The Opening Hook
The following is an excerpt from my book, The Plot Thickens: 21 Ways to Plot Your Novel. A link to buy can be found here. The first chapter addresses the importance of writing the opening hook.
How to Take the Headache Out of Starting Your Book
STOP STARING at that blinking curser and start your book. How? With a mind-blowing opening hook.
Even if you’re new to writing, you know the importance of the opening hook. It grabs your reader’s attention and convinces him to buy.The opening hook raises questions, piques curiosity, and draws the reader deeper into your story.Click To Tweet
Without a compelling, question-producing opening, they aren’t going to read further. You have a few sentences to make an impression. Nowadays, no one has the luxury of time. You have to hit them fast and hard.
Your reader wants to be drawn into a believable world from word one. He expects to be entertained. Don’t disappoint him. Skip the protagonist sitting with a cup of coffee, contemplating the letter she received from dear Aunt Sally. Jump her right into the story—Aunt Sally died, but collecting the inheritance means quitting the job your protagonist loves and moving back to the town that gave her heartache.
Conversely, don’t plunge the reader so quickly into the story with a one-line exclamation from the protagonist. The reader has no context in which to place it. It’s a cheap device that’s been overused.
Instead, start where the protagonist’s problem begins, raise questions that intrigue the reader, and filter in back-story later.
What is a hook? It’s a device to catch the reader’s attention and pull him into the story.
A hook prepares the reader for what’s ahead—the immediate future of a character and introduces the conflict. It sets the mood and style and gives the setting—all the elements of who, what, why, when, where and how.
Who is the story about?
A penniless orphan? A struggling housewife? A wizard? Whomever you’ve chosen as the protagonist has to strike a cord with your reader. They need to quickly identify with him and his problem.
What is the story about?
On a quest to tighten the household budget, Maddie Nash examined her husband’s current phone bill for hidden charges. Instead, she found a number repeated thirty-seven times. When she called it, a woman answered.
The story now has a “what” —alleged infidelity. How will Maddie respond to her unexpected find? Will she confront her husband? Another layer of curiosity is added to the reader’s expectations.
Why is the story worth reading?
What’s changed or unique? What’s about to change? Throw the reader a curve to intrigue them to read on.
Charlie turned the key to her parents’ back door, and walked in on them making love on the kitchen table.
Charlie is traditionally a man’s name, so the author has introduced the unanticipated. So is the fact of Charlie walking in on her parents making love. The author has set up many questions the reader will pursue by reading further.
Where is the story set?
In London? The moon? A suburban living room? You are creating a world for the reader to step into. Give them a sense of where they are and let them suspend belief.
The air exploded with a violent crack of energy.
Ned Archer swung toward Navy Pier, less than a mile away. His gaze scraped across the Chicago skyline, but the Willis Tower and the Hancock stood erect, and no smoke billowed from any of the other buildings.
The reader knows the location—Chicago, within sight of its famous Navy Pier. An explosion has taken place. How will our hero—Ned Archer—be involved in the aftermath?
When does the story take place?
The present? Near future? Alternate past? Give the reader a timeframe.
“I hate London.” Charlotte Taylor wrinkled her nose against the fetid air of the nearby Thames. The country was atwitter with the fortieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession.
We know she’s in London during the late Victorian era. Why does Charlotte hate the city that’s in the throes of a celebration?
How is the main character affected?
Does he panic? Turn the other cheek? Ignore the sudden change in his life?
The alien ship crash-landed in the middle of Zealand Harlow’s lunch. Not literally, of course. Her cameraman, Wayne Gregory, a veteran of two Iraqi tours of duty, hit the deck. Zealand rose and surveyed the Chicago skyline, her eyes narrowed.
“Wayne, you idiot, get out from under the table. This might be a terrorist attack.” If someone had attacked the city, she wanted the camera rolling. She had her eyes on bigger things at Channel 29 News.
Zealand is unflappable and very ambitious. She has “her eyes on bigger things”. The reader, knowing the “how” of her reaction, is intrigued enough to read on and find out what she’ll do to get the story.
If you’ve noticed a pattern in these examples, it is that the opening of a story begins when a change takes place. The reader doesn’t care at this point about the main character’s background; he wants to know what happens next.The opening of a story begins when a change takes place. The reader doesn’t care at this point about the main character’s background; he wants to know what happens next.Click To Tweet
How can you show when a change takes place?
- Begin with the arrival of a stranger (usually bearing bad news)
- Start on a day that is different (Maddie didn’t expect to find evidence of her husband cheating)
- Start with a crisis
- Show something unique, unanticipated (Charlie walking in on her parents)
- Start with the emotional moment in the character’s life that will drive the story
- Begin with dialogue
- Start with a question
- Start in the middle of things. Stuff is happening and the reader has to read more to catch up
In all these scenarios, the change sets off a chain reaction of events that continually get worse and worse for the character. Build from the moment of crisis, force the character to make a commitment and thrust him into a strange and dangerous world.
What to leave out
You won’t engage your reader if you fall into the common mistakes writers make:
- Don’t add back-story, background, or the past. Stick to what’s happening in the story now.
- Forget character description. There’s time later to have the heroine look in the mirror and admire her luxurious blonde hair, azure eyes and alabaster skin. (Seriously, don’t do this.)
- The reader needs to know where the story takes place, but they don’t need a multi-page description of Aunt Edna’s antique store.
- Discussion of past events. “Shelley, dear sister, something happened today that reminded me of when we found old man Smith’s body, which led to the arrest of Handyman Jones.” Boring, boring, boring. People don’t talk like this in real life.
- It takes skill to pull one off. You probably don’t have it.
- Introducing too many characters at once.
- Similar names. Matt, Mike, Mick, Mandy and Missy deserve their own stories.
To engage the reader, you need an existing situation, a character in the situation, a goal, an obstacle and consequences to the decision the character is forced to make. If you add in a reaction to his decision and a problem for the next scene, you have all the ingredients to keep your reader turning page after page.
If this article helps your writing, please share on social media. Better yet, go to Amazon and purchase a copy then leave a review.