Writing Secrets: Hook your reader and promise them more

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

We like to say that the best beginning – of a book or short story – should contain a hook and a promise. Hook your reader, and promise them more.

That’s fine in theory, posed one of our participants the other day, but what is the best way to hook a reader? And, as I mentioned last week, there are as many pieces of advice on this as there are beginnings in the world.

We are drawn in by many widely different openings. A good beginning can shock us, introduce us to a character we are drawn to. A plot-driven thriller can hook us with action, or a very different kind of book with its lyricism.

Perhaps it’s easier to look at what you shouldn’t do in your opening, and go from there. What I can say, without fear of contradiction, is that you should never start by explaining. At any point, particularly in a piece of fiction, explanation is off-putting. But at the beginning, it’s unforgivable.

Readers are clever, and reading is an active process. Just as they do in life, they pick up the clues provided by both people and their environments, and draw conclusions. They don’t like to be pre-empted in this.

While there are exceptions to everything, I would also say that starting with a dense and claustrophobic passage of internal thought or memory can be equally off-putting.

So, instead of being tempted – as we all often are – to tell us what your character is about, start in a scene in which they’re being tested in some way. This will show us, graphically, what kind of person your character is, and will reveal them in their world, without your having to explain.

Because of that, it’s a good general rule to start at a point where characters are doing things. I don’t necessarily mean mad-cap action, if you’re not writing that kind of book.

It just means, show them in action, in their world and going about their business. In other words, immerse us in a scene which allows us to experience what they do and get to know them through their words and deeds, as quickly as possible.

Long landscape descriptions at the start often don’t work because they’re meaningless. Detail has a job to do – a job which is multi-layered. Observations shows us not only the thing or person observed, but more about the observer too, with all her prejudices and preconceived notions.

So a landscape, described at the start of the book and isolated from the character observing it, is static. It is unlikely to draw us in because we haven’t even met the characters.

And yet, there are exceptions to everything.

So … there is no easy answer to how best to begin a book, but perhaps we can say there are a few that are unlikely to succeed. For the rest, pay attention to the advice, then write a beginning that … works. That resonates. That enchants.

Well, no-one said writing was easy.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: I’m holding my breath for December 18

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  • Mark jacobs

    Thank you for that

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