How to Hook a Reader From the First Sentence
Hi everyone! I hope you are having a wonderful Saturday so far! A little while back, I did a post on how to write a killer ending to your novel. Ironically, I had never done a post on beginnings, so I kind of jumped ahead and did everything backwards.I figured it was about time to do a post on openings, so here we go! Here’s how to hook your reader from the very first sentence…
THE FIRST SENTENCE MATTERS
When I say “from the very first sentence”, I mean exactly that. The first sentence of your book is crucial, and the reason is twofold.When querying: When you submit your manuscript to agents, they often have either the first ten pages or the first three chapters… somewhere along those lines. In other words, they don’t have the whole manuscript.
Agents get a TON of submissions every week. It varies based on the size and popularity of the agent/agency, but they can get anywhere from five to several hundred queries a day. A DAY!!
Reading queries is also not the #1 priority of literary agents. Their existing clients are. Honestly, isn’t that the way you would want it as a client, though? Wouldn’t you want your agent to put you first before those writers who aren’t yet their clients?
Because they have to divide their time, agents have very small windows in which they read queries. Imagine now, that they sit down to sift through the slush pile, and come across your manuscript. Finally! Sometimes, even if your query is less than stellar, agents will at least take a peek at the first page of a manuscript. You want them to be hooked, from the first sentence.
I have heard many agents say that they read the first sentence, and if it interests them, they read the second, and so on and so forth… until they lose interest. The point is for them to never lose interest!
The second person to whom the first sentence matters is the reader. I know from experience that when I am browsing through a bookstore, I will first read the jacket cover, and if the blurb interests me, I will flip to the first page and read a little bit to get a feel for the story. If those first few lines (especially that first one) doesn’t grab me, it is easy to put that book back and pick up another one.
Several years ago, I remember reading a post by author Janice Hardy, where she discussed how, before her novel The Shifter was queried/published, she had attended a writer’s conference where they read a few manuscripts aloud, but only the first sentence. The audience was then supposed to react and base their entire opinion off of the first sentence alone. Janice recalled how that experience made her consider her own opening, and ultimately change it.
Your first sentence can be anything from heart-pounding action, to an intriguing perspective. You want something that will peak the reader’s interest.
Now, none of this should discourage you. The entire success of your novel is not based solely on the first sentence. However, it is of key importance to have a unique opening.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
In order to even determine what the first sentence of your book will be, you have to first decide where your story will open. This is something that you either know from the start, or something you have to figure out over several revisions. With my current WIP, I knew exactly where I wanted to open the story, and I don’t think it will change very much throughout revisions.
With WHAT LIES ABOVE, it was a different scenario. I had a very info-dumpy beginning in my first draft. It actually remained there when I first started querying agents, and it was the #1 downfall and turn away. I would assume that most agents rejected the manuscript because of that opening. Thankfully, I had queried in groups, so only a handful of agents had received that original version.
I reworked the beginning, completely rewrote the first chapter, and tried again. This time, I received a much better response. I have since tweaked the beginning more, but it is finally in a place where I am happy with the first few pages.
As the writer, you have to find that place to open the story. You don’t want to start too early, because the story will drag. You don’t to start too late, because then you will often have to “dump” lots of information in order to catch the reader up to your characters.
My best advice would be to start where the action does. Now, “action” does not necessarily mean a car exploding. It doesn’t have to jarring, or heart-pounding. A village doesn’t have to burn down. This is certainly okay, if it fits your story line, but it is not necessary to hook a reader.
By “action”, I simply mean movement. Your character needs a goal for that scene, even if the overall motivation for the story has not yet been revealed. Sometimes, it is easy to have our protagonist wander around a bit before they finally realize their goal and start to act. Avoid this by giving them a momentary or temporary goal. What do they want in this scene, and why should they get it?
THE WHY IMPORTANCE = THE HOW IMPORTANCE
The “why” of a scene is just as important as the “how”. A character’s actions will only hold a reader if the reader is invested in that character. It is very tricky to get that investment, though, when they have only been with you a few sentences. What does your protagonist want, and why should the reader care if they get it?
I will use The Kiss of Deception, by Mary E. Pearson, for example. In the opening scene, Lia is receiving her wedding kavah. This has potential to be very tedious and uninteresting. Instead, Mary makes the reader care about Lia. She is about to be married off to someone she has never met, and it is the last thing she wants. She wants her freedom.
This instantly bonds the reader to the character, and it propels the story along, until the moment when the main action begins. Would I consider the first scene of the book to be heart-pounding? No. Nothing explodes. No one is dying. But the scene stills grabs your attention.
THE FIRST PAGES SHOULD STILL BUILD ON THE CORE CONFLICT
An important thing to keep in mind is that, even though your first scene might not be directly a part of the main action, it should still lead up to it. That first scene should reveal something important about the protagonist or the world. It is a delicate balance to make sure you don’t reveal too much about the world – in a way that becomes too info-dumpy. But it is okay to show pieces of your character’s setting. Katniss shows quite a lot about District 12 and Panem in general just by doing her typical, relatively mundane task of hunting.
One thing I think is very beneficial to ask yourself is:
Where do I as the writer first become invested?
If you really start to get excited about the story on page ten, that is probably a red flag. Why don’t those first nine pages excite you? If someone requested to see your manuscript, are you proud and eager for them to start at the beginning, or would you rather they skip a head a little to chapter two?
Your answers to these questions can show a lot of how a reader will react. If you aren’t excited for your opening, what ensures that anyone else will be?
IT WILL TAKE TIME
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t think of a brilliant opening in the first draft. Start where you need to and get the story down. You can always rework and rewrite the first chapter as you edit. Sometimes, it comes to you when you first think of the idea. You just know.
Other times, it takes months – or even years – to get the opening just right. Don’t get discouraged! Keep at it.
Do you struggle with openings? What helps you nail the first page?
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