Writing a Good Opening Hook
With writing, as with almost everything else in life, a good first impression can be the difference between winning someone over or leaving a person thinking there’s something a “little off” for all of eternity. I’m sure you’ve all heard that old cliche – don’t judge a book by its cover (if you haven’t, then welcome to Earth, intergalactic traveller!). It’s basically what writers think they should expect from their readers and what should be the golden rule of all critics. Hey, first impressions only mean so much, right? If your story is paced well, written decently and enjoyable to read, it’ll be judged on those merits alone, won’t it?
As much as we’d like that to be the case, anyone who’s really serious about making an impact with their writing should realise that as a species, we’re programmed to react to first impressions. Some people don’t mind if a book they’re reading starts off slow and picks up later, but others want to be drawn in right from the start, and that’s where your opening hook can be what separates your story from the rest. It’s natural to want to start a story off by setting the scene (once upon a time, there was this man, and he lived here, and this happened and then…) and there’s really nothing wrong with wanting to do this as early on as possible. However, nobody’s going to read a chapter of boring exposition if they don’t feel some kind of connection with the story.
Your main objective as a writer is to construct an opening that will excite the reader and make them care enough to keep reading and absorb the slow trickle of exposition to come. I used to have a fair bit of trouble doing this. To me, it always seemed right to start a story off slow, ease the reader into my world and establish a sense of normalcy before introducing the conflict. Apparently this is something many new writers do, as they experiment with structure and pacing and haven’t yet found their style. After a while, I began to realise that all this kind of opening was doing for the reader was make my stories seem rather boring. Sure, they did pick up later, but nobody was sticking around to find out.
I had a big problem. I was failing to immerse people into my story. There wasn’t anything there within the first few pages to command their attention and give them incentive to stay tuned in. I went to university and studied creative writing and begged my professor to tell me how to make my writing more impactful. This is what she told me:
“Start the story in the middle.”
“Start in the middle? What kind of crap is that?” I said, incredulous (though probably not in those exact words, what with her being a professor and all). As a piece of advice, it seems pretty cryptic at first. It goes against the basic structure of a narrative, that whole beginning, middle, end thing. But once you think about it, it’s a great philosophy to apply to writing a good opening hook. Think about it – every day life isn’t exciting. Nobody wants to hear about a protagonist’s every day life (even if they live in space or in a fantasy world). However, the middle of the story, when things have already started kicking off… now that’s exciting. Instead of just piling on with exposition, start your story off with something interesting, and give your readers a reason to want to find out more.
There are plenty of examples where this technique’s been used to great effect. Star Wars starts off with a rebel ship getting attacked and Princess Leia being abducted. Likewise, Harry Potter opens with news of a murder instead of simply starting with a ten year old boy doing chores. Most slasher movies open with a minor character being killed, just because that’s far more scary than opening with a bunch of high-schoolers reading an article about an escaped psychopath. These are good opening hooks. They whet our appetites and promise us that there’s going to be more to come if we decide to stick around. We’re given questions to draw us into the plot (who’s the killer? what does he have to do with the ghost story floating around campus?) and we want to see what happens next and discover the answers.
All you have to do is ask yourself what’s interesting and exciting now and what can be saved for later. You’ll be hearing about how people couldn’t put your book down for years to come.
The first 1000 words of my novel feature the protagonist in danger and hiding out from people trying to kill him. You can read it here. I challenge you to not want to buy a copy at the end of it.