In this article, originally published on Suite101, I'm breaking down a good opening hook into four types of hooks. Does your opening hook fall into one of the four categories?
Grabbing the Reader’s Attention From the First Paragraph
A novel needs to start with something so captivating that the reader is compelled to move on. This is called the Opening Hook.
These days, the Opening Hook is important not just to hook readers, but to hook editors. In an informal survey of more than 50 editors and agents, author Cheryl Wyatt reports that 99% of them admit to only reading the first page of a submitted manuscript. If the story does not intrigue them in that first page, they won’t read on.
That puts a great deal of pressure on unpublished writers to have an astounding first page. If the editor, who reads thousands of manuscripts a year, is not hooked, then that manuscript will only garner a form rejection letter.
Work Hard on a Killer First Line.
Lots of writers pooh-pooh having a killer first line, but really, it’s the perfect place to hook the editor or reader. If the editor likes that first line, they’ll definitely read the second one.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes:
“The most important sentence in an article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead.’”
--William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
William Zinsser is referring to nonfiction articles, but it applies just as well to novel first lines.
Angle Toward the Unique, Unanticipated, Different.
A first line that highlights something unusual is what will pique the editor’s attention.
(a) Introduce something unique happening in the story world.
Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) writes: “To call attention to uniqueness is to make your reader wonder what you’re leading up to.” That “wonder”—that curiosity, mystery—is what hooks the reader to keep reading.
Highlight a unique person, place, situation, object.
Rafe Noble, two-time world champion bull rider and current king of the gold buckle, had never met a bull that he feared. –Taming Rafe by Susan May Warren
(b) Reveal Something Unanticipated
Contrast normal with abnormal. The reader will be intrigued and read on.
To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. –Silent In the Grave by Deanna Raybourn
(c) Show a Deviation From the Norm or From Routine
Anything that indicates that “today is something different” will pique the reader’s curiosity and wonder what’s happening.
I couldn’t imagine more shocking news. –A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin
(d) Indicate Something Is About to Change
As in (c), readers will respond to something indicating something is going to happen.
Any man going on this mission wasn’t coming back. –Amber Morn by Brandilyn Collins
Be Aware That the Standard is Different For Unpublished Writers
Yes, it’s not fair, but you can complain after you’ve written fifty best-sellers.
Unpublished writers are competing with thousands of other unpublished writers for every book slot. The odds are not very good because there aren’t many book slots for new authors. Most publishers want the guaranteed money of best-selling authors’ books in as many slots as possible.
So the smartest thing is to step up to the plate and work hard on that first line, first paragraph, first page. It’ll be worth the hard work to improve the odds of an editor reading past that first page, requesting the full manuscript, taking that manuscript to pub board.