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.