By Julie Wright
I have a manuscript I've been working on that is a zillion shades of totally awesome. The characters are fleshed out. The plot is compelling and fresh. The dialogue is believable. The title makes me grin every time I think about it. Everything sings in this manuscript. But it isn't ready to submit. Not a chance.
Because while the rest of the manuscript might be singing, the opening is doing something closer to croaking. It isn't that the opening isn't interesting. It isn't that the writing is bad. But the opening doesn't hook the reader. It doesn't compel them forward to the rest of the page. It doesn't compel them to turn the page, or the page after that, or the page after that.
A hook in your opening is totally necessary. Think of Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. The first paragraph has the curator to the Louvre museum lunging at a masterpiece painting and yanking it off the wall. This is not typical curator behavior--especially at one of the world's most famous museums. The opening paragraph makes the reader wonder, "What is this lunatic guy doing?" It compels them to read more because they want their question answered.
There are lots of different kinds of hooks, but they all have something in common. They all promise something to the reader. And that promise is what carries them to the rest of the book.
My story starts with a girl snapping a rabbit's neck. This isn't exactly a bad opening, but the way I'd written it is filled with exposition, introspection, and a lot of other things that weigh the story down and give it kind of a "meh" sort of feeling. It isn't anything that makes the reader sit up and say, "I have got to find out what happens next!" I can't submit until I find a better opening hook.
An interesting thing about hooks is that you can place them in more than just one spot. My friend, James Dashner, likes to place a hook at the bottom of every page so the reader feels compelled to turn the page. He also puts them at the end of every chapter--a place where a lot of people feel comfortable putting a book down so they can go do something else. James puts that hook there so it's almost impossible for a reader to choose to put the book down. J. Scott Savage does the same thing. So does Dan Wells. Those mini hooks throughout the book carry the reader all the way to the end in one sitting (or two if they just can't help it, but they aren't happy about putting the book down). Hooks used well bring a level of greatness to a novel. It creates its own buzz among readers. Everyone loves talking about the book they simply could not put down.
Opening hooks work best when:
- A change has just occurred or is about to occur in a character's life.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
- A specific description or identifying statement that feels like it reveals a person or setting, and promises conflict to come.
Hap Hazzard didn't believe in ghosts, but he was afraid of them.
- A general abstract statement that isn't necessarily tied to anything, but that sparks interest.
Scientists say that the brain chemistry of infatuation is akin to mental illness--which gives new meaning to "madly in love."
- A juxtaposition that doesn't fit.
Clocks don't strike thirteen. That's interesting and doesn't fit. This would also be the curator yanking paintings off a wall. His actions don't fit the persona of a museum curator. Or a newspaper reporter doing an interview with a vampire. Vampire interviews aren't the first thing a rational person thinks of when considering who a reporter could interview.
The point of any book opening hook is to garner enough interest in the reader to make them keep reading. The point of the little hooks placed throughout the book is to keep them reading to the end.
So I am off to write a better opening for my new novel. I wish you well in the hook you'll be using for yours.