Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’re constantly updating our articles to bring you the best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your book. This article was originally published on March 7th, 2013, and has been expanded by Robert Wood.
There are some books that take 45 pages to really hook you. Getting to that point can be an amazing experience – not only are you reading something great, but you feel like you earned an experience that other, lazier readers will never discover.
But here’s what else is true: those books are the exception to the rule. They’re special because they’re so rare. The majority of the time, readers ditch a book that doesn’t dig its hooks into them from the start. For authors, there’s no reward for writing a book that one in a hundred readers sticks with, which means you need to know how to grab the majority of readers in your first 5–10 pages.
With that in mind, here are six foolproof tips to hook your readers.
1. Begin in medias res… but not with dialogue or pointless action
One of the easiest ways to hook your reader is to begin in medias res – that is, ‘in the middle of things.’ By skipping forward just a little bit into your story, you give the reader the experience of catching up to events. This involves making connections, reading dialogue and description with the intent of picking up context, and many other features of what we call ‘active reading.’
Not only does this instantly engross the reader, but it makes them feel smart as they quickly piece together what’s going on. In Richard Stark’s The Mourner, we begin with this amazing first sentence:
When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.
This is a great in medias res opening, because the reader enters on an exciting event and instantly pieces together the things that led to it – the reference to ‘asthma’ depicts a tense few minutes where Parker could hear the man breathing outside, gun drawn. The reader ends the sentence feeling like they just figured out a whole unpublished scene and, most importantly, desperate to find out what happens next.
But beware – beginning in medias res refers to the actual events of your story, NOT some bolted-on action you created just so you could start in the middle of it.
In fact, 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 should they care? Your reader has no relationship with the characters yet and, because of this, isn’t hanging on their every word.
The same goes for an immediate ‘action scene.’ Visual media can make fights look incredible, but the written word depends on context to make action feel meaningful – it’s about what might happen to the characters, and that only matters when the reader already cares about those characters.
It’s not impossible to hook the reader with an action-oriented opening, but the action should fulfill some other purpose. In The Mourner, Stark doesn’t linger on the initial violence. It’s there to set the antagonistic tone of the scene and raise the stakes, but there’s no prolonged gun battle or witty sword fight with characters the reader doesn’t yet know or like.
Think of the first real event in your story and then skip ahead a few minutes. How would you tell the story if it had to start from here? If you feel like that’s an impossible task, then try moving forward rather than back to the start. Can you cut the first few chapters then have your protagonist recount earlier events to another character later? Would a flashback work in your story? Really stretch to find ways to begin your story with events already underway.
2. Invite questions
As humans, we are hardwired 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 your reader from the very beginning, your story will grab their attention and create questions that will motivate them to read further.
A great example of how surprise is used to make readers 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 splendor 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.
This surprising reveal creates a clear question for the reader: “What’s about to happen to geologist Charles Brophy?” But you can create this kind of curiosity even more subtly. Take, for example, the famous first line of George Orwell’s 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
This intriguing line doesn’t promise death or even introduce a character, but it does share a detail that the reader can’t explain. “Clocks don’t strike thirteen. What’s going on?”
These are the types of questions that motivate readers to plunge into the narrative, not just passively reading over your words but hungrily searching your story for answers.
3. Provoke an emotional response
When I talk about creating a ‘question’ for the reader, I don’t just mean withholding information. What’s important is that you create an urgent emotional need to understand. It matters that Orwell’s sentence mentions a ‘bright cold day,’ because that makes the unusual time feel sinister. If it was a warm summer’s eve, the question of what’s going on would still be there, but it would lack the same sense of urgency.
Of course, there are many different emotions you can create for your reader. There’s the creepy tension of forecasting a death or hinting that something is off with the world, but there’s also the warm anticipation or heady fascination of meeting a well-drawn character. If a character is developed well in the beginning of your story, that’s an excellent 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 or feelings toward a person or situation. The reader may or may not agree with the character’s point of view, but as long as they’re interested to hear and understand more, you’ve got your hook.
4. Don’t overwhelm the reader
While it’s a good idea to begin in medias res, that doesn’t mean you should be trying to confuse your reader. Many authors begin by trying to prove their literary merit to new readers, leaving them adrift in self-indulgent passages of verbose description and unnecessary exposition.
To be frank, the average reader didn’t pick up your book to assess your literary genius but rather to have an enjoyable (or meaningful) experience. Your prose is a part of that, but if this is all you showcase up front, you’re likely to lose a lot more readers than you hook.
Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version is an amazing book that many readers fail to connect with on their first reading. Why? Well, partly because it’s written in the voice of its protagonist, who is arranging his life story into some sort of narrative. At the beginning of the book, he’s only just beginning the task, so the opening pages are a mass of contextless information, made more confusing by an authorial voice to which the reader hasn’t been given time or space to adjust.
Terry’s the spur. The splinter under my fingernail. To come clean, I’m starting on this shambles that is the true story of my wasted life (violating a solemn pledge, scribbling a first book at my advanced age); as a riposte to the scurrilous charges Terry McIver has made in his forthcoming autobiography: about me, my three wives, a.k.a. Barney Panofsky’s troika, the nature of my friendship with Boogie, and, of course, the scandal I will carry to my grave like a humpback. Terry’s sound of two hands clapping, Of Time and Fevers, will shortly be launched by The Group (sorry, the group), a government-subsidized small press rooted in Toronto, that also publishes a monthly journal, the good earth, printed on recycled paper, you bet your life.
This mix of information, characters, jokes, asides, and colorful language can easily push readers away. The third sentence is split in two by another thought, the information about a scandal is instantly overwhelmed by having to parse an unusual simile, and the phrase ‘sound of two hands clapping’ is used as a stand-in for ‘book’ before the reader has had time to adjust to Barney’s voice.
It’s not that the average reader can’t cope with the way Richler writes as Barney, it’s just that for anyone coming into the book cold, it’s not exactly an inviting way to begin. Richler introduces six characters and a group whose name he plays around with in this one paragraph, and only two of them – Barney, the protagonist, and Terry, whose actions he’s actually describing – really need to be there. There’s starting in medias res to get things going and there’s swamping the reader with information before they have the context to care.
Of course you want to make your reader 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 most aren’t going to try.
5. Challenge (but don’t antagonize)
Readers like to be challenged. This is why starting in medias res and creating a question work so well – they want to dive in, figure things out, engage with the story. The first few lines of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange are as follows:
What’s it going to be then, eh?
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither.
Here’s an opening that really asks a lot of the reader, not just dropping them into the middle of the action but using slang they don’t (and can’t) understand yet, cursing and racing along and snarling for them to keep up.
It works for a lot of reasons, one of which being that (unlike Barney’s Version, which becomes easier reading once it starts recounting the past), the book is going to ask even more of you later, so it needs to force you onto its wavelength quickly.
This is just one of many ways that challenging the reader may work – you might confront them with a shocking idea, ask them to assess a situation quickly, or give them a difficult task (such as parsing unfamiliar slang) – but it’s not the same as antagonizing them.
Antagonizing readers differs from challenging them because challenges are meant to be conquered, whereas antagonism is meant to frustrate. Writing is, ultimately, a partnership between the writer and their reader – communication carried out through art – but some writers get swept away by their ego and start seeing the reader as someone who is there to witness and validate whatever they choose to do.
In such cases, it’s common for authors to do things that are meant to show off their superiority: passages which are technically impressive but difficult to read, provocative events that are intended to upset those the writer deems unworthy, condescending screeds where the writer acts more like the reader’s lecturer (or mean older brother) than their equal. Such antagonism rightly repels readers, not because they’re afraid of being challenged, but because it’s a sign that this writer has committed their talents to giving the reader a hard time rather than telling an engaging story.
Feel free to challenge your readers, but be sure that you’re doing so for their benefit. Where you realize that you’re working against their experience, stop, reassess, and ask what you can do to engage them.
6. Value the moment
One of the most common mistakes authors make when trying to hook a reader is to write a few sentences of their story and then use that as a springboard to share every possible fact about their fictional world:
When I think back to when it began, I guess I remember the apple first. Crunchy, red, and totally forbidden. The Protectorate of Fga took over Lokton, my home village, decades before I was born. As they did elsewhere in the Greenlands, they imposed a strict rationing system, so an apple was a rarity. It actually led to riots in some areas, or at least that was the gossip I picked up in the grand mill where I worked every day for a shilling a month. King Grutt, high ruler of the Protectorate, would never have admitted to that kind of rebellion in any of his weekly addresses, projected in the sky by the group of mages he called his Curled Right Hand.
Here, the apple didn’t really matter. It was phrased as if the writer was beginning in medias res, but actually it’s just a detail they can use to start explaining their world. This is about as far from starting in the middle as you can get – they’re starting further back than the beginning of the actual story.
There’s nothing wrong with world-building or even telling a story in retrospect, but this is the worst of both worlds – the current moment is obscured by a round-up of historical events and the events themselves are robbed of the immediacy that might have made them pop. Far better to either leave this exposition until later, where you can share it via dialogue so it feels natural, or else go all-in on the things you actually want to share and give them their due:
After seizing the Greenlands, the Protectorate wasted no time in establishing a strict rationing system. They’d done it elsewhere, of course – sparking riots, if you believed the rumors, and we all believed the rumors.
Start your story at the most interesting moment possible and then, at least for a little while, give that moment its due. If you find that you’re tempted to immediately flutter off somewhere else, ask whether you wouldn’t rather just start there.
Grabbing the reader isn’t just about selling your book; it’s about creating a relationship where the reader trusts you to tell them your story. Because of this, starting your story well is more important than it might seem, since you’re not just in danger of losing a reader but of setting the wrong tone even for those readers you keep. If you realize that your story has to start in a less than interesting place in order to make sense then, as hard as it is to do, don’t just grit your teeth and try to move on quickly – restructure the story so that your first few pages are interesting in their own right.
The hook brings you back
Hooking your reader isn’t about tricking or dazzling them, but rather about giving them a reason to invest in your work. The best way to do that is to find a truly interesting part of your story and use it to enthrall the reader, provoking a strong emotional response and inspiring questions which you hope they’ll let you answer.
What techniques do you use to hook your readers? How does your favorite book open and what makes it so compelling? Let me know in the comments and, for more on this subject, check out Does Your First Line Really Matter?, What Everybody Ought To Know About Writing A First Chapter, and Is Your Prologue Scaring Off Your Readers?