Tag Archives: opening line

Sucking Readers into Your Story: the Narrative Hook

204NeverlandThe narrative hook is how you grab readers’ attention from the onset. It’s a speedy way to draw readers into your story, making readers want to know what’s going to happen. This literary device is what keeps readers reading.

A narrative hook is important because readers, literary agents, and publishers dedicate very little time toward deciding if a book is worth reading. Sometimes this time is as little as a few seconds! Your story needs to grab people right off the bat.

One of the best ways to utilize a narrative hook is to have it pose a question in readers’ minds. This doesn’t mean literally writing a question into the text, but showing the readers a scene that formulates questions. Here’s an example:

“Across the room a woman holds her front teeth in the palm of her hand.”

  • Ron Rash, “Not Waving, But Drowning”

From this opening line, readers want to know what happened to the woman. Why is she standing there holding her teeth? Etc.

Narrative hooks arouse readers’ curiosity.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

  • George Orwell, “1984”

It’s likely you’ve seen an analog clock at some point in your life. Have you ever seen one strike thirteen? It’s doubtful. Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so why are they doing so here?

Great narrative hooks hint at something more. They intrigue readers by showing there’s more than what’s on the surface. They should set up expectations, and then follow through on them. If you mention the protagonist’s kid sister in the first paragraph, she should play a big role in the story.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

  • Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games”

Prim isn’t physically in the novel for long, but she’s the reason why Katniss, the protagonist, enters The Hunger Games. Prim is the reason the entire novel occurs.

Plus, readers want to know what “the reaping” is.

Narrative hooks should be used early on, usually in the first sentence, sometimes the first paragraph, and rarer, at the end of the first page. Remember, it’s very easy for readers to bail on a story. If they’re not pulled in immediately, they won’t consider the book worth their time. There are agents, editors, and publishers who will reject an entire novel based on the first sentence! That’s a lot of pressure for the opening line, and a very good reason why your opening should be phenomenal.

Typically your original opening is not the one you end up with. As you gain a deeper understanding of your story and characters, you’ll be able to write a better opening. If you write a great hook, readers will have a hard time pulling away from the story.

What are some great narrative hooks you’ve read?

(Photo courtesy of Wikia.)

That Pesky First Sentence

You’ve got the premise of your novel. You know your characters, the central conflict, and the ending. You may even know how you want to start your novel, but you can’t figure out that first sentence.3261090753_48fa0fe0a2

The opening sentence to a novel is very important. Many people, including a number of agents and editors, will not read beyond the first sentence if they don’t like it. (That’s a lot of pressure on the first sentence!) That’s why writing a stellar first sentence is monumental. More often than not, what you originally think of for the opening line is not what ends up as the first sentence.

That’s perfectly fine. In fact, in most cases, that’s probably a good thing.

Great opening lines lure readers in. They entice them.

First lines can be:

  • Vivid. “The rabbit had been run over minutes before.” Sabriel by Garth Nix

Most people have seen an animal that’s been hit by a car before, so this sentence sends an instant picture to the forefront of readers’ minds.

  • Create a specific image. “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Readers get an image of a woman entering an apartment, who is identical to the narrator’s wife, but who doesn’t seem to be her. That’s distinct, and catches the attention. (For those familiar with psychology, Capgras Syndrome probably comes to mind.)

  • Ask a question. “They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see.” The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

Who are the “Unregistereds?” Why are they being hung? With that first sentence, readers have questions they want answered.

  • Foreshadow. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Twilight By Stephanie Meyer

Regardless of whether or not you’re a Twilight fan, the opening line of Stephanie Meyer’s preface leaves readers wondering what’s going to happen to the protagonist to make her think like that.

  • State something absurd. “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Really? A pleasure? Right away readers want to know what Bradbury is talking about.

  • Clear. “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.” Delirium by Lauren Olivier

Readers get a quick summary of the past sixty-some years, and also know what’s going to play a big part in the novel.

  • Short and to the point. “I am the vampire Lestat.” The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

This line does nothing overtly other than introduce readers to the protagonist. However, it’s a very impactful line, and says a lot about the character we’ll be following.

  • Surprising. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell

Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so what’s going on? One sentence in and there’s already an unexpected question in readers’ minds.

First lines vary widely from each other because books vary widely. A wonderful opening sentence for one novel won’t be right for another one. But what all successful opening lines do is capture readers’ attention.

How do you write a great first line?

Practice.

There’s no getting around it. Write an opening sentence, get feedback on it, rewrite it, get more feedback, and repeat that cycle until people are hooked on your opening sentence.

Another piece of advice?

Don’t fret too much about the opening line until after your first draft is written. As you write your novel, more ideas come to you, and your novel may take a drastic turn during the course of your writing. Once you have all eight-thousand or so words written, then go back to the beginning. Who knows? Maybe you’ll need to rewrite the entire opening to fit your novel’s ending.

What’s your favorite opening line from a novel you’ve read?