Writer Talk: Hooking a Reader from the Beginning

A while back, I wrote a blog post about opening lines and more recently I wrote an article about writing characters readers identify with. I’d like to revisit the subjects and delve a little deeper into exactly what how-to writing articles and books mean by “hooking a reader from the beginning.”

Maybe you’re new to writing and figuring out the craft of story structure. Maybe you’ve written several stories or full novel manuscripts, but they’re not selling. Whatever the reason that’s brought you here, welcome. How to open a story effectively is a problem every writer out there struggles with at some point, myself included, so you’re in good company.

Let’s start with opening lines. I’ve read works that have the entire book summed up in the opening sentence. Other opening lines create intrigue by forming a question in the readers mind that makes them want to read what’s next to find out the answer. Others introduce the mc’s dilemma that is the whole point of the book.

No matter the genre, a story should start out with a character that has an opinion about something, a problem to go with it. The plot is a series of events that lead that character to try to solve their problem and eventually change their opinion.

Instead of telling you how to present that in the beginning, I’m going to show you with an excerpt. This is from Tam Lin: A Modern, Queer Retelling (Cut me some slack, it’s a working title):

This was it. 

They were breaking up.

What was a skinny, ginger, word nerd, ghostwriting to make ends meet, doing with a professional baseball player/model let alone asking for more?  

Chuck’s throat tightened and tears pricked the back of his eyes, as he watched Ariel swipe a large hand over sculpted features, pausing over his mouth as if the big man had to physically hold back the words until he found the least hurtful ones. 

He could kick himself for admitting he wanted a commitment, wanted a promise of some sort that this was for the long haul. Ariel had a perfect blend of looks: strong nose, long-lashed eyes, high cheekbones, killer jaw, and full set of shapely lips, and the body of a bronze god. And, Ariel was kind and sweet, and had the best stories about growing up in the Dominican Republic. He listened well and was smart enough to appreciate some of Chuck’s more esoteric writing.

Why did Chuck have to fuck it up with asking for some sort of public commitment?  

Instead of speaking the words Chuck didn’t want to hear, Ariel reached a well-muscled arm behind himself and pulled a letter out of his back pocket. He handed it over. Face unreadable.

Chuck eyed the envelope suspicious and somewhat surprised the talkative athlete would hand the writer the Dear John letter when he didn’t admit he was in a relationship publically, yet. In a day and age anyone could take a photo of the letter and post it on social media, it would be a risk. Ariel trusted him, which would warm Chuck’s heart. What did that trust mean if it were all going to end anyway?

Ariel’s supple mouth spread in a teasing grin, and then he let out a raucous chuckle. “Dude, it isn’t gonna bite. Go on. Open it, papi.”

Chuck thinks Ariel is breaking up with him, not because Ariel has given any indication this will happen. Chuck believes he’s unworthy of Ariel’s love because he’s not as physically attractive as his boyfriend. At this point, he believes the only way Ariel can prove he loves Chuck is if Ariel comes out of the closet and admits they’re together publicly. This could not only be detrimental to Ariel’s career but could put them both in danger for reasons he has yet to explain to Chuck. Spoiler: the story is about Chuck learning to accept that Ariel loves him and what other people know about their relationship doesn’t matter, what matters is Ariel’s commitment to Chuck. Unfortunately, Chuck has to go through a lot of supernatural growing pains to discover this. It is a modern, queer retelling of Tam Lin, after all.

Your opening hook have the following elements:

1. A relatable character: they should have a flaw or insecurity or dilemma your audience can relate to.

2. They should have a strong belief that will raise the question “are they right or wrong?”.

3. Provide something at stake for the protagonist that will raise reader’s interest. (In the example, it’s Chuck’s relationship with Ariel. Will they or won’t they break up? What is in that envelope?)

Hope this helps. Please comment with your favorite openers or even how you opened your own story.

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