In this Writers Workshop post I am focusing on a great beginning (if you missed it, read my last post, Writers Workshop – Editing And The Godfather). The first line or two (or possibly paragraph) can make or break a book. As a writer, you need to hook the reader in right from the first sentence and have them saying wow, what happens next? or I want to know more. So what makes a good, or better yet, a great beginning to a novel?
Writers Workshop – Just Your Basic Hook
A basic hook is one where you introduce some little thing that the reader doesn’t know about and they have to read more to find out what that something is (this is great in fantasy or science fiction). If you can do this in the first line, that’s great!
The flugerbolly spaceship roared into the sky trailing a cloud of smoke.
You have to read more to find out what the flugerbolly spaceship is (and why it’s important). This is a very basic and easy hook. It can work, but the rest of the paragraph had better set the stage for your story.
Writers Workshop – A Hook That Propels The Novel Forward
A better hook will immediately move the story forward, and pique your reader’s interest. This might be a feel for who the main character is, or for the coming drama of the story. But in this type of hook we must see some kind of conflict. You also want to be unique…how many of us have heard it was a dark and stormy night (ugh). It’s also good to either have excitement (thrillers and crime novels usually have an exciting and dramatic first sentence) or at least a hint of excitement to come.
Writers Workshop – Some Other Techniques
You can also indicate that a change is about to occur, either for the character or for the world (humankind, nature, etc.). You can present something of intrigue, whether a person, place or thing. You can also throw the reader for a loop, shock them with something unexpected or horrific. The point is, get them wanting to know more.
Writers Workshop – The Godfather Hook
The Godfather has a great first line. It’s not about the Don himself, but it sets the stage to introduce this great man (the first few pages of the chapter actually do this – they introduce us to three people who need favors that only a powerful man can deliver). Here’s the first sentence:
Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.
Right away we know that we have an immigrant (and that he’s from Italy or Sicily most likely), that something awful has happened to his daughter, something so heinous that justice must be served. And yet justice might not be enough, vengeance must also be a part of the equation. What happened? Why did this injustice dishonor Bonasera’s daughter? When I first read The Godfather, I was hooked. I wanted to know more.
Writers Workshop – Another Awesome Hook
This isn’t from The Godfather, but it’s a favorite of mine. This is from the great novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.
OMG! Now (spoiler alert) when I read it, I knew the story had something to do with vampires, and that made the first line even more jarring for me. Oh, man, the stress of not knowing when sunset is. And they were out. I was hooked!
Writers Workshop – Final Thoughts
Obviously different genres may hook readers in different ways. And we all have different tastes, so what might be a great line that pulls me in doesn’t for you. But if no one cares about reading more, it’s time to go back to the keyboard and try again.
What hooks you in?