Hooking your reader
How do successful writers start their novels?
Fiction writers are often advised to come up with a great hook, an opening to their story that is so compelling that a reader cannot help but read on. Colum McCann, writing in The Guardian on May 13 2017, states: ‘A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again….It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.’
Growing up, I was a great fan of the novels of Dick Francis. I can still remember the opening to ‘Nerve’: Art Matthews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the centre of the parade ring at the Dunstable races. Gory, certainly – and maybe offputting to some -but as a first sentence it certainly packs a punch. So too does, It was the day my grandmother exploded which is how Iain Banks started ‘The Crow Road’ or Mother Died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know, which is the opening salvo to Albert Camus’ ‘The Outsider.’ Yet a good hook doesn’t have to be sensational. It just needs to be compelling enough to make us read on: ‘… take it easy too,’ McCann advises, ‘Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realise, Ah, that’s where I should have begun.’ Good advice. A good idea might be to start our story in several different places and ask a group of readers which beginning they find most fascinating. Above all, we need to immerse our readers in the world of the novel.
Michael Ondaatje suggests “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’” An equally famous beginning is ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.' There is nothing sensational there, but it clearly sets out Jane Austen’s agenda: this book is going to be about marriage, money and society. It’s also going to contain Austen’s trademark wry observations: the irony and bathos of that first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Hooks are vital. They can be shocking, philosophical, ironic, friendly…but they must be compelling. Otherwise no one will bother to read on.