Does Your Book Have a Hook? (Fiction)
Don’t you love when you pick up a book and you’re caught up from the very first line, excited to read more? At the end of the day, when, okay, my attention's pretty much shot to hell, and I want to start in on a new book, I might pick up five books—sometimes more—and if the first line doesn't grab me, that book goes back in the pile, and I pick up the next one. I probably shouldn't cop to this end-of-day limited focus. Instead, I should go on about my infinite patience, generosity of spirit, and dedication to reading until the book finally picks up. But there you have it.
I'm not alone. Agents and editors are busy, overworked, and neck-deep in submissions. So give them—and yourself—a break. Here are five important guidelines to follow when writing your introductory paragraphs, even pages. Get these down, and your agent/editor will turn pages, skip dinner, and love/(possibly) take on/(even better ) buy your book.
1. Grab your reader’s attention with a strong opening sentence
You may have only three minutes (and that’s generous) before your readers stop reading. Hook them with unusual language, a unique voice, a startling action, intriguing dialogue, a mood, or a description of a setting. Just keep them reading. For more about strong opening sentences, check out 5 Spot on First Sentences and Why They Work.
2. Captivate the reader with a character
Give your character flaws, so they’ll make bad decisions, get into sticky situations, appall you. Readers identify with sympathetic characters, but readers also make mistakes and want characters to make them, too. So you want to create characters that are capable of wrecking their lives. For a while. To see how well you’ve described and balanced your characters, try this. Read the first five pages of your book. Take the main character or characters (no more than three), and make a list of traits—from the text. If you have one or two traits only, add more. Eight-ten, you’re good. In between, you might want to dive back in. Next, divide these traits into those you consider positive (we’re not talking “blond hair” [unless it's perfectly styled, and that tells us something about the character]—more like “good listener”) and those you’d consider negative (“hates to floss” to “pathological liar”). You don’t need a 50/50 balance, just a mix. And remember that no one, no one, is perfectly awful or perfectly fabulous.
Take a look at ways your characters can screw up: 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions.
3. Intrigue your reader with a puzzle to solve
The plot, the events of the novel, should give the reader an immediate puzzle to solve, something to worry about, a reason to care about what happens next. Start on the first page, not the second, and certainly not the third. In a murder mystery, the puzzle might be who killed the mayor. In a thriller, who’s plotting to overthrow the mayor. Or you might introduce a troubled character. Readers love to solve puzzles, so introduce one, and they’ll lose sleep, relive scenes, and flip pages to find the answer.
4. Start with a scene
Unless you’re definitely writing a character novel, it’s a good idea to start with a scene—a block of action that moves the story forward. Here’s a very basic framework. A character, call her Sylvia, has a goal, but some conflict prevents her from meeting her goal. So she sets another—maybe a new way to achieve the previous one. This is the action. We also have to care about Sylvia, and that’s where your character traits and your puzzle come in. When writing solid scenes, you want to meet two objectives. You want to introduce the character, to get the reader inside his or her head and heart. And at the same time, you want to engage the reader in the action. When you do both well, you’ll draw your reader into the story.
5. Push back on backstory
Aim for a backstory-free first scene. Some people suggest introducing backstory as early as chapter two. Some say to wait until you’re one-third of the way through the book, and some say to hold off until about page 75. This guideline doesn’t mean you can’t ever introduce backstory earlier, even in the first chapter. When you do, just try to keep the backstory short—a phrase, a sentence, even a paragraph. And make sure to tie the backstory directly to the scene. For example, if Russell’s car gets away from him, and he’s chasing it down the street, you can work in a sentence or two about how Russell’s car has gone rogue before. By tying backstory to the scene and keeping it short, you can actually deepen the scene and offer greater insight into the character.
Watch for future blogs about character, scene, puzzles, and backstory. As for the guidelines outlined here, remember, they’re valid, but they’re guidelines. After you’ve mastered them—you can perform all kinds of stylistic gymnastics.
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