WEEK 7: PART 1: HOOKS AND OPENINGS
- a first page with a hook that engages your reader and makes them root for your character from the very start
- an established world and setting that your reader will be able to immerse themselves in immediately
- something mysterious or hooky enough to make your reader begin asking questions that must be answered
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 3 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 1. 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 1 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 1 open while reading the next section…
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 ‘Who’s 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.