How do you hook a reader at the start of a book?
Slow beginnings are something I feel I’m a bit prone to if I’m not careful (true story: The Lord of Stariel first draft originally had a whole ‘nother chapter before Chapter 1 that got cut during rewrites), so I was particularly interested in Sophie Jordan’s workshop on beginnings at the recent RWNZ conference I attended.
(For the more general conference experience write-up, see previous blog post)
Sophie Jordan writes romance, but the concepts she talked about are applicable across all fiction genres.
The takeaway is that the three key components of a great opening are:
Ideally, you establish all three as soon as possible, in the first few lines if you can, but within the first few pages at a stretch.
(Obviously, a hooky beginning can’t make a book good in and of itself; that’s what the rest of the novel is for!)
Sophie gave lots of examples of great hooky openings (and I’ve added some from books I love into the mix), all of which you also now get to enjoy as I ruminate my way through the mechanics of why they’re hooky. (Note that I haven’t read all of the books associated with these lines, but they are definitely all hooky!).
A character-driven opening should lead us to ask an interesting question, make us feel for the character, and set up something about their everyday life.
Character-driven opening examples
Scarlet O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
—Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
I think the question here is: Who are the Tarleton twins and why is the apparently not-beautiful Scarlet charming them? (I have actually only seen the movie version of this, and my memory is pretty foggy, so this is a genuine question). Also, you have to feel for a heroine described as “not beautiful”. Pretty sure there’s a law.
Charlotte was one week short of seventeen when her life changed, falling into two halves like a shiny child’s ball: before and after.
—Potent Pleasures, Eloisa James
What changed your life, Charlotte? I must know!!!
I haven’t touched another person in three years.
—The Girl in 6e, Alessandra Torre
I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!! Do you mean literally? Are you in some kind of terrible solitary confinement? Can I help you escape somehow?
2/3 of the above examples also double as conflict-driven openings. The conflict component of a beginning instills foreboding, curiosity, or emotion, and hints at what the book’s larger conflict might be about.
Conflict-driven opening examples
“I’ll consider your debt paid in full if you get my wife with child.”
—Waking up with the Duke, Lorraine Heath
WHAAAAAAAT??? Who is he making this offer to? Why is he making this offer? Has his wife consented to this!!?? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLY GOING TO WORK OUT????
The day of the royal massacre started out like any other.
—Kill the Queen, Jennifer Estep
Well that’s incredibly ominous!
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
—The Martian, Andy Weir
This opening is also big on establishing character, but the main driving question is: What, exactly, has turned into a nightmare?
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.
—Uprooted, Naomi Novik
This is from one of my favourite books, and it pulls me in every time! It evokes strong curiosity (who is this dragon, one immediately asks, and why is he taking girls?) There’s also something old-fashionedly fairytale-like even in just the first line, which very much captures the tone of the book.
Which brings us to…
This is the elusive spark of what-makes-one-author’s-style-distinct-from-every-other-author. It’s the adjective X in the sentence “Oh, this is such X writing”, where X might be clean / beautiful / funny / self-aware / intense etc.
Voice-driven opening examples
All of the above examples have strong voice, but here are even more:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
—Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
This opening has such a distinctive voice that we’ve been quoting it for over 200 years!
Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.
—Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
Ah, Terry Pratchett, my favourite fantasy author. Your dry, satirical voice is sorely missed.
Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
I remember reading this line for the first time at the age of eleven and being simply unable to stop. I find this opening particularly interesting because Harry, our protagonist, is largely absent from the opening paragraphs, but the author’s voice is so engaging that it doesn’t matter. And the conflict of the book is hinted at in this very first line i.e. something very not normal is about to arrive on the Dursleys’ doorstep…
As part of the workshop, Sophie also got us to brainstorm openings based on various scenarios. I’m a slow thinker, so I haven’t yet managed to come up with any zingers like the ones above, but it’s filled me with determination to keep trying!