Welcome to the first of my Simply Writing blogs! In this series of posts, I intend to demystify the craft of writing, applying my own personal slant and spin to help you kick writing butt.
That said, if there’s anything you’d like me to cover over the next twelve months and beyond, don’t hesitate to contact me. This is as much your blog as mine and I’d love to grow and develop your craft as we move through the different elements of writing, and writing well.
Sooo, let’s get started.
Where it all begins, with your story, and those wonderful first line, opening hooks.
What constitutes an opening hook? This is a sentence or series of sentences at the beginning of your novel designed to hook the reader’s attention and keep them reading on.
Do a Google search on opening hooks, and you’ll score a list of very helpful, very varied suggestions on how to structure your first line and paragraph. Examples like:
- Make your readers ask questions – create an interesting picture in your first sentence or open with what I call a ‘drop bomb’
- Land your readers in the middle of a mysterious situation, some action or plot twist and sweep them away with excitement
- Introduce an interesting character with compelling narrative voice or dialogue
These are but a few suggestions.
Sounds easy, right?
In theory, absolutely, yet when we sit down to apply that same theory to our own manuscript, very often the mind goes blank. Or we create what we think is a hook, but it doesn’t quite make it.
Even when we follow instructions and start our story in the right place, when we’ve cut backstory, cut unnecessary narrative and description, when we’ve chosen one or more of those wonderful opening hook suggestions, why then do we still fall short?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that whilst the above suggestions are important, they’re not complete without one critical addition – a reflection of the mood and/or action of that opening scene.
To create a compelling hook you must give it a compelling reason to exist. You can do this by linking that hook in some way to both scene and story. This will give it depth and make it more meaningful than merely clever narrative and exposition.
And it will drop your reader deeper into both your story and your characters’ lives, so much so, they won’t want to come out.
How does this translate when we write our opening sentences and beyond? Let’s break it down.
First, analyse that opening scene and isolate the central incident. What is happening here? Who is involved? Why is it happening? And how does this all relate to the central theme of the story?
Pinpoint the answer to all four questions, then identify a point in that scene that grabs attention or provokes thought and use this as your opener.
Let’s look at a few examples:
‘When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.’ Harlan Coben, No Second Chance
This is a fab story by one of my all-time favourite suspense authors. Let’s see how many boxes Harlan’s hook ticks. Is it mysterious? Exciting? Action-packed? Thought-provoking? Yes, to all the above. And how well does it represent not only the theme of this scene, but the entire story? Well, this is a novel about a man’s hunt for his kidnapped daughter. In this first, critical line, his love for her is clearly cemented, and as that first bullet hits, our interest is well and truly snagged.
‘The stranger didn’t shatter Adam’s world all at once.’ Harlan Coben, The Stranger
What a fabulous lead in! Such a simple sentence, but it has everything a great hook should have. Mystery. Interest. Intrigue. And it leads us to ask so many questions. Least of all, who is this stranger, and how and why did he shatter Adam’s world? And as for how it reflects the theme of both story and this opening scene? The Stranger is a story about a man who believes he has the perfect life, until a stranger reveals secrets about his wife and shatters the illusion. Don’t know about you, but I think this is a fab representation of both.
So, I’ve given you two examples, both for suspense. Much easier to create mystery and excitement with this kind of story, right? But for stories in a different genre, such as romance, how can we generate this kind of interest and intrigue?
By applying the same rules.
Let’s look at an absolutely awesome example:
‘If Matilda Kent had to write one more story about the latest nipple-baring bustier or test drive the newest crotchless thongs marketed to the “everyday woman” for the edification of her style column readers, she was going to strangle her boss with them.’ Amy Andrews, Playing By Her Rules
After reading this, if you’re not laughing out loud, sniggering surreptitiously or grinning ear to ear, I’ll eat my shorts! And as for our checklist . . . Has this sparked questions? Are you engaged? Intrigued? Compelled to read on? For me, it’s a yes, yes, yes and yes!
As for the purpose of the first scene and the story’s theme, Amy has this well and truly covered. In Playing By Her Rules, journalist Matilda’s goals centre squarely around moving out of fashion and into features. And with that first wonderful sentence, we immediately have a sense of just how much she hates what she does. Instead, she wants serious topics, and to be taken seriously. In fact, this is one of the underlying themes and conflicts in this story – what do you think of this opening hook now you know this?
‘Lake Benson’s midlife crisis lasted exactly twenty-four hours. In that time, he quit his career with the army and bought a lingerie shop. All things considered, he was glad the crisis hadn’t lasted longer.’ Janet Elizabeth Henderson, Lingerie Wars
I know. Three sentences instead of one. But how great are they? We are dropped directly into Luke’s situation in a humorous and interesting way, and how could you not want to read on?
‘They make it look so easy in books. Murder the body, move the victim.’ Michelle Somers, Murder Most Unusual
With this simple opening in my heroine’s point of view, we are introduced to the underlying theme of this story. My heroine is a romantic suspense author, and her idea of research is reenacting murders to ensure they are believable. In this opening scene, we see her do exactly that.
Does it tick all the boxes of a great opening hook? I’ll leave that decision up to you J
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
How is it that Jane Austen novels so well stand the test of time? This wonderful opening demonstrates why, as well as showcasing Austen’s undisputed skill as an author and as a storyteller. Pride and Prejudice explores love and marriage and the influence of money on both. And this opening hook, narrated in Lizzie Bennett’s point of view, gives us insight into not only her thoughts, but the very theme of this story.
‘Storms split the heavens on the night Sidonie Forsythe went to her ruin.’ Anna Campbell, Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed
This opening hook beautifully encompasses both the story’s theme and Sidonie’s conflict. As we read on, we discover she’s willing to do anything in order to save her sister, and in the opening scene, we see her doing just this.
‘I lost it in the bathroom.’ Penny Reid, Neanderthal Seeks Human
An opening thought deep in lead character, Janie Morris’s, point of view. If we read on, we discover what it is that Janie feels she is losing in the bathroom – her temper and her mind. A fabulous start, totally representative of the story’s theme where life as Janie knows it slowly slips through her fingertips as she falls for the most unlikely of heroes.
There are so many great openers, so many great first lines and first paragraphs, but if you’re looking to create a hook that’s greater than great, consider your story, your theme, the central characters and how they’re placed in those critical first few pages, then craft your hook with all these factors in mind.
Thank you for tuning in for the first of what I hope will be many Simply Writing blogs. I hope I’ve shed some light on what is a key element in the task of hooking your reader. And I hope I’ve sparked one – if not more – lightbulb moments when it comes to your writing and your work-in-progress.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas or inspirations on this topic.
What are some of your favourite book first line openers? Can you dig a little further and see why they’ve earned this place? Now take a look at your current story opener – how can you tweak or change it to make it stronger?
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