Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Let’s get real. No one wants to trawl through the first 45 pages of your book to find out what you are on about.
In fact, let me rephrase that, no one will trawl through the first 45 pages of your book in the hope that you will eventually get to the point.
The truth is, you have about 5-10 pages to get your reader’s attention. These pages are your make or break pages; they tell your reader whether it’s worth reading on.
Hook your readers from the start
If you haven’t caught your reader’s attention with your story opening, you may as well throw your book in the trash.
Harsh I know.
But when you think about it, your book has to contend with a plethora of other books on the market. If it doesn’t stand out, there’s another book just waiting to take its place.
You will be happy to know that learning how to hook your readers is not rocket science. Yes you will need creativity and imagination, but if you package that properly you are on to a winner.
Here are 6 fool-proof tips to hook your readers:
1. Surprise us!
Surprise is guaranteed to get you noticed. Surprise defies and challenges the reader’s expectations. As humans, we are hard wired to figure out what is going on, in fact, we need to know what is going on (it’s a survival thing).
So if you surprise us from the very beginning, your story will grab the brain’s attention. Then, because we can’t help ourselves, we start asking questions. What is the story about? How will the characters deal with the situation?
A great example of how surprise is used to make reader’s sit up and listen is in the opening paragraph of Dan Brown’s Deception Point:
Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendour of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.
Got your attention, right?
2. Never start with dialogue
Don’t get me wrong here, dialogue plays an important role in establishing emotions and relationships between characters. It is a very necessary part of any novel.
But, using dialogue in the first few lines of the book is a big no no. Many writers I’ve worked with use dialogue right in the beginning because they feel that readers are launched straight into the action. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Dialogue in the first few lines of a novel is downright confusing. For starters, the reader is not going to know who is talking and more importantly, why he/she should even care? Your readers have no relationship with the characters yet and because of this, will switch off immediately.
3. We want to feel something
Our emotions are the driving force behind all of our actions and choices. So when it comes to reading a book, we want to feel something.
If and what we feel is all down to how the characters are developed throughout the book. I say “throughout” because character development is vital, however if a character is developed well in the beginning, that is your hook.
Stephen King is a master at emotionally engaging with readers and his book 11.22.63 is no exception:
I have never been what you’d call a crying man. My ex-wife said that my “non-existent emotional gradient” was the main reason she was leaving me (as if the guy she met in her AA meetings was beside the point).
A character needs to stir emotions in the reader. This can be achieved through the character’s reaction to a person or situation, or a character’s feelings toward someone. The reader may or may not disagree with the character’s point of view, but at least they are emotionally engaging with the book.
4. Make your writing accessible
Your readers do not want to be slapped with a thesaurus every time they turn a page. Don’t drown your readers in unnecessary description and don’t try your hand at being a stylistic genius. To be frank, the average reader doesn’t give two hoots about your genius. They want to be entertained, they want a story, they want to be captivated.
Of course you want to make your readers think, but you don’t want to leave them feeling confused or frustrated. If they don’t understand what you are getting at straight off the bat, you can bet that they aren’t going to try.
5. Don’t overwhelm us with detail
Authors really need to be careful with this. You don’t want to overwhelm your readers with too much information too soon. Keep everything on a need to know basis. If you tell your readers too much too soon, they will try and make sense of it and become overwhelmed. They may also misinterpret what you are saying which could also go badly.
Skilled authors develop their stories slowly and methodically, making the end climax that much more special.
6. It needs to make sense
We live in a world defined by cause and effect. For every action there is some kind of reaction – we all know it and we all live by it. If you commit a crime, you go to jail. Cause and effect makes sense to us; it’s how we process everything.
The same applies to a book. Every story needs to have a clear line of cause and effect, otherwise we don’t really know what to make of it. This can lead to frustration and distress and before you know it, your book is supporting the wonky table instead of being read.
But if your reader sees a consequence to every action, this adds to the build-up and to the anticipation of what is going to happen next.
What techniques do you use to hook your readers? How does your favourite book open and what makes it so compelling?