6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

woman reading book

Although I consider myself an avid reader, I must admit I have a short attention span when it comes to getting into books. If you fail to grab my attention in the first few lines, I start spacing out.

Most readers are like me. Most people don’t want to spend the first 50 pages trying to get into a book.

Here are a few things I find annoying in the first lines of a story:

  • Dialogue. Nice somewhere on the first or second page, but not in the first line. We won’t know who’s speaking or why we should care.
  • Excessive description. Some description is good, but not when it’s long winded. Skip the purple prose and opt for something more powerful.
  • Irrelevant information. The first few lines of your story are crucial, so give your reader only important information.
  • Introducing too many characters. I don’t like to be bombarded with the names of too many characters at once. How are we supposed to keep them straight when we don’t know who’s who?

The last thing you want to do as a writer is annoy or bore people. Instead, try one of these 6 ways to hook your readers right off the bat:

(N.B. One of the easiest ways to check out the opening pages of nearly any book you want is with the ‘Look Inside!‘ feature on Amazon.com.)

1. Make your readers wonder.

Put a question in your readers’ minds. What do those first lines mean? What’s going to happen? Make them wonder, and you’ll keep them reading.

2. Begin at a pivotal moment.

By starting at an important moment in the story, your reader is more likely to want to continue so he or she can discover what will happen next.

  • “It was dark where she was crouched but the little girl did as she’d been told.” ~Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden
  • “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” ~Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

3. Create an interesting picture.

Description is good when it encourages people to paint a picture in their minds. Often, simple is best so it’s the reader who imagines a scene, instead of simply being told by the author.

  • “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” ~Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca
  • “She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.” ~Michael Ontaatje, The English Patient

4. Introduce an intriguing character.

The promise of reading more about a character you find intriguing will, no doubt, draw you into a story’s narrative. Most often, this is one of the main characters in the book.

  • “I was born twice: first as a baby girl on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” ~Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

5. Start with an unusual situation.

Show us characters in unusual circumstances, and we’ll definitely be sticking around to see what it’s all about.

  • “They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” ~Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked
  • Last night, I dreamt that I chopped Andrew up into a hundred little pieces, like a Benihana chef, and ate them, one by one.” ~Julie Buxbaum, The Opposite of Love

6. Begin with a compelling narrative voice.

Open your story with the voice of a narrator we can instantly identify with, or one that relates things in a fresh way.

  • “As I begin to tell this, it is the golden month of September in southwestern Ontario.” ~Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief
  • “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” ~Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

No matter how you start your book, keep your readers in mind. What will make them want to continue reading? What will potentially make them put down your book?

How does your favourite book open, and what makes it so compelling?

{ 25 comments }

Jenny January 21, 2010 at 12:20 am

Saw you on Josh’s site. Great guest post – I talked to an Australian guy for about two days once and I swore afterward I was going to run away there and get married. Only problem, flights are a tad expensive. One can still hope though, right? Anyway, I agree for spacing out if I’m not hooked instantly. Maybe I’m too used to reading in blog format, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m usually surrounded by shelves and shelves of shiny, exciting looking books for relatively similar prices? Ehhh. Who knows! Looking forward to reading more though.

suzannah January 21, 2010 at 2:29 am

Thanks for dropping by, Jenny. Beware those Australian men… they’ll get ya every time ;)
As for the hook thing–I think I get easily bored as a holdover from my days as an English Lit student. Being forced to read enormous novels, whether they interested you or not, can become not so pleasurable at times. Maybe now that I don’t have to read anything I don’t want, I can’t be bothered with a slow start.
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

Southpaw January 21, 2010 at 5:10 am

Great post. From one of my favorite books…
“He was ten years old and an alien in an unfriendly land, made an unwilling exile by this mother’s marriage to a Marcher border lord.”

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

suzannah January 21, 2010 at 6:32 am

Thanks Southpaw,

Haven’t heard of that one. Sounds like Fantasy, I’m assuming?

Lori January 21, 2010 at 5:57 am

Hi Suzannah!
How’s life? I’ve really been enjoying your posts here – and you’re so amazing to do all this while also being a new mother. Awesome!

I liked this post because this topic has actually been nagging at me. I feel like I don’t want to waste even a second on a ‘bad read’ so when the author doesn’t pull me in right away – I get annoyed and wonder why he or she is wasting my time. Then I often put the book down, permanently.

Your points are great and I think you’ve hit on the most important issues.

On that note, have you seen the site http://www.sfgate.com/columns/grabbers/? It’s actually a column in the San Francisco chronicle about the first lines of books! I go there often just to enjoy what has been featured. :)

Take care!

suzannah January 21, 2010 at 6:30 am

Hey Lori,

Life’s been… well, busy! I haven’t seen that column, but I will definitely check it out. Sounds great! I know what you mean about feeling like you’re wasting time on slow starts. Life’s too short to intentional bore ourselves, right? Thanks :)

TERI REES WANG January 21, 2010 at 6:30 am

I bought the book “Hooked” by Les Edgerton just to follow through on this thought.
Lately, I have been opening to the first page of every book I own to find out just what tagged my attention the first time around.

> – Cannery Row by John Steinbeck 1945 : Cannery row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.
> The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber 2002: Watch your step.

suzannah January 21, 2010 at 6:34 am

Teri,

I do that too–opening to the first page of books to see how they start. The library is a good spot for that, as well. Thanks for your examples!

Scott January 21, 2010 at 7:13 am

Clicked over here from Nathan’s blog. I love your blog.

I just finished reading Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden – fabulous book! The concept alone hooked me.

I’m like you, if not hooked – normally – in the first page, I’m not likely to buy a book. The one exception is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. It took me three years to do it, but finally made it past the first chapter (no, it’s not that bad, I think it was just me) and the book is one of my all time favorites. I read it every few years.

Okay, off to delve further into your site!

S

suzannah January 21, 2010 at 8:02 am

Hi Scott,

Thanks for coming over from Nathan’s site, and for your comments. I haven’t read “The Forgotten Garden” yet–just waiting for it to become available at my local library. The only books I find I can persevere with (if they start slowly) are the classics, or even certain modern books that are written in a more classic style. “Atonement” startsslowly, but I loved the writing enough to continue with it.

Cheers :)

Rebecca January 22, 2010 at 2:01 am

Such great tips, Suzannah. Thanks so much. I joined the herd coming from Nathan’s site. Yay! So glad he mentioned your blog.

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 8:59 am

Rebecca,

I’m so glad he mentioned my site, too! :)

Thanks for coming over, and I hope you find some useful hints here.

Tricia January 22, 2010 at 5:10 am

Of all your examples, I gotta admit that flying from England to the US about a toilet had me most intrigued. I must now go fetch the book to settle my curiosity.
.-= Read Tricia´s last article ..Be happy with what you’ve got and other principles of screwing up your dreams =-.

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:01 am

Yes, I’m waiting for that one to come available at my library. It has me intrigued as well! Or, if you’re really impatient, you can check out the rest of the first chapter on Amazon. Thanks!

Margaret Adams January 22, 2010 at 6:31 am

Just found your blog.

Lots of interesting articles.

An excellent resource.

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:01 am

Thanks, Margaret! Glad you found me.

Susan Woodring January 22, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Great post! Great blog! I just discovered Write it Sideways–I’m adding a link to my blog.

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Thank you!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

MaryWitzl January 22, 2010 at 11:58 pm

It’s so true that introducing too many characters too fast overwhelms readers; it’s much better to slip them in gradually, once the main protagonists have had the chance to hook them. And finding a long-winded description on the first page makes me want to go get another book.
.-= Read MaryWitzl´s last article ..Test Terror =-.

suzannah January 23, 2010 at 1:04 pm

I agree, Mary. Too many characters at once makes my head spin!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil February 24, 2010 at 8:21 am

“If they’d been any good, I’d be dead.” The first sentence in an action/adventure novel I hope to sell. I know it’s not “The great American novel” but most of those are gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. I just wanted to write something that’s entertaining for the reader and might make a little money for the publisher and myself.

I hope those goals are not mutually exclusive. ;)
.-= Read James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil´s last article ..The iPad Fail =-.

Martina Boone March 14, 2010 at 10:56 am

Another fantastic post! I like to collect passages I come across that really thrill me, and after reading this I realized that many of them are the first paragraphs in the book. You’ve inspired me to add a new collection to the blog–fantastic openers!
.-= Read Martina Boone´s last article ..Pre-Submission Checklist =-.

Martina Boone March 15, 2010 at 7:17 am

Just added an openings section to our blog with credit back to Write It Sideways for the inspiration. Thanks so much! Oh, and anyone who has a favorite kidlit opening is welcome to contribute!
.-= Read Martina Boone´s last article ..Pre-Submission Checklist =-.

Susan Fields April 24, 2010 at 2:43 am

Fantastic article – thanks so much! I came over her from Stina Lindenblatt’s Cool Links Friday, and I’m so glad I did. I’m about to start reading Hooked and possibly redoing my opening chapter.

Iain Broome July 21, 2010 at 11:33 am

All great advice. I have a thing about opening paragraphs and agree totally that they play in an important role in whether someone wants to read on or not. Especially people browsing in bookshops!

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: