What makes you read a book or story? For most of us it is two things. We read the back cover to see a ‘blurb’ of what the story is about and we read the first page. There is an internet site which claims that the real test is to read page 99 if it’s a book. That page lurking in the middle of the story which still needs to be interesting. I would argue whilst that is relevant to see if it is well written and engaging it is not a way to see if the story hooks you. If you are hooked there are times where the story is quite legitimately slower paced, but we’ll come back to that when we look at middles.
How do you hook a reader at the start of the story? In general terms the reader needs to meet lead role. The key person who drives the book should be the person they meet first. If you are writing in the point of view of one character they are the one that the reader needs to think and feel with throughout the book. Having said that, it is not enough to say ‘Joe put on his socks as he thought through the groceries he was going to need to buy.’ That may well be better than ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ However, it tells us little more than 1) Joe wears socks 2) he has to do some shopping. For me it has the ‘so what?’ element. I don’t care.
It can be fun to try to evoke a reaction in the reader. The Lifetracer starts with ‘Who wouldn’t want to investigate a death threat if given the opportunity?’ That tells the reader that there is a death threat and our lead character has the opportunity to investigate it. However at the same tome it is making the reader think ‘would I want to investigate a death threat?’ and brings them into the story.
All stories mentioned are available from www.alfiedog.com
It can work very well to start with speech. Take the opening of the story A Clean Break by Samantha Tonge
“I asked for what?” Ken put down his glass of wine and skimmed a hand over his bald head.
Here we have a good opening question. I defy anyone who reads that not to want to know what it is that Ken had actually asked for.
By starting with some action you are right into the story. In An Unexpected Visit Alan C. Williams starts his humorous science fiction story:
As Patti Gilmore opened their front door, she was surprised to see an overweight police detective flanked by two heavily armed officers.
Not only are you straight into the action, you know Patti is the lead character and you have a very visual image of what she is facing… and if you are me you are intrigued.
Although the opening sentence is important you’ve usually got a little longer than that to hook the reader. Sometimes it is the second sentence which provides the hook. In one of my own stories Princess Isabella and the Tale if the Three Wishes we are faced with an unexpected contrast that makes us take notice:
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess. She had buck teeth and thick-lensed glasses, but she was a beautiful princess none the less.
You have no more than about 50 words to make the reader interested. On www.alfiedog.com we include the opening lines of the story as well as the blurb for the reader to get a feel before they download a story. It is worth reading a few and deciding what works for you and what doesn’t. You can select stories in a particular genre to get the closest comparison to your own writing.
If any of you would like me to comment on your opening lines then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I may even include some of the best in one of my future blog entries.