EAS 1: Hook Your Reader!

Posted: May 26, 2013 by Matthew Ridenour in Matt's Words
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

ChapterOneFrom the first line in a story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with the protagonist. So what makes an exciting first line? And at what point in our novel or short story do we “re-hook” the reader?

Make interesting things happen – preferably bad things. That’s the base of basics of hooking. But please, PLEASE, don’t start your piece with one of the following first lines. They are overused and generic, and unless done in some awesomely unique-never-before-seen-blow-your-socks-off way, agents and editors will cringe, and will not read on. Remember, agents look for an excuse not to read further. And don’t you want to make your piece as interesting and unique as possible? Anyway, here are my top 5 “cringers”:

  • Waking up – especially from an alarm clock: This is one of the most common first lines agents and editors read. And complain about. Whether it is or isn’t, most believe it to be lazy writing. So come on! You’re a writer! You can do better than that!
  • “It was a dark, and stormy night…”: Weather in general – whether the weather is dark and stormy, or bright and sunshiny, this is one of the most overused, so try to avoid it.
  • The bad day at school: This is more common with YA. This has both been done very well and muy terrible! But it’s still the bad day at school. As unique as your character’s bad day at school is, it is, still, indeed, the bad day at school. Most agents and editors will stop reading.
  • It was all just a dream: Starting your story with a bang is great, but if the opening turns out to be just a dream, many readers will be disappointed, and agents will in all likelihood stop reading…
  • Running through a forest (especially if it’s a nightmare): This at first glance might seem like a great idea, but many, many, many others have also come up with this idea. As many twists and turns, near-death experiences, or lost loves they have while running through this forest, agents and editors will smack their foreheads, shake their heads, and punch “delete” on their keyboards – (that is if the “delete” key has survived the abundant daily abuse).

Still reading? Okay good. You might have thrown a few expletives my way, chucked your keyboard at me, or revisited your novel a moment to check how you started your story… But there’s good news! There are PLENTY of great first lines! Here’s what makes a great hook:

  • Begin with the character. Not description. Not the weather. Not the building. Not the world. Not a prologue. The character.
  • Give the reader an immediate stake by putting the character or something the character loves in imminent danger, or start with a special flavor of comedy. Could be physical, could be emotional or psychological.
  • Start with an interesting action or thought. Make it fresh. Make it immediate and impactful.
  • Show the reader who the character is in that first line. No back story. Who are they NOW? Show what they are doing right now that will impel your story forward all the way to the last line.

Want some good examples? Here we go:

  • “Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.” ~ Mira Grant, Feed
  • “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” ~ Brandon Sanderson, Elantris
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing about the world.” ~ Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Nuff said? Who would stop reading any of these novels after those phenomenal first lines? Albeit, Brandon Sanderson woke up his character in the first line, but being “damned for all eternity” kind of overpowers the former. Point is – there are exceptions to everything. We can argue about genre, preference, and style, but a great first line is a great first line.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into not only the first line, but also show how to hook a reader throughout a piece, keep them intrigued. This goes along with a later post I’ll write, “Tension, Conflict, and the Driving Force,” with a couple big differences. We establish tension by hooking a reader. The catalyst is the hook. The reaction is the tension and conflict. And oftentimes, the hook is a one-liner, or small paragraph that escalates emotion or impels action.

Introduce something new when it makes sense, but surprise the reader. Keep them on their toes. At the end of chapters, throw in a one-liner to re-hook the reader – to keep them turning the pages. In the new chapter, throw in another hook. These first and last chapter one-liners aren’t nearly as important as the first line in a novel, but most great writers understand how to cause us poor readers those many sleepless nights. This isn’t the end-all be-all of writing, but you must know where your story is heading. Keep it moving forward by keeping the reader hooked.

Re-hooking can come in many forms – dialogue, emotion, action, comedy, even literary prose. But it must make sense to your novel. I wouldn’t tell a joke at the end of a chapter if the next one begins with a torture scene. Well…unless you want to shock the reader. But that’s a different subject. Anyway, the mood of characters, the voice of your story, and the pace of your prose dictates where those strategic hooks can be placed. Sometimes, it won’t make sense to begin or end a chapter with a hook, but the key is to watch for it. Write. And read. Look for those turning points or moments in your book where one line could make a big difference. Use this in conjunction with tension and character, and you are well on your way to a best-seller.

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Comments
  1. jennyleelee says:

    I agree with avoiding cliche lines and situations with characters, but I also think that if you’re being true to the character’s inner voice, then overused situations won’t seem cliche.

    It’s all about the voice, because honestly…we are repetitive creatures that turn the same dials as our ancestors; there are no really “new” stories, just new people voicing the experience. πŸ™‚

  2. The opening that makes me cringe is when the protagonist is bored. The concept is that their boring life then blows up into something interesting, but if the protagonist is bored, most of the time, so is the reader…

    Eustace Clarence Scrubb is one of my favorite opening lines. Along with “All children, except one, grow up.”

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