Updated: Sep 16, 2019
The opening paragraph of a book is everything! I believe that the first several paragraphs are the most important part of your book. If you cannot hook a reader, then everything else doesn’t matter. If you cannot keep a person reading past page two, the remainder of your pages don’t matter, not to them anyway (your reader), and not to anyone else who tosses your book away.
Do you ever pick up a book, read the first few paragraphs, and find yourself immediately hooked? What about the inverse. Have you ever picked up a book, read the beginning, and tossed it away? I am guilty of both. The beginning of a book can be the difference between capturing a reader, or sending them running for the hills.
How then do you hook your reader? And how do you do it with just a few paragraphs? Some authors can hook a reader with just one single sentence! It seems like a daunting task, and you can spend hours agonizing over it (guilty!).
I considered naming this blog, “How to write the beginning of your book,” and I also considered naming it, “How to write a good opener,” but I realized that I am no authority on the matter. I have read my fair share of great books with great openers. What I can do for you, is go through various book openers, and show you what that opener does to hook its reader.
In this blog we are going to complete a study of good book openers based on some of my own favorite books. It is my hope that you come away with a stronger understanding of how to hook your readers.
Lets dive right in!
BOOK 1: The Eyes of the Dragon
“Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons. Delain was a very old kingdom and it had had hundreds of Kings, perhaps even thousands; when time goes on long enough, not even historians can remember everything. Roland the Good was neither the best nor the worst King ever to rule the land. He tried very hard not to do anyone great evil and mostly succeeded. He also tried very hard to do great works, but, unfortunately, he didn’t succeed so well at that. The result was a very mediocre King; he doubted if he would be remembered long after he was dead. And his death might come at any time now…”
The Eyes of the Dragon
I absolutely love Stephen King’s work. This book is the only stand alone fantasy book he has ever written, and it was written for his daughter. I found myself immediately hooked upon reading this opening. I did not include the full opening paragraph, it would have been too long. So let’s see what hooks us in just these first several sentences.
Hook # 1: writing style. Steven King establishes his “voice” very early on. I know immediately that this is going to be narrated in third person omniscient. It sounds very fairytale like. I feel as if I’m sitting down in front of a campfire, or inside of an old library, having this story told to me by a very wise man. And that is exactly how the entire book is written. It is written as if you are being told the story by someone who has come straight out of this magical fantasy world. For me, that is an absolute win.
Hook # 2: The very first sentence. I am sure we can all agree that starting any book with “Once upon a time…” can be cliché especially when done wrong. So why then does Stephen King get away with it? Because we immediately want to know more about this kingdom named Delain, Delain’s king, and his two sons. Who are they? What is the kingdom like? What is the monarchy like? The author is creating and cultivating my curiosity with just one single sentence! He’s forcing me to ask questions.
Hook # 3: Roland the Good is mediocre. Well gee, how realistic! I love that this narrator is giving me the real facts here. He’s painting a very believable picture. Not all kings are great. And not all kings are terrible. Here is one that is in between. I like that.
Hook # 4: This mediocre king is not going to live much longer. His death might come at any time. That hints at something more. Something is going to happen. Change is coming. I sure as heck want to be here when it does! I absolutely want to know who is going to succeed him, and I can already guess that it’s going to be a story worth telling.
BOOK 2: Uprooted
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Hook # 1: Girls are being taken. What the heck is going on?! The idea that a dragon-like wizard figure is taking girls as a sacrifice immediately creates questions. What does he want with these girls? And what kind of effect does this have on the families who must sacrifice up their daughters every ten years. I must know more!
Hook #2: This wizard figure protects the villagers from the Wood. Oh, wow, that sounds ominous. What is the Wood? Already I have so many questions bubbling up inside. I’m driven to read more.
Hook # 3: The voice of the story. This is clearly being told in first person POV. The narrator is telling us the story from her (I assume it is a her) lips. Already I can see where the story is going. She is probably going to get tangled up with this Dragon person. Maybe she will be the one who is taken. She is telling me a story and I certainly want to read it. She is creating questions, she is cultivating my curiosity.
BOOK 3: The Hobbit
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
J. R. R Tolkien
Hook # 1: Hobbit. What on earth is a hobbit? If you have never read any of Tolkin’s work or watched any of the LOTR/Hobbit movies, basically if you live under a rock, the first thing that gets you is the word Hobbit. What is a hobbit? What sort of creature is this? Is the story about this hobbit? Or is the story about Hobbits in general? I must know more! I shall keep reading.
Hook # 2: Descriptors. Wow, I feel as though I’m already there in that hobbit-hole. I can see it all, from the lack of oozy smell and worms, to the comfort it must possess. It’s a hobbit hole, “and that means comfort.” Tolkien is telling me exactly what he wants me to see, nothing more, nothing less. He has created a picture with his description in just two sentences! In fact, I was hooked with just the first sentence. It’s intriguing. It’s so simple it hurts. I could cry for the simplicity of this one hooking sentence.
Hook # 3: The second half of the last sentence “…and that means comfort.” This is clear foreshadowing. We go on to learn that poor Bilbo loses all the comfort of his hobbit hole by going on a journey, but he gains something far greater. We don’t know that yet. All we know is that his hole is comfortable, and people do not often like giving up comforts. That foreshadows a great struggle that must be coming for this little hobbit who lives in a hobbit-hole.
BOOK 4: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (for us in the US or Philosopher’s Stone for those in the UK)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
Harry Potter 1 - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Hook # 1: The narration and the voice. I just love these first two sentences. I love the narrator’s voice. The second half of the first sentence says a lot: “…thank you very much.” It’s almost a know-it-all attitude, and so accurately represents the Dursleys. Whenever you say that to someone, “I’ll have you know that I am quite decided, thank you very much.” It has a certain tone that I just love. I cannot really put my finger on it, but I do find myself engaged as soon as I read it. The way the narrator is describing these two people, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, with such an interesting tone, leaves me longing for more of this narration.
Hook # 2: Mr. and Mrs Dursley…were perfectly normal. Okay, no one is perfectly normal. That means that these two people must simply see themselves as such, or strive to be such. This hints that something is going on with them beneath the surface. They are hiding something and the so very badly want to do whatever they can to keep it hidden by seeming perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Hook # 3: “…they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” This foreshadowing says there is going to be some serious nonsense that these two people are tangled up in, and it’s going to be very “strange” and “mysterious” Who doesn’t love strange and mysterious? I want to read more about this strange and mysterious nonsense that these two are going to be wrapped up in. At this point, I do not yet know that Harry Potter will be the star of the show. But that does not matter. I’m already interested to know more.
BOOK 5: The Hollow Kingdom
“She had never screamed before, not when she overturned the row, boat and almost drowned, not when the ivy broke and she crashed into the shrubbery below, not even when Lightfoot bucked her off and she felt her leg break underneath her with an agonizing crunch. She hadn’t even known that she could. Screaming was Lizzy’s job, and Lizzy was terribly good at it. But now she screamed, long and loud, with all her breath.”
The Hollow Kingdom
Clare B. Dunkle
This is one of my all time favorite books, and it’s pretty short for a novel. It’s actually a children’s novel. But I felt it had adult themes. I wrote a separate blog on this book if you’re interested. All right, lets get to it. Mind you, this excerpt is from the prologue. But most of us book-worms always start with the prologue so for me that is the start of the book. I actually really enjoy prologues. But they can make or break a story. So only use them when completely necessary (separate blog on this to come in the future.)
Hook # 1: The hint of something fearful. This opening paragraph starts with screaming. The whole paragraph talks about how “she” being the character in discussion, has never screamed before. That must mean she doesn’t scare easily. But now she’s screaming. Something must be giving her a good reason to. I’m immediately on the edge of my seat wondering what she’s facing that is eliciting such fear.
Hook # 2: I feel like I’m learning a lot about this main character within the first paragraph. I’m told three different things: First, the main character overturned a row boat at some point in her life. Second, she was climbing in ivy at some point, it broke, and she had a bad fall. Third, her horse (or pony) bucked her off and broke her leg. Clearly this character has been through some fearful situations. Wanna know what else I’m thinking as I read this about her? I’m thinking she’s a bit of a daredevil. I mean, she’s put herself in some dangerous situations, such as climbing around on ivy. I like a daredevil kind of character.
BOOK 6: Dragonflight
“LESSA WOKE, COLD. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the prescience of a danger stronger than the one ten full Turns ago that had then sent her, whimpering with terror, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair.”
I’m rather fond of this book. It’s part of a twenty and counting book series about genetically engineered dragons. As you all know, I love dragons. This was the very first book (in the series) written by Anne McCaffrey. I absolutely love it because it follows Lessa, the series hero from “The Dragonriders of Pern”.
Hook # 1: The voice. Don’t you just love the ominous voice here. The first sentence is only three words long. THREE WORDS LONG. Cold is being repeated between the last word of the first sentence and the first word of the second sentence. Then once more with the start of the third sentence. This entire paragraph here is emphasizing cold and danger. Something is about to happen. How exciting! I’m not going to have to sift through chapters of boring content to get into some action. I love that. It’s a great hook.
Hook # 2: Curious naming. What is a watch-wher? And what is this watch-wher’s lair like? I’m immediately intrigued to find out. The author has given me a sense that something bad is about to happen, but has also sprinkled some mystery into the words, leaving me eager to discover some things for myself.
Hook # 3: The presence of danger. With just a few sentences, the author tells us that the danger that is being sensed here is stronger than what was sensed ten Turns ago. Now, as a new reader I’m going to assume that “turns” are a form of years. This is actually the case, so I’m able to make this assumption without knowing much at all about this new world i’m in. I love that there is this indication that things are about to get much worse than they were ten turns ago. That’s enticing.
BOOK 7: The Amulet of Samarkand
“The temperature of the room dropped fast. Ice formed on the curtains and crusted thickly around the lights in the ceiling. The glowing filaments in each bulb shrank and dimmed, while the candles that sprang from every available surface like a colony of toadstools had their wicks snuffed out. The darkened room filled with a yellow, choking cloud of brimstone, in which indistinct black shadows writhed and roiled.”
The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus Volume 1) (Bartimaeus Trilogy)
This is a young adult fantasy series, the first installment, and it was listed on the fifty-one best fantasy book list that I’m currently reading through. I really enjoyed it, though it wasn’t the kind of book I would usually be inclined to pick up (I’ve actually read it twice but I was much younger the first time around). I always take recommendations seriously where fantasy is concerned.
Hook # 1: The imagery and descriptions. Ohhhhh the descriptions. Let me swoon for a moment. My favorite sentence in this paragraph (which is only the first half of the opening paragraph in the book) reads, “…candles that sprang from every available surface like a colony of toadstools had their wicks snuffed out.” Wow. Talk about a unique description. Candlesticks like a colony of toadstools. I can picture this perfectly in my mind. What a gift to be able to describe things like this. If the imagery here doesn’t hook you, then I don’t know what will. I should end my analysis of this book opener here, because personally, I’m hooked. But I will continue on.
Hook # 2: Something frightful is happening and I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but I assume it’s bad. Ice is forming on curtains. Shadows are appearing that are writhing and roiling. If I had to guess, given the presence of candles, something—perhaps some kind of demon—is being summoned. Whatever is being summoned is clearly not a friendly, warm, fuzzy kind of demon. This screams dark and ominous. It tells me that there is more excitement to come. In less than a single paragraph (which is a long paragraph in this case), Stroud has managed to hook me.
Hook # 3: The hint of witchcraft. I’m a big fantasy lover. Paranormal comes in close second. Anything vampire, werewolf, or witch related, is always a seller for me. The hint at witchcraft that will very likely be present in this book (if you didn’t read the blurb for the book before diving in) is certainly enough to hook me. The author has managed to convey the presence of witchcraft with just a few sentences and descriptions.
BOOK 8: Outlander
“It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance. Mrs. Baird’s was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945; clean and quiet, with fading floral wallpaper, gleaming floors, and a coin-operated hot-water geyser in the lavatory. Mrs. Baird herself was squat and easygoing, and made no objection to Frank lining her tiny rose-sprigged parlor with the dozens of books and papers with which he always traveled.”
Now that this series has its own show, it has become very well known. I’ve only read the first book, and I absolutely loved it. I need to get rolling on the rest of them. But let’s talk about the opening paragraph of Outlander. There’s a reason this series has made such a fuss. All good books have good openers. This one does not disappoint.
Hook # 1: The first sentence. Honestly, we need not study the remainder of the paragraph because we already know what is going to happen just reading the first sentence. “It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances…” How foreshadowing of Gabaldon. We clearly know (now) that some sort of disappearance is going to happen. We do not know who will disappear, and that’s the fun of it. We want to keep reading to learn about this disappearance and who goes missing. Is it the narrator? Someone the narrator loves? Or someone else entirely? What a great way to get the reader’s interest up.
Hook # 2: The prose of the writing. There is plenty of description within the first paragraph to know a bit of the setting that opens our story. The narrator is staying in a Highland bed-and-breakfast, and we get a little picture of what it looks like. It seems quaint to me, and rather lovely. Mrs. Baird herself seems lovely and very easy-going. After all, she allows this “Frank” person to leave his books out. These descriptions alone might not be enough to hook me immediately. I would want to read on to discover a little more about the story. Fortunately, the first sentence already reeled me in.
BOOK 9: Pride and Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”
Pride and Prejudice
I would be remiss if I did not do a classic, specifically one I’ve read multiple times. I am of a firm belief that Pride and Prejudice is one of the best romance novels every written (okay the best). So let’s look at what makes the opening good.
Hook # 1: The tone of the obvious romance setting. The book opens talking about a man of good fortune being in want of a wife. After all, why wouldn’t a rich bachelor want a wife? Am I right? The wording alone on the first sentence is just so **swoon** well written. I love a book that has a powerful opening statement that is well-written. That’s my kind of book, and that sort of thing hooks me. Wording aside, there is clearly a romance brewing, as suggested by the wording. The author has used just two sentences to tell us what the book is about, without actually saying: “This is going to be a romance book.” Don’t you love it when authors can tell you without telling you?
Hook # 2: Rightful property of daughters. Ha! How’s that for wording. I’m clearly intrigued to know who these daughters are, and which of them is going to consider the new bachelor (whoever he may be) to be their “property”. I’m also curious about the kind of fighting over said bachelor that might take place. The romantic in me is very interested to learn more. Austen has created plenty of questions in my mind, while using her stylish prose to craft two sentences that hint at the writing for the remainder of the book.
BOOK 10: Tai-Pan
“A pox on this stinking island,” Brock said, staring around the beach and up at the mountains. “The whole of China at our feets and all we takes be this barren, sodding rock.”
He was standing on the foreshore with two of his fellow China traders. Scattered about them were other clusters of traders, and officers from the expeditionary force. They were all waiting for the Royal Navy officer to begin the ceremony. An honor guard of twenty marines was drawn up in two neat lines beside the flagpole, the scarlet of their uniforms a sudden splash of color. Near them were the untidy knots of sailors who had just fought the flagpole into the stony soil.”
I try not to read ALL fantasy books. This was one of those books I branched out of my comfort zone, and I am glad I did. I admit, I’m not completely finished reading it. It is one of about ten books I’m still reading, albeit slowly. But it’s extremely well, written, engaging, informative, and has even given me some ideas for my own writing. I love the short (sometimes two word) sentences. The dialogue is also fantastic. I’m a sucker for great dialogue. So let’s look at the opening of this book and critique it.
Hook # 1: The dialogue. So many books start with dialogue, though I didn’t feature many here in this openers study because it’s hard to do dialogue correctly at the start. In fact, I have read various places that you should never open a book with a dialogue tag. Obviously rules are meant to be broken, and plenty of great books are done with dialogue as an opener. This one does it well. There are only two dialogue tags in this opener, and both give you a good understanding of how this Brock fellow talks. He uses words like “sodding” which I find refreshing. I am being promised by the author, James Clavell, that there will be more to come. Hello! Sign me up!
Hook # 2: “The whole of China at our feets and all we takes be this barren, sodding rock.” Something is going on. There are officers, Royal Navy, an expeditionary force, and more, all standing on the shore of some sodding rock. China is at their feet. Clearly some kind of battle or conquest is taking place. We later find that it is a fight to conquer the island of Hong Kong, but we don’t know that yet. We merely know that something is taking place, and there is likely more excitement to come. As I’m reading this, I want to know more about the current event going on. My interest is peaked.
Hook # 3: The promise of knowledge. I don’t know about you, but every so often, I love reading a book that will teach me something. This may be fiction, but I have a feeling I’m about to learn some of China’s history, and if we read a few more paragraphs, we would know that we will learn some British history too, and the role they played in founding Hong Kong. I’m putting on my reading glasses, my learning cap, and I’m ready to go along for the ride, or boat ride in this case, because a majority of this story takes place on boats.
Okay, so let’s bring everything back together. In this study we looked at ten different books. We looked at some of the opening sentences and paragraphs used, and critiqued what made the sentences and paragraph openers interesting. Every book presented here is one I have read, or am almost finished reading.
All of these book openers have one thing in common: The openers do what is necessary to shed light on the story to come, giving the reader a taste, while hooking you by creating intrigue and a burning curiosity to know more. A good author knows that the first few sentences are the most important. Many readers will only read one to two paragraphs when they pick up a book they are perusing, especially if the blurb isn’t that catching. You must do all you can with the small amount of real estate you are given, to convince your audience that your work is worth while. These authors I have shown in this study certainly do that.
So where does that leave you? I cannot tell you how to write your book openings, but I can give you some sound advice based on what we saw here. Make your reader ask questions. Why is the character doing that? What will they do next? Who is this character? What makes them tick? Why are they special and why is the author centering the story around them?
Give your readers a taste, but not the whole cookie. Anyone who has but a bite of a good cookie, rarely sets the cookie down. I personally would never walk away from a good cookie after having a bite. Good luck!