Do you dive into a swimming pool straight away without dipping your foot in first? Do you buy a perfume without doing a skin-test first? If not, then why do you expect a reader to fall for your novel without skimming through the opening first?
There are three ‘hooks’ that can grip the reader as she browses through the millions of titles available for purchase on a given day – the book cover, the blurb at the back of the book, and the first three chapters (or the opening). Well, make that four if you want to include reviews on the cover, but many authors, especially newbies, do not have the luxury of having marquee reviews to crow about.
While the other hooks can be the subject of separate posts by themselves, the opening or the first three chapters are really your first, and perhaps your only, chance to grab the reader and throw her headlong into your story.
Anybody who’s somebody that matters to your book’s publication and its success – agents, publishers, reviewers, readers – is going to invariably sniff at the opening first. Smells good? They dive right in. Stinks? They throw your book back where it belongs – in the pile along with the others.
So, here are some quick and simple ways that newbie writers can use to create that irresistible hook.
Paint a casual scene of an unreal world. Think of it. What better way to hook your readers than with something like: “Janek got off the cab and paid the driver. He looked down. The category 4 storm raging a few miles below seemed to cover the entire North American continent.” The casualness of the scene conflicts wildly with the surreal nature of the world painted. And that pops the question in the reader’s mind: “What else could be happening in this strange world?” This type of opening applies predominantly to books in the fantasy or sci-fi genres.
Barge straight into the brawl. Nothing like dropping the reader right into the thick of the action to get her adrenaline flowing. Now, here’s the catch: don’t give away too much by trying to explain why whatever’s happening is happening. Keep that for a bit later. Your focus is on drawing the reader in into a volatile scene, immersing her in it completely and whet her appetite for follow-on action and rationale for the action by the time the opening’s through. This technique is usually adopted by writers in the thriller or mystery genres but is not necessarily limited to those.
Challenge the reader’s intellect and sense of reason. This usually takes the form of a teasingly difficult puzzle, conundrum or intriguing phenomenon around which the story gets built. Take your pick from encrypted messages, secret societies, alien swarms, paranormal sightings, unexplained disappearances, rebirths, … well, you get the idea. A word of caution: by no means are these phenomena gripping by themselves; rather, they just provide the broader theme. It still depends on how well you can sketch the characters and make their conflicts believable within these broad themes.
Make a known protagonist do something unusual. This works only for fan fiction where readers need no introduction to the protagonist and know fairly well what to expect from him or her. Throw the reader off balance by having the protagonist indulge in uncharacteristic behavior and you’ll have the reader thirsting to know why for the remainder of the book.
Kill someone. This is, by far, the most effective way to get a stranglehold on your reader’s attention. Murder (or even natural death) begs motive (or reason), and motive demands back story. A death at the beginning of your novel sets the stage beautifully to set up the back story, build the reader’s expectations and provide conflict resolution, with the motive or reason for the death either vindicated or debunked by the end of the story. A classic hook.
The above are, by no means, an exhaustive list of great opening hooks. Read around and you’ll probably find a few hundred more. A little like chess with its gazillion variations. But, the above should get you started in case you’re fresh off the blocks or weighed down by writers’ block.
What’s your favorite opening hook? Write in.
NOTE: This post is part of the On Writing series on this blog. Read the previous post in this series: 5 Ways To Get Off Your Newbie Writing Ass. Read the next post in this series: Why The Blurb Is An Author’s Wormhole.