You have to hook your reader. We hear it all the time. But how does a good writer get a reader interested enough to read past chapter one? The average reader, if you are lucky, will give your book the time it takes to read five pages before deciding to read on, or move on. So you’ve got to wow them in the first half of the first chapter, or they’ll be moving on to the next book on the shelf without a second thought. From instant messaging to instant coffee, we live in an age of instant gratification. Readers expect no less. I use the rule of seven to hook my readersand keep them hanging on until the very end.
Rule number one, write an opening line that surprises, shocks, excites, or scares the bejeezus out of your reader. Begin with a bang. Get your reader on the edge of a cliff and make them willing to crane their necks just a little more to see what is on the other side. Some excellent examples from famous books include:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. – C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news. – Anthony Horowitz, Stormbreaker
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. – J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Rule number two, create questions in the reader’s mind–questions that can only be answered by reading the rest of your book. Intrigue your readers. Dangle the proverbial carrot in front of their noses, but at the same time, give them enough information that they don’t feel totally lost. A reader has to feel compelled to keep reading. Make it worth their time. A good writer is forthright with just the right amount of information. Tell too much and there is no reason to read on. Tell too little and the reader is discouraged. It takes a delicate balance to walk this tightrope and not fall flat on your face.
Rule number three, invent a protagonist that is interesting, unique, but at the same time allows the reader to relate to them. Your main character needs to have depth and be flawed. Real people are not perfect and neither are good characters. Characters with distinctive speech patterns, personal quirks, or bad habits are believable and hold the reader’s interest. Most of us can relate to the oddball or eccentric, the rebel or loner. No one is really interested in a plastic Barbie or Ken.
Rule number four, get the reader emotionally involved with your story right away. Make your reader angry, or frightened, or excited, or tense, or curious within the first few paragraphs. Put the reader on deck in the middle of a pirate ship battle, or on trial in front of an angry jury, or in the center of a great archeological discovery, or in the midst of a Nazi Jew hunt, or between the pages of a secret diary. Make reading your novel an interactive experience that begins on page one.
Rule number five, create tension or hint at a conflict. No one wants to read about the guy that has it all, but everyone wants to read about the guy who lost it all. Without conflict, there is no story, so give your reader a taste of the character’s anxiety right away. Bait the hook with conflict, and once the reader bites, keep the tension on the line.
Rule number six, give the reader a sense of time and place immediately. No one likes feeling lost. Setting is important, but clue the reader in with a little finesse. Use time period language. If your story takes place in the middle of the sixth century, the dialogue should sound very different than that of a story set in 1976. Have your characters’ dress reflect the time period. A Civil War soldier’s boots are going to look and feel different than those of a Texas rodeo cowboy. Give your reader the information they crave without making it sound like you’re filling in a story elements map.
Rule number seven, start your story at the moment your character’s life changes. If you remember nothing else from The Rule of Seven, remember this: your opening sentence should be describing the pivotal moment in your character’s story. Do not talk about your character’s morning routine when you should be describing the food fight they started to avoid going to second period Biology. No one wants to know about your character’s mundane drive to Pennsylvania if the real action starts the night they check into a haunted hotel. Skip saddling the horses and cut to the chase.
You may have a fantastic story to tell, but no one is going to read it if you don’t hook them in the first few pages. If an editor says, “Ok, you’ve got two minutes, give me your best shot,” what part of your book would you give them? If it is not your first few pages, the next story you will be writing will be of “the big one that got away.”
Excerpt from Island of Tory by Regina M. Geither, March 2012: I remember only fragments of the day my life was turned upside down and shaken into chaos. With little more ceremony than a child flipping a snow globe, my world changed.