One of my favorite things to write is the very first line of a novel. It’s also the hardest thing I write.
Why is that first line so important?
The purpose of the first line of a story is to get you to read the next line. And the purpose of the first paragraph is to get you to read the next paragraph. The purpose of the first page? First chapter? It’s always to get you to keep reading. That’s why these firsts are so important. If a reader doesn’t like that first line, or in other words if the reader isn’t hooked, what are the chances they will keep reading?
Not only do you have to hook the reader in your first line, you need to grab them at all those points in which they’re likely to put down the book, such as a scene change, the start of a new chapter or section, or a point of view switch.
Have you ever seen those ads on social media that say something along the lines of, This man tried to hug a lion; you won’t believe what happens next!? It’s total click bait, and you don’t want to do that in your writing. It’s bad form. You shouldn’t have to trick your reader into turning the page, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hook them.
A hook isn’t about holding back information to get the reader to keep reading, because that can get annoying really fast. It’s about revealing information at the right time. I personally believe if your point-of-view character knows something, the reader should too…or at least he better know it very soon.
Try to start your book as late as possible. Sometimes after you have written your story, you may need to go back and cut-cut-cut until you reach the right moment to begin. The reader doesn’t need to know the detailed background of your character or world before you introduce the conflict or plot. You can weave those elements in as needed and ensure your reader will not get bored right at the start.
Try to begin each scene as late as possible as well. Writers often get caught up in trying to describe everything a character does. They wake up, brush their teeth, use the toilet, etc. It’s okay to leave those things out. The reader will assume your character eats his meals; you don’t need to describe it each time. Only include what’s pertinent to the story.
Take a look at this example of the start of a novel:
- Charlie opens his eyes and sits up in bed. The red and blue comforter his mom bought him for Christmas is bunched at his feet, wrinkled with a drool stain on one side. He desperately needs to wash it, but that’ll have to wait until after school. After stretching his arms and yawning, he shakes his head out and slips out of bed, shuffling to the bathroom. He runs the water at the sink and splashes his face to wake himself up, then squeezes a glop of toothpaste onto his electric toothbrush. The bristles have started to splay, an indication of his brushing method more than the length of time he’s used it. After brushing and rinsing out his mouth, Charlie reaches for the hand towel to dry off, then glances up at the mirror and gasps at his reflection. He can’t believe what he’s seeing—the state of what he’s become. Not again, he thinks.
Does that start hook you? Does it make you want to read more of the story? Maybe. The writing isn’t terrible, and it gives us a little insight into the character. But it’s kind of boring, at least until the last line. But then it dives into a bit of that click-bait we talked about earlier—a trick to get the reader to turn the page.
Now take a look at this version of a start from the exact same novel:
- Charlie’s shoulders slump in defeat when he realizes he’s dead. Again.
Which example hooks you better? Which version makes you more likely to turn the page? I think most readers would choose the second example. It’s void of click-bait and starts later in the story without unneeded backstory. Remember, holding back information doesn’t necessarily make a good hook. In this instance, it’s the revealing of the information that makes you want to keep reading.
Your first page should be an effective blend of character, story, setting, action, and a hint of conflict. How to write a first page is an entire post (or several) in itself, but remember that you don’t want to bog the reader down with any one of these elements. Instead, ‘hook’ the reader with those elements with a promise of more.
What are some of your favorite hooks?
Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.