It’s a book, for heaven’s sake—a simple, ordinary, inanimate object without sight or voice. And yet it chides me for neglecting a duty
…back pedaling on a promise. I feel its sightless stare each time I’m within five feet of it.
The problem is, I did pick it up and start reading. This particular novel didn’t grab my attention from the word “go.” As much as I love to read, that much, at least, is necessary. If a writer doesn’t hook me from the beginning and pull me in so deeply that I can’t put the book down, I will put it down, and I won’t ever pick it back up.
Except…I made a promise to read and review this book. So I have to open it again, and I know it won’t be a pleasure read. “Plowing” is hard work. If I must “plow” through a book, I’ve defeated my purpose in reading, which is pleasure, escape, entertainment and relaxation. I want to lose myself in the story, preferably from the very first sentence, and not have to think about the fact that I’m reading. I want to become a part of that fictional world, and forget the real one exists, at least for the duration of that novel. If the author fails to absorb me into his or her tale that thoroughly, then I am constantly reminded of my existence outside the book, and I will return to it, leaving the fictional world on the shelf.
As writers, we have a duty to capture our readers and allow them to submerge themselves completely in our stories. Anything less, and we have failed them on some level. We held out a tempting carrot and jerked it away when they reached for it. That’s not cool.
We cater to readers, not farmers, so don’t expect them to plow through an entire book. Pull them into your story, and do it from the first paragraph—the first word, whenever possible.
This can be done through dialogue or action. It can be done through narrative, but the author must have a specific “knack” for hooking a reader to accomplish it successfully.
So let’s discuss that. What is a hook?
Look it up in a thesaurus, and you’ll find alternate words like “fasten” and “catch.” Which pretty much says it all. We need to capture a reader’s attention (catch) and hold it in place (fasten). That’s what a hook will do.
I could have started this article with something like, “I know books don’t have eyes, but this one sure seems to be watching me.” But the opening sentence I used hopefully left you wondering what would be watching me if it had eyes. And why would the looks be reproachful and accusing? It’s that curiosity that made you read on. And if you’re still reading, apparently I’ve held your attention—at least this far.
An opening word/sentence/paragraph should:
- Capture attention
- Arouse curiosity
- Activate interest
Think about it. What kind of response do those words invoke in you? I can only speak for myself, but for me, they elicit a big yawn and a, “So what?”
The author could have said the same thing without saying it. (Show, don’t tell.)
No moon. No light. Stygian darkness shrouded the night, broken only by jagged streaks of lightning and angry booms of thunder.
Better? Well, somewhat. You know it was a dark and stormy night, and I didn’t just tell you that. But talking about the weather simply isn’t a great hook. It doesn’t leave the reader thinking, “Oooh, what’s going on?” She isn’t hooked into reading further.
First lines need to give at least some indication of what’s going on in the storyline at that moment—some kind of action, not the setting. Surely we could improve on the above example. Let’s try something else.
Camy screamed and fell to her knees. Her arms flew up to shield her head as a bolt of lightning crackled past her ear. A fraction of a second later, a tree burst into flame a hundred yards further down the road. Fire lit up the moonless night, and Camy shuddered. “Way too close for comfort,” she muttered, then hunched her shoulders against the driving rain and plodded on down the road.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The reader should be feeling a bit of concern for Camy, and wondering why she’s on foot in the middle of a storm.
“Ai-yi-yi! Too close for comfort!” Camy pulled the hood of her soaked jacket up over her head and peered into the momentarily Stygian darkness of a moonless night. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. Angry bolts of electricity zipped across the sky every minute or two, followed by deep, booming rolls of thunder she felt all the way through her shivering frame. Being on foot in the middle of this storm was like asking to be fried alive.
This is a personal preference, but starting with dialogue works best for me almost every time. It brings the reader immediately into some kind of action. It also introduces a human being into the storyline right away, getting an immediate edge on forming a bond between the character and the reader.
I’m sure you can come up with even better substitutes for “It was a dark and stormy night.” Try it, it’s a great writing exercise.
Better yet, let’s do it here, it’ll be fun! Give us a first line (not necessarily the one I used) that doesn’t work for you, then re-write it. (No need to mention the title or author of the work.)
I’ll be back to check on you, but first, I have some plowing to do….
Delia Latham (c) 2011