Monday, November 12, 2012

The Opening Hook

Four years ago, I wrote a post on the opening hook in a story. As it happens, it’s the only post I’ve *ever* written on the subject, which kind of surprises me given how important it is. If you can’t grab your reader right off, then many people aren’t going to read your story.

Anyway, many people say that the best way to hook your reader is with action. And I say…not really.  The best way to hook your reader is to make him want to read more. It could be done with action, yes, but it could just as easily be done by giving the reader some information that makes him wonder. I.E. what happened? How did the character end up here? Why does he/she want this? If the wonder is strong enough, then the reader will keep reading.

So, let’s look at how to build such a hook. I break the hook down into four parts:
  • Where the story begins.
  • The first sentence.
  • The first paragraph.
  • The first page.

 I’ll talk about the first two points today, then get to the other next week.

Where the story begins.
This means pretty much what it sounds like: start your story in the correct place. This means you start your story the moment Change enters the character’s life. What happens that sets him/her on the path to obtain what he/she wants? (You do know that a character must *always* want something, right? Good. Just checking) If you start the story too early, as in before the moment Change happens, then the reader will be wondering why he needs to be privy to everything that’s going on. If you start it too late, he will be confused and have a hard time figuring things out. So, first and foremost, you need to figure out the exact moment that Change enters your character’s life, and that’s where you begin your story. This piece is the basis on which your hook is built.

The first sentence.
This is where you get to play around with your words to dig your hooks into the reader as deeply as you can. What is unique about your character? His/her situation? Sometimes, you can boil the event of Change down to just once sentence, and this is where it will end up. If you can’t get it into one sentence, that’s fine. Just pick the most interesting part to begin with so you can draw your reader into the next sentence, and then the next, and the next, etc.

I went through a few books and found some of my favorite first lines. Each and every one of these sucked me in completely, and I just had to keep reading.
“It used to be a house.”  --A Room On Lorelei Street by Mary Pearson
It *used* to be a house? Why isn’t it a house anymore? And what does that mean for the character?
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”  --Feed by M.T. Anderson
This made me laugh out loud, and then I had to keep reading to find out why the moon sucks.
“I was seven the first time I was sent away.”  --The Miles Between by Mary Pearson
The *first time* she was sent away, meaning she’s been sent away more than once. Why? How many times?
“My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”  --Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
This is one of the best examples of first lines *ever*. It has Voice, supporting characters, and the entire premise of the story. I simply had to know how she ended up with a dog instead of groceries, and how her father, the preacher, was going to react to this.

What are some of your favorite first lines? Feel free to share. Or, feel free to share the first lines from your own work! We’d love to hear them. Tell ya what, I’ll go first. Here’s the first line from my YA contemporary titled FLAWLESS.
“I spent most of the summer wondering if I was adopted.”
Your turn. :)


Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. A bad first line will make me set down a manuscript in a heartbeat.

Here's the first line for my current WIP.

There’s an old quote about the folly of our best laid plans, but today is indisputable proof whoever said those words was wrong.

Anna Staniszewski said...

So so true. I'm embarrassed when I remember how little time I spent on openings when I first started writing!

One of my fave openings is from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness:

"The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say."

Catherine Stine said...

Great post. It's also referred to as the Line in the Sand.

Kelly Hashway said...

Great post! I test all the books I buy by reading the first page. That's all you get to hook me.

Unknown said...

I remember in my first creative writing class when my instructor told me I started my story in the wrong place. I was like, "No I didn't. See, there it is on page one."

BWAHAHAHAHHAH. Such a newbie and now it's embarrassing. :D

Thanks for this post. Now I have to go back and recall all my newbie moments.