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Hook your readers from the start

A common complaint of editors and publishers is that a lot of the manuscripts they see have weak opening lines and take too long to get going.

The truth is that potential readers aren’t going to hang around waiting for your story to develop. They’ll give your opening lines a brief scan and will make their buying decision within seconds. In this brief slice of time you have to grab them so they keep reading.

You have two choices to make when opening your story:

  • Which scene do you start with?
  • How do you open that scene?

1. Which scene to start with

If you’ve read my article on story premise you’ll remember that the beginning is generally where we give some exposition on the character, their situation and their problem or conflict. The moment you introduce conflict, you evoke questions in the mind of the reader, and this compels them to read more to find out how the conflict is resolved.

In Star Wars Episode IV (the very first Star Wars that was made), the film opens with a brief prelude and then properly begins when we see Luke Skywalker working on repairing a droid which suddenly beams a holographic image of a Princess Leia making an appeal for help from someone called Obi-Wan.

This enigmatic statement is enough to set up questions that the audience wants answered. Who is she, who is Obi-Wan, and what kind of trouble is she in? We’ve got a character, in a situation, with a disruption that evokes curiosity.

So the lesson for us is to start with a scene with a disrupting event that gives rise to questions in the mind of the reader or viewer. In writer-speak, this setup is known as the hook. It hooks readers and stops them from getting away.

2. Which lines to open with

You’ve chosen your opening scene and made sure it’s got a hook that will spark the curiosity of your reader. Now let’s zoom in even closer and look at the very first sentences of that scene. And that’s got to have a hook too. A one-paragraph hook. Preferably even a one-line hook!

And you do that by arousing curiosity. Simple as that. There are some tried and trusted ways of doing so:

1. Start with a disruption

With this kind of beginning, you don’t waste any time with explanations about who characters are or how they got there – you jump straight in with a disturbance that sets the story going. Typical disturbances might be a phone call in the middle of the night, a car breaking down in the desert, an accident, or the arrival of an unexpected guest.

As soon as she finished dressing, Laura went to the front door, just in time to see the LA Police Department squad car pull to the curb in front of the house. –Dean Koontz, The Door to December.

2. Start with a resonant description

This is a great way to begin of you are a word-artist and you want to appeal directly to readers who appreciate writing style and texture. It’s got to be artfully written and create a mood. But it’s also got to lead to a disruption within the first page.

The Santa Ana blew hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. – Janet Fitch, White Oleander

3. Start with action

Open in the midst of some action with no explanation about the cause of the action. Allow the reader to figure out the situation for themselves as they continue reading.

I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. — Catching Fire (Hunger Games Trilogy, Book 2), Suzanne Collins

4. Start with dialogue

Jump straight into a crucial piece of dialogue well laced with conflict and disruption. This is a form of beginning in medias res (in the midst of things).

“What are you going to do when you leave school?” asked Alexander.

“I’m hoping to join the KGB,” Vladimir replied. — Jeffrey Archer, Heads You Win

5. Start with a powerful, surprising statement

A brilliant way to start is to make a short, resonant statement about a situation. By resonant, I mean something that has the power to move the reader and elicit some kind of reaction from them. The lines should be so resonant they become quotable.

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

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

All the principles I’ve outlined above work just as well for memoir and creative non-fiction.

Here’s an example:

The lawyer Jan Schlichtmann was awakened by the telephone at eight-thirty on a Saturday morning in mid-July. – Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action.

This is a non-fiction work, but see how it jumps in with a named character and a specific disturbance. We want to know what the phonecall is about – we’re hooked.

For a more in-depth discussion of opening lines, with added examples and exercises, see my book Write Masterful Fiction, described below.

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