking up on the morning of their birthday. It’s overdone. Trust me.)
Below are the opening moments from my client Jacob McElligott’s The Orc Ranger, the first novella in a series set in a western fantasy realm, in which he presents in just a few paragraphs a warm tone suited to the world he’s created.
The Dragon’s Hoard Saloon was located in a small town known as Desert Rose, deep in the badlands of northern Albara. Desert Rose was the bustling western town that everybody back in the east was writing about. People flocked there to work the mines, build the railroads, or try their hand at cattle ranching. Of course, once they got there they realized creating their fortunes from nothing might not be as easy as they had imagined. At this moment, early on a Saturday night, the Dragon’s Hoard was filled to the brim with folks from all walks of life. Cowboys and farmhands milled about beside miners and working girls. All of them had spent the week working, and this was the last night they had before their respective churches would try to save their souls on Sunday morning.
Now consider The Awakening by Kelley Armstrong:
When the door to my cell clicked open, the first thought that flitted through my doped-up brain was that Liz had changed her mind and come back. But ghosts don’t open doors. They will, on occasion, ask me to open one, so I can raise and interrogate the zombies of supernaturals killed by a mad scientist, but they never need one opened for themselves.
The Awakening is the second book in the Darkest Powers series. In this paragraph, Armstrong catches us up with where our main character is, as well as her state of mind and the type of world we’re looking at. The tone isn’t negative, more skeptical and slightly disbelieving, which is an accurate depiction of the MC’s mood at this point.
Start with something unusual.
This doesn’t mean starting off with a literally unusual object (although, it most definitely can), it means beginning with a seemingly mundane object existing in an unusual circumstance. For example; ‘The letter lay on my doormat, unstamped and without a return address.’ A sentence like this will (and I’m seeing a trend here) have your reader asking questions; who is the letter from? Did they hand deliver it? What do they want? Your MC’s reaction to the object will also further that intrigue.
When was the last time a light bulb blowing out was particularly interesting to you? Well, consider these first lines from Kyla Stone’s Edge of Collapse.
The light went out. It was the first thing that alerted her. The single lightbulb encased in wire mesh on the ceiling glared down on her continuously—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. The sudden darkness pressed against the backs of Hannah Sheridan’s closed eyelids. Sensing the change, her body woke from her restless nightmares.
A light bulb going out is usually an ordinary occurrence, but what turns this mundane event into a strange one is the detail where Stone tells us that this particular light bulb is never turned off. Now we’re interested in not only why the light turned off, but why it was always on in the first place.
Establish your voice.
There isn’t much precise advice I can give you on this one. Only you know your narrative voice, or perhaps you’re writing in the voice of a character. This technique can be mixed in with any of the above. A unique-sounding voice is going to catch the attention of your reader, and communicate all sorts of information to them, from the character of the narrator to the setting, tone, and era of the novel.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a brilliant example of how a narrator’s voice can just draw a reader in, at the same time conveying warmth and energy; an eagerness to tell a story that excites the reader just as much as the narrator who wants to tell it.
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing.
Similarly (and not so similarly), F. Scott Fitzgerald presents an entirely contrasting voice—that I personally find equally enticing to read—when writing from the point of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.”
Both characters presented in the above two examples come from completely different backgrounds, and this is immediately obvious from the first lines.
One rule that I will stand by through all of this, however, is to avoid going into too much detail. It can be hard to resist telling your readers everything about your characters and their circumstances in the first chapter, but it’s in your best interest not to do this! Not only does it count as info-dumping (which is boring), but it will slow your pacing and remove any curiosity that your reader will have about your story; curiosity that prompts them to read on.
So print off your first page and send it to beta readers with one question: do you want more? If they say yes, brilliant! If they say no or you get a lot of umm-ing and ahh-ing, read through this post one more time and see what hook would work best for you. Experiment, try different things. Every story has a hook—you just have to find it.