Opening HookThe Opening Hook... and the Follow-Up!

by Marg McAlister

 

Over many years of writing and critiquing the work of others, I've seen hundreds - probably thousands - of 'first pages'. I have been the judge in competitions for 'Best First Chapter' and 'Best First Page'. I've read three-chapter partials accompanied by a synopsis.

When I read a first chapter, I'm hoping to become involved from the very first sentence, or at least by the end of the first page. Sometimes that does happen; particularly when the writer is entering a competition designed for that purpose! All too often, though, the writer fails to involve me.

Here are some problems I have noticed.

  1. Some openings fail to hook the reader at all.
  2. Some openings have a brilliant opening hook, then fade out after the first page.
  3. Some openings fulfil the promise of hook in the first chapter, but subsequent chapters are bland.
  4. Some openings fail to involve the reader because there's too much happening upfront, before the reader has a chance to get to know the character(s).

Let's start by looking at what an 'opening hook' actually is and how to write one. Then we'll address each of the above problems in turn.

What IS an Opening Hook?

Exactly what it sounds like. Think of it as snaring a fish. When you hook a fish, it has no alternative but to come along for the ride. When you pull, it follows. You might release the pressure for a while and let it run - but when you decide to reel it back in, it has no choice but to come with you.

That's what you have to do to your reader - but your hook will be formed of words, not metal. Your job is to craft an opening line/paragraph/page that is so involving that the reader has no choice but to follow where you lead.

BUT - there is a potential trap. One other thing that I noticed in the openings I've read over the years is that writers tend to spend a lot more time on the opening of their story than on any other part. So yes, you need to write a good hook - but you need to follow this up with polished and involving narrative, absorbing dialogue, AND further hooks to hold the reader's interest. Learn how to grab your readers - then keep a firm hold on them throughout your story! The hook is not an end in itself.

A Few Examples of Good Opening Hooks:

Example One: THE BURNT HOUSE by Faye Kellerman (MYSTERY GENRE)

The cereal spoon stopped midair. Rina turned to her husband. "What was that?"

"I don't know." The lights flickered and died along with the TV, the refrigerator, and probably everything else in the house electrical. Decker reached over and picked up the portable phone. He punched in one of the landlines but got no response.

Rina lowered the spoon into the cereal bowl. "Dead?"

"Yep." Decker flicked the light switch on and off, a futile gesture of hope. It was eight in the morning and the kitchen was bathed in eastern light that didn't require electrical augmentation. "Something blew. Probably a major transformer." He pulled out his cell and tried to contact someone on a landline at work. With no response coming from the other end, Decker knew the damage was widespread.

Example Two: SAMURAI KIDS by Sandy Fussell (CHILDREN'S BOOK)

"Aye-eee-yah!"

I scissor kick high as I can and land on my right foot. I haven't got another one. My name is Niya Moto and I'm the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan. Usually I miss my foot and land on my backside. Or flat on my face in the dirt.

Example Three: FEARLESS FOURTEEN by Janet Evanovich (HUMOROUS CRIME/MYSTERY)

In my mind, my kitchen is filled with crackers and cheese, roast chicken leftovers, farm fresh eggs, and coffee beans ready to grind. The reality is that I keep my Smith & Wesson in the cookie jar, my Oreos in the microwave, a jar of peanut butter and hamster food in the over-the-counter cupboard, and I have beer and olives in the refrigerator. I used to have a birthday cake in the freezer for emergencies, but I ate it.

Example Four: STORMBREAKER by Anthony Horowitz (YOUNG ADULT - SPY FICTION)

When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.

Alex Rider was woken by the first chime. His eyes flickered open but for a moment he stayed completely still in his bed, lying on his back with his head resting on the pillow. He heard a bedroom door open and a creak of wood as somebody whent downstairs. The bell rang a second time and he looked at the alarm clock glowing beside him. 3.02 a.m. There was a rattle as somebody slid the security chain off the front door.

You'll notice that each of the above opening hooks is well-suited to its genre.

How to Write an Opening Hook

Your 'hook' should lead the reader straight into the main action of the story, and (this is important!) MAKE THEM CURIOUS ENOUGH TO WANT TO READ ON. This means that your hook should raise a question in the mind of the reader. Your job is to carefully build anticipation as the opening progresses, and avoid answering the questions in the reader's mind too soon. After all, once they know what's going on, they have less motivation to keep reading.

In the examples given above, what is the reader wondering about?

Example One: What is the widespread damage that led to a power failure? And what did Rina hear to start with that made her ask "What was that?"

Example Two: How can a one-legged kid be a samurai?

Example Three: Why does this person keep a gun in the cookie jar?

Example Four: Who is at the door at 3.00 a.m. - and is it going to be bad news?


Now we'll look at each of the problems I mentioned earlier in more detail.


1. Openings that fail to hook the reader at all.

An opening that fails to hook the reader usually spends too much time on introductions. The writer describes the setting at length, or spends precious story time on backstory (that is, the events in the character's life that led up to this moment). Your reader needs only enough information to understand what's going on. The best way to bring in backstory  is to dribble in the details as the story progresses.

A dull opening is usually the result of inexperience. Some writers can't write about the characters until they feel at home with the background and story. Unfortunately, they take the reader along for the ride while this happens. The cure: write those early chapters in detail if you must, but don't let anyone else see them. Think of these as your practice chapters. Before you send the story to anyone else, go back and write a new opening - and this time, hook the reader!


2. Openings that have a brilliant opening hook, then fade out after the first page.

The likely problem: the writer hasn't realised that it's just as important to use the techniques on hooking the reader throughout the book. It's natural for the opening to get more attention than any other part of the book.

Here's the scenario: you write your first chapter. You go back and re-read it. You edit and polish it. You write Chapter Two. You go back and read the book from the start. You edit the new work, plus tweak the first chapter some more. You write Chapters Three and Four, then go back and read it from the beginning. You do a little more minor surgery on the opening.... and so it goes on. Every time you start reading from the beginning, you are likely to fine-tune the beginning a little more. Before you send it to an editor, you work on it again...

Result? Fantastic beginning, but the rest suffers.

To fix this: break your book up into scenes, not chapters. Check to make sure that each scene hooks the reader from the start, and leaves them wanting more at the end. Regard each scene as a raw diamond that you need to cut and polish. You need to create a series of hooks. 


3. Openings that fulfil the promise of the hook in the first chapter, with subsequent chapters being bland.

If you can write one good chapter, you can write a book full of them. The same advice applies as for Point (2) above:  think in scenes, not chapters, and keep reeling in the reader throughout every scene. Give the first page of each scene amd each chapter the same care as the first page of your book.

Also, look at the structure of your book. It's possible to create a good 'hook' for every chapter, but still have the chapter fail to engage the reader. Do you need to create a new problem for your character? Do you need more conflict? Ask yourself WHY the chapter isn't working. You may even need to cut it out completely.


4. Openings that fail to involve the reader because there's too much happening upfront, before the reader has a chance to get to know the character(s).

Some writers fall into the trap of creating an opening that is so full of action that the reader gets lost. They feel bombarded; under siege - "What's going on here?" Remember that true tension lies in anticipation. Let the reader get to know your characters before you start firing missiles at them. (This might appear to contradict the advice given earlier, about not giving too much backstory - but it doesn't. You don't need to go into the character's life story. It's more about having the reader identify with the character from the start, and adopting the right viewpoint is a key to this. Let the reader see events through the character's eyes, and give them enough time to adjust before you start fast and furious action!

These tips should be enough to get you moving in the right direction. Bottom line: make the reader curious, but don't satisfy their curiosity too quickly - and make sure the rest of your book fulfils the promise of the opening!

© Marg McAlister

 

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