1.5 OPENINGS AND HOOKS
The most important word in your book is the first one, then the next, then the first sentence and then paragraph, then page, then the next page, and chapter etc…
You get my point – there is no point in having an amazing novel if your readers never get past the first page, or even first sentence.
As I get older, my standards have risen – still not as high as a 12-year-olds – so that I will often read opening lines or pages and say no to so many books before I even begin. It may be renowned and won prizes, but if they don’t knock me out with an engaging and hooky opening, I ain’t reading on.
And that’s not just me. Agents (and their readers) will often be rushed for time and their slush comes last in the priority list – sorry, but it does – and it’s done on the tube or on the odd hour at the weekend, when they are ‘not at work’.
So, we need to make sure they want to read the full three chapters we’ve sent them. And then request a full, get signed, sell your book in a 10-figure, five-way auction, before Costa success!
But none of that can happen if you don’t knock it out the park with page one. The opening is so, so important – not to the neglect of the rest of course, but we must make it grab our reader straight out.
I’ve made a page one shopping list below of what we need to strive for. But I will preface it with a huge disclaimer – you don’t NEED to have all of these elements, or even some of them. BUT they will help! And they will make your first page better if you look at how you can integrate them. I promise. And not just page 1 but every page in your book.
As I say, you can’t have it all, and maybe you won’t want to include it all, depending on your book, and yes lots of books break these rules, but as long as you’ve considered the elements, and you have a good reason why you’re ignoring them, then fair play. It’s your book after all.
Have your opening page one open while reading the next section…
What to include in an opening of a book
This is more about what I look for in a book and also how I try to write my own openings. Again, this is totally subjective and will change from person to person. This is just what I think.
1. Establish MC and make reader feel emotional connection – if I don’t feel anything towards a character within a page or two, I’m going to struggle to read on. You’ve got to use some kind of hook, preferably emotion, to keep me reading. Relatable, emotion-filled scenarios are a good way to do this. Try to show an admirable quality in your MC early is also another way to do this. But not too goody-goody. We love those flawed MCs, too!
2. Make them active and with agency (let them drive the story forward) – everything that happens in the story should be as a consequence of what the MC does. At least, most of it should. Or the antagonistic actions of the whatever is against your MC. At the very least, the MC should be taking decisions, should want something and be driving towards it. My best example is Moana, always striving towards restoring the heart. That’s the heartbeat of that story. Imagine she was a bit meh about it. Nothing would happen. You’ve got to have an MC with agency or, for me, there’s no real story there.
3. Keep it simple – complex worlds and characters introduced gradually – there is nothing more difficult than reading an opening chapter where 10 new characters are named, but none are really explored, and new places and worlds and objects with strange names are thrown at you. Everything has to be done gently when world-building, almost subtle. Make new things relatable to something the reader will know. Make each character distinctive and make sure each is established in the readers mind before you bring too many on stage. I prefer smaller, intimate scenes to open in my books, even if they are high fantasy or epic sci-fi, like two of mine are.
4. Stakes – make them high and personal – the big stakes don’t need to be on page 1 – they can come later. But we there needs to be some kind of stake introduced early on. Something for the MC to win or lose, to save or not. It might be helping a cat down from a tree, or remembering everything on the shopping list, or completing an exam on time. Crap examples, I know. But the point is that we need something that is important to the MC to be at stake at all times. Otherwise there is no tension, there is no conflict. And there is no story.
I hope all of this helps a little. At the very least, it’s worth reading and considering, even if it’s just to reassure yourself that you are doing these things.
Suggested writing task
Write down the first thing that happens in your story.
Is this where you started the story? Is something happening, something with conflict and stakes (however small) on that first page? Those first few sentences even?
If not, have a look at that opening again – how can we get all of those factors into it?
REMEMBER, it doesn’t need to be a HUGE conflict or HUGE stakes, just something that will help us get into the main characters world.
A good question to think about as you do this exercise is ‘Whose story is it?’
If we get to the end of the opening line and certainly page, we need to know whose story this is – who we will be rooting for in the following 300 pages and hopefully have a hint about what. And hopefully a sense that not all is right, that something may change, even if it won’t for pages, or even a chapter or two.
It’s often the anticipation of something about to happen or change that glues us, rather than the event itself.
So, yes, easy right? Go write an awesome opening including as many of the small factors above – if you don’t get them all, that’s okay, and you won’t necessarily. But it must have SOME of them.
The reason I, and many others, continue reading past the 1st few pages of a novel is simple. Hooks. Sometimes these are weird and wonderful and intriguing. And if you can achieve this in your writing, amazing!
Plant a question, an idea, an object, a quest, or a mysterious situation into those pages and you might get someone to keep reading. But for me, the EMOTIONAL hook is by far the more powerful.
Draw your reader into your story by finding something warm, touching and relatable that the MC really cares about. If the reader can relate, they’ll be hooked. They can empathise with the MC and willing to follow them for a few more pages or ideally, 300 pages!
Really work on amplifying this emotion, whatever it is, and the rule for me is – if your MC cares deeply about it, it’s more likely your reader will also care. And make sure you start right in the midst of this moment.
The situation should be used to amplify this emotion. CHANGE is key here – start at a point where something the MC really cares about changes. Keywords – emotion, passion, feelings, caring, longing, urgency, change. All of these will hopefully create an Emotional Hook.
I’ll give one example – The Hunger Games (YES, I know!!!) Katniss cares most about what? Her sister, of course. So, Collins uses that as a way to get us emotionally hooked to the story. First, she shows how much Katniss cares – she breaks the law to find her sister food.
On a smaller level, she leaves her to sleep as she leaves. She is gentle, warm and caring towards her sister. This hooks us emotionally, so that when she volunteers in her sister’s stead later, we feel the full impact. That whole opening is all about the Emotional Hook.
And that sets the whole story up for the inciting incident that follows and increases the stakes so much more when she does volunteer as tribute in her sister’s steed.
Suggested writing task
At the time of the novel opening, find something, warm, emotional, human and very relatable for your main character to care about.
It might be getting to the pharmacy to get their mum’s medicine before it closes or it could be saying goodbye to their gran before the funeral casket closes.
Encapsulate this feeling in your opening sentences. Make us feel that energy and that emotion. This will help bond your reader to your main character’s initial wants and root for them. And remember it’s not about what’s happening, not necessarily, it’s about what it all means to the main character, what they care about, what they are passionate about, what they feel and how this moment affects them. That’s what will glue us.
Then it’s just a case of doing that for 300 more pages…easy right? Give it a go and post your opening line on the writing task channel.