By Robin D. Owens
Hook me, baby
Occasionally I pick up one of the unread books I've purchased and say, "hook me, baby." Most of the time I realize why I didn't read the book right away, and often I just go to something else. The amount of time I can spend reading is extremely limited, and if there isn't a good hook, I'm gone.
My bias: I am a firm believer in getting the hook in the first line, and if not the first line, then the first paragraph. I think the longer you take to set the hook, the more likely it is that the reader will skip to the next book in the pile (or on their device). I believe that no matter your status as a writer – unpublished or New York Times #1 Best Seller, you should attempt to hook the reader as soon as humanly possible. Don't expect the reader to have read any other books of yours, especially if you write series. Work your hook, always.
Like I said, this is my bias and this is the point of view I'm coming from in this article. And as a reader, I want to be drawn into a story quickly. (I once had an agent turn Heart Thief down because she "liked to sink into a story.")
The following are some openings that DON'T work for ME. These are true examples, pretty much as I flicked through my electronic library, but the authors will remain anonymous.
1) Starting with the weather. I don't care if it's hot and sultry, or if a thunderstorm is raging. Why, if your hero is making a pact with the devil at the end of the paragraph, don't you put that in the first line? Or if your heroine senses danger outside in that storm, you wait until the end of the second paragraph before telling me? Use it up front to get me interested in your story.
2) Five people named in the first two pages. What? Who? Why? What is going on that there are so many people? Who are they, and who of these five are important? Where are they? You have to keep track of them all, what they look like, their ages, and who moves where. This was especially necessary in the mystery I'd started. This becomes less of entertainment and enjoyment and more work for me, the reader.
3) Ten pages of standing and looking out the window and thinking about backstory, or driving somewhere and thinking of the past. When will the action/story actually start?
4) The hero or heroine embarrassing himself/herself or acting stupid in the first scene. If I'm putting myself in that person's skin, I don't want to feel embarrassed or stupid, I can do that just fine on my own in my own life, thank you, I expect more of my protagonists. At this point, unless I know and trust the author, I don't know if the character will really improve or not.
5) Point of view of a wonderful person, an obvious victim who will die before the end of the first scene. I especially don't like to be tortured to death. You had better have a very good story reason for this, and you had better not have been manipulating my emotions gratuitously. This is a cheap-shot to try and get me involved without giving me information on your main protagonist.
Note: I finished this book, but am still irate that the New York Times best-selling author didn't find a better way to give us information that the main characters didn't know. S/he should have mastered a better technique to do so, and if s/he doesn't know a better technique his/her editor should have. I reread the books I buy often. I have never reread this scene.
Other ways of opening that may or may not work, depending upon the reader and/or the technique of the writer. These you should consider.
Starting with a dream. Conventional wisdom states this is a no-no. I can't say "never," since in my twenty-four published books, two have started with a dream, including the latest, Heart Fire, which begins with a nightmare of a past event. Two pieces of advice: Make sure readers know up front it's a dream, and keep it as short as possible.
Single character on stage. I've also used single character on stage; again, keep the backstory to a minimum, keep the time the person is solo as short as possible, and make sure the character's voice is engaging, or the events s/he's immersed in are active -- fast action and/or a dangerous situation.
Tense and/or Point of View, for instance:
First person present tense. I, personally, have a problem with reading this. It makes my head ache. If there isn't something especially wonderful about the book, I close it. Be aware of tense and point of view with regard to the genre you're writing in and your audience.
With regard to point of view, I like deep third person past tense. I don't particularly care for omniscient point of view as it seems distancing to me as a reader and the less engaged I am in the story, the more likely I am to put the book down. Again, some genres and readers accept this better.
And that's my two-bits on hooks and hooking me to read your work. Other people might have other sensitivities, but I will say that I try my best to stay away from what bothers me as a reader as I craft my own work as a writer.
Be aware what hooks YOU and keeps you reading, study the books and the openings that particularly worked for you as a reader and figure out if you can use the same technique.
May all your writing dreams come true,