First impressions are everything. If you don’t hook your readers from the start, they might turn on Netflix or start doom-scrolling on Facebook. There are plenty of other things for people to do besides read your novel.
But don’t worry! Today we’ll learn how to find a hook for your novel so your readers won’t be able to put it down.
Examining Opening Lines
Let’s look at some opening sentences and see how they are working. I selected these by pulling famous novels off my husband’s bookshelf. In other words, I could have picked any number of well-regarded books and found opening lines that work similar ways.
It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The hook: This line begs the question: Why did Yossarian fall in love with the priest? Making the reader ask a question is always a good strategy for an opening line. It hooks the reader and makes them want to keep reading to see if they get an answer.
The tone: In addition, the idea of a man falling in love with a priest at first sight is humorous. This sets the silly tone of the rest of the novel. It is important that your opening line help establish the reader’s expectations about what kind of book they have chosen to read, even if the book later subverts some of the reader’s expectations, which Catch-22 certainly does.
The character: We are also being introduced to the character of Yossarian here. Generally the first person you see in a novel will be the main character. That may sound basic, but it’s important. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if you chose to begin with someone other than the main character, you need to write carefully so the reader can follow the transition.
The Golden Compass
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening halls, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
The hook: Here we see the main character sneaking through the hallway. This begs the question: why does she need to sneak? Right away we sense that there is a mystery afoot. The story begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. This means there is no exposition or introduction at the beginning of the story: we are thrown into the action right away.
The world: The fourth word in this sentence is “daemon.” This tells us right away that we are in a fantasy novel and sets the readers expectations accordingly.
The movement: It is significant that Lyra is not in a static position. She’s moving through the hallway. This movement makes the reader feel like they are getting pulled into the story. If Philip Pullman had started the novel a little later, we would see Lyra hiding and overhearing a conversation she’s not supposed to hear. Even though this would technically still be in medias res, it’s less gripping than seeing her in motion.
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The hook: There’s a big mystery here. What is this thing in the sky and why is it screaming? Why did it happen before and why is it happening now? Having this much mystery up front can be risky because it may alienate some readers. Make sure you introduce a character quickly to help ground them.
The movement: Once again we begin a story with movement, but this time it is the movement of an object across the entire skyline, rather than the movement of a single character that we saw earlier. This alone says a lot about the novel: it’s a big book about big ideas and takes a broad view of history. The movement of the large object across the large space is mimicking this.
The Devil Wears Prada
The light hadn’t even officially turned green at the intersection of 17th and Broadway before an army of yellow cabs roared past the tiny death trap I was attempting to navigate around the city streets. Clutch, gas, shift (neutral to first? or second?) release, clutch, I repeated over and over in my head…The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
The Character: We learn a lot about the main character from these opening sentences. We learn she’s a frantic, anxiety-prone loser. Her struggle against traffic immediately establishes her as an underdog. Readers tend to love underdogs and want to root for them, especially if they find her anxieties and problems relatable.
The Movement: Once again, we are in motion. This time, we’re careening through the chaotic streets of New York City. We know this even though the city isn’t named because of the concrete pieces of description: the familiar street names combined with the yellow cabs and traffic. But importantly, this setting is done inside the act of driving. This allows the reader to feel like they are driving through New York City with the character.
Pumping Up Your Novel’s Opening Line
Now let’s apply what we’ve learned to our own opening lines. The following are general principles you can apply to begin your novel with a bang.
As we saw in our examples, keeping the readers in motion will draw them into the story. This is a great way for the writer to prove that they created a dynamic world, assuring the reader that the characters will experience change by the end of the story.
Act First, Explain Later
Don’t bog down the beginning with paragraphs of backstory. Begin with an intriguing scene and incorporate the necessary background in small doses throughout the first chapter.
Build an Iceberg
Remember Hemingway’s iceberg? A good writer doesn’t need to spell everything out for the readers. Instead, they give just enough information for the readers to use their own imagination. This is especially true in opening sentences, where some mystery or ambiguity can hook the reader.
Establish the Voice
The reader should get a hint at the general tone of the novel from the very beginning. Will it be a tender love story or a side-splitting satire? If you have a first-person narrator, you also have to give a hint at the character’s personality. Are they a hapless schmuck, like the narrator of The Devil Wears Prada, or are they are sardonic and bitter, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye? In a first-person novel, the reader’s interest is often dependent on the strength of the narrator’s personality.
I suggest you take some of your favorite books off the shelves and examine their opening sentences. How many of them follow these rules? How many break them? Do you notice a difference between classic and contemporary novels?