Have you ever watched a movie? I’m sure you have. Have you ever sat in a movie theater, watching a movie you’ve been anticipating for months? Years? Your hand is poised in front of your mouth, that piece of popcorn long forgotten as the main character has his moment of realization almost 3/4 of the way through. He looks at his trusty sidekick/friend, and utters a single sentence.
And you say it right along with him.
You’ve never seen this movie before. You made extra sure to avoid all spoilers and interviews until after you’d watched it. So, how could you have known what they were going to say?
Simply, all stories, whether they are written, oral, or visual, have a specific formula. Specific beats that are hit at very specific times. And we’ve come to anticipate them.
Have you ever watched a movie that felt like the opening drug on and on and on? Or felt like the ending was wrapped up too quickly? You felt this way because you knew the story was taking too long (or too short a time) to hit the next beat.
Why is this important?
I want you to understand that for as much as we writers talk about creativity being the crème de la crème, the ultimate and singular thing that separates us all, it’s really an understanding of the science behind the story that can make or break you.
Today, I want to talk about the first few paragraphs of your book. Why? Because they are some of the most important. Specifically, I want to focus on The Hook. I’m going to break it down into its molecular form if you will, and give you a road map to follow when writing (or rewriting) your first few paragraphs.
The Hook is the very first beat your story will encounter on its roadmap toward the final destination. It is also one of the most important parts of your story and should represent the very best writing you can muster.
You can have a bit of a slow middle, or even a quick ending, but you first have to hook that reader into getting that far in the first place. Once you do, they’ll be so invested in your story, they won’t be able to put your book down.
The Hook can be divided into Three Parts:
- The Opening Sentence
- The Opening Situation
- The Setup to the Conflict
The Opening Sentence
Imagine yourself at a fancy dinner party. All the guests are famous authors, there to meet some interested readers. Your clothes, your hair, makeup, your smile, that is like your cover. It’s your first introduction to your readers. The readers who aren’t interested in horror know to stay clear of the group of authors in the corner brandishing torn clothes, machetes, and that one guy with part of his brain sticking out. The fantasy readers are immediately drawn to the woman in a glittering ballgown with a dragon replica perched on her shoulder. They know what in a general sense what they are going to get from this person.
A reader approaches you. You smile, and shake their hand in greeting, uttering your catchphrase greeting. This is like your back cover or inside jacket blurb. The reader has heard your voice, has felt how firm or loose your handshake is. But the journey has only just begun.
“Tell me about your book,” they say.
The next words out of your mouth better be the best ones you’ve ever uttered in your life. Because this is your opening sentence.
Your Opening Sentence should be Entertaining, Interesting, Shocking, or contain Action. Some writers choose to drop their readers into the middle of conflict. Others like a bit of a slow burn that eases their reader into the story.
Here are a few examples of Opening Sentences:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
All children, except one, grow up.
— Peter Pan
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. — Feed
The Opening Situation
Okay, the reader is interested, but your work has only just begun. Now, you must keep them interested.
The second part of The Hook is The Opening Situation.
Whether you decide to drop your readers into the action right away, or ease them into it, your opening situation needs to accomplish two things:
- Introduce the main character or villain/antagonist
- Set up reader expectations
You want to give your readers an expectation of your author voice, the kind of characters they’re going to be dealing with, and whether this is the right story for them. Not every book is for every body – and that’s perfectly fine. Of course, we hope our stories not only appeal to as many people as possible, but that our cover, blurb, and opening sentence have drawn the right audience to us.
Your Opening Situation is going to tell your audience that.
The Setup to Conflict
Whether it’s through action, dialogue or exposition, your character or villain/antagonist should be presented with some kind of obstacle that is currently getting, or will be getting in their way.
You may choose to show this character overcoming that obstacle as a way to set up character development. A villain who is able to use a special power to extract information from someone. This shows how formidable the villain is, and sets up foreshadowing of what the main character may have to overcome.
Perhaps you want to show the main character winning the championship football game because you want to establish how easy things come for this character, or how much they are loved by the people around them. This helps set the scene for how drastic their world is about to change.
Now your reader knows whether this kind of character and conflict is something they can connect with, whether they care to know how it ends. If you have been successful in implementing all three parts of The Hook in your first few paragraphs, then your target audience will have a hard time putting your book down.
First Few Paragraphs Checklist
When analyzing your first few paragraphs, here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Who is the focus?
- Why are they the focus and not someone else?
- What are they doing?
- Why are they doing it?
- Have they been successful in what they are trying to do?
- Did an obstacle get in their way? If not, what obstacle(s) did they overcome to be successful?
- What information do I want my reader to know right away? Why?
- What information do I want my reader to know later? Why?
- How does this relate to the overall plot of my story?
All of these touch on one of the five elements that make up a story. Specifically Character, Plot, and/or Conflict/Obstacles.
If you can get your readers to this point in your story, chances are, you’ve got them hooked, and they’re going to have a hard time putting your book down.