It’s hard to find a workshop, a writing article, or a book which covers novel beginnings that doesn’t talk about “hooking the reader.” The focus on “hooking the reader” would make one think that the only thing a book beginning needed to do to be successful would be to “hook the reader.” My assessment of that is that it is over simplistic and short sighted. I believe it would be more accurate to say that a good opening “hooks the reader” but it also does several other things, which are much less commonly talked about in the books, articles, and workshops on writing beginnings.
I would also point out that while “hooking the reader” might be YOUR goal as an author, the reader doesn’t pick up a book thinking, ummm….I’m looking for a book to hook me tonight. Instead the reader has his or her own agenda which relates to the kind of experience he or she wants to enjoy between the pages of a book, and you have your agenda. The two can collide happily if the opening gives the reader what he or she is looking for when he or she picks up the book.
From the reader’s viewpoint, the reader is looking for a specific kind of virtual experience. It may be that tonight she is in the mood for a soft, squishie, feel good story that will leave her with a warm glow. It may be he is looking for a bit of titillation wrapped up in a story that will make him believe that sex can still be exciting even after 20 years of marriage. Maybe she wants a wild ride of an experience that takes her into the world of zombies where forever is short-lived. Whatever it is your potential reader is looking for, the opening is your opportunity to show him or her whether your story will offer what he or she is looking for. (Sometimes a great opening hooks a reader, even if the reader is looking for a different kind of experience at the outset. That is okay. 🙂 )
This being said, what YOUR READER wants from your opening is an immediate presentation of as many of the important elements of your story as possible. He or she wants to know who the people in your story are, what their conflict is, how much sexual and emotional tension will be present in the story and whether sexual tension or emotional tension will be the more dominant force. They want an understanding of how the story will make them feel. Will it make them laugh, tremble in fear, cry?
So…yes, we need to hook the reader but we need to do it by giving the reader clues about what he or she will find in the pages of the story.
There are two basic ways of looking at openings which provide the reader this snapshot of story that they are looking for – WHILE HOOKING THEM! They are:
The intriguing premise (think snapshot of the plot here)
The inciting incident (think an event here)
The intriguing premise is the plot in very brief terms. What you want to do with this kind of opening is show the concept of the novel, who the characters are and what their conflict is.
For example this would be an intriguing premise:
The last thing Jack Jones wanted was the job of protecting spoiled rock star Jessica Amon’s ass. He’d lost a close friend who’d been killed while protecting another spoiled rich girl from the trouble she’d brought on herself, and Jack was determined to keep Jessica safe by keeping her firmly under his thumb no matter how much she balked at his control.
Notice that the intriguing premise sounds an awful lot like the blurb. The premise IS very like the blurb…it’s a couple sentences which summarize the story idea—most typically from one of the character’s points of view. In this example you know this is going to be a knight protecting a damsel in distress story. You also have a sense of the characters. Jessica is a spoiled rock star—or at least Jack thinks so—and Jack is alpha if not all the way into dominant.
This works very well for common types of stories…rich girl/poor boy – damsel in distress – marriage of convenience – reunion stories – trapped together stories etc.
The reason that intriguing premise openings work well for common story types is that there is an established readership for these TYPES of stories. When you craft an opening that tells the reader this is a rich girl/poor boy story then the opening instantly appeals to readers fond of that kind of story. It appeals because it is a KIND of story that that particular reader likes.
Even openings which are built upon the intriguing premise will have an inciting incident and that incident can also serve to hook the reader.
Usually if an intriguing premise is used it is used as an initial short hook. Then there is an inciting incident opening which follows immediately.
An inciting incident is basically the incident in which the courses of your characters’ lives are changed—in romance this happens by propelling the hero and heroine together. Sometimes this is when the characters first meet as is the case in stories that begin with a cute meet. Other times it is a moment which precipitates a change that the character cannot escape. In Jack and Jessica’s example above, the precipitating event for Jack might be the moment he is told by his boss to protect Jessica or lose his job. For Jessica it might be the moment she gets the first serious threat from the stalker…or it could be the moment she is told by her record label that she WILL have a security detail.
When you are thinking about inciting incidents think drama, humor, angst. You want the reader to be drawn in by your inciting incident…to care what happens as a result.
The hook that YOU want will usually be buried in either the intriguing premise or in the inciting incident…or maybe even both.
This blog post is adapted from my workshop The Anatomy Of A Great Opening. Check out the writing tab to learn about upcoming workshops.