In an age of tl;dr, how to hook your reader … by Emma Read (for SPARK members)
The beginning to arguably one of the best books ever written is a twenty-page prologue ‘Concerning Hobbits’.It goes on to provide some fascinating insights into pipe-weedand extensive notes on administrative districts of the Shires. It’s a wonder the reader ever makes it to the green door in the hill.
Sadly (or maybe not), the days of casually wandering into a story, like The Lord of the Rings, are more or less gone. Busy readers, agents and editors need a reason to stick with you …
That is where the hookcomes in.
So, no pressure WMSparks, but the opening linesof your book might be the most important words you ever write. Sure, you know this already. That’s why you’ve reworked the first page more times than your protagonist has shrugged.
I sympathise enormously with a novel’s opening – it has so much to do, and so little time. Agents receive mountains of submissions (one agent quoted around 800 a month to me recently) which they read in their free-time – on the train, at lunch, in bed… you need to make a good first impression, grab their attention … keep them awake!
Well, how about this…
A dead bolt has a very specific sound.
This is one of the most chilling opening lines to a novel I have ever read. I bought the book there and then, on the basis of this one line.
This is the story of how I became my sister.
The men lock Roxy in the cupboard when they do it.
These are the kind of opening gambits which make me sit down in a bookshop. I’ll have a to do list as long asA Song of Ice and Fire, and an hour until the school run, but there I am, sitting on the floor of Waterstones because of something like this:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.
I’m not saying you have to have one; a killer first line, or a chin-on-the-floor paragraph – they’re not for everyone and plenty of wonderful books do still open slowly, sensuously, soporifically even, before they hit you with the inciting incident. (Although I would still avoid lengthy detail on family history, however fond you are of Bagginses and Boffins).
But personally, I love them. I give a little cheer when I find a new one, and I’ve certainly had a lot of fun trawling through my books for my favourites. Like this:
I am fucked.
So what is it about a good hook that makes the reader want to read on? Actually prevents them from not reading on? It starts with a question, a dreadful curiosity, a conundrum, a puzzle to be solved. Ultimately we’re nosy creatures and can’t help ourselves. WHY are we listening for a deadbolt? HOW can someone become their sister? WHAT are the men doing once they’ve locked Roxy in that cupboard, and in the case of Mark Watney … WHY, WHAT and HOW all at once!
Are they too flashy? One-line wonders just for show? A word of caution: as with all our writing there is craft behind the hook, and pitfalls to avoid. Most importantly, you must deliver on the promise. A stellar opening won’t get you far if the rest of the manuscript falls flat – so don’t set yourself up for a fall. Questions you’ve raised should be answered, clues you’ve laid must lead somewhere and the usual rules apply: no clichés (waking up/dead bodies/weather reports), no media res,no dialogue, rhetorical questions, or vague, existential statements.
Just piquing of curiosity:
The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
First the colours. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things.
By ten-forty-five it was all over.
And whatever you do, don’t be contrived or trite. This isn’t clickbait, it’s a carefully created lure where every sentence, every word, is working hard, screaming ‘PICK ME, PICK ME!’ Curiosity will take the reader so far, but an effective hook also sets the tone, sets the scene, shows your voice, shows your talent. Am I asking too much?
It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
Make it unputdownable, keep it that way, and hopefully your dream agent will be hooked.
(Opening lines from: Holly Overton; Sophie Cleverly; Naomi Alderman; Philip Reeve; Andy Weir; Patrick Ness; Margaret Atwood; Markus Zusak; John Steinbeck; Neil Gaiman, Phillip Pulman.)
I’m offering a FREE first page critiqueto anyone who can guess my favourite all time opening line (which just happens to be my fave book too) A clue? I think it’s a TERRIFIC novel!
Also, please do let me know your favourite opening lines, I really am addicted!
More on how to create a great hook at:
Emma Read is the author of Milton the Mighty (Chicken House), which was shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She is represented by Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton.
She is keen to mentor writers of similarly young MG fiction, particularly funny stories, however she is also a YA and upper MG writer with experience in critiquing both those age groups.
Emma has completed courses in editing and polishing submission packages and was a mentor for the inaugural #WriteMentor programme.