Once Upon a First Page

Last week, I said that the goal of the first sentence is, quite simply, to get the reader to move on to the second. This week, I’m going to give you some thoughts on what will keep people reading.

Before I begin, however; I must mention this: There is nothing more subjective in the writing world than what hooks a reader. What hooks one reader may repel another, and there is only so much you can do about that. Here are a few guidelines that I find useful:

1. Make it relatable. No matter how complex your world or your story, you will have to find a way to make it meaningful to your readers, and the best time to start is right at the beginning. So try to give us something we can handle. Your intergalactic war may be too big for us right now, but your main character losing his brother is infinitely understandable. (And it is readily understandable even if we have not personally lost a brother.) There are universal sympathies — loss, betrayal, fear, love, hope, anger. It doesn’t have to be big or earth-shattering — you can draw us in with an adolescent fighting over curfew — it just needs to be something that most people will get and, more subjectively, care about. Then, with your hook firmly planted, you can build your case for the rest of the story.

2.Keep it simple. Complex stories are great, but complex openings are difficult. The less you have to explain in order for us to understand what is going on in those first few paragraphs, the better.

3. Introduce conflict. Not action (necessarily), but conflict. There is a distinct difference between the two. Action involves movement. Conflict involves emotions. Action without conflict is not dramatic in any way, no matter how many people are getting shot. In fact, I have rarely seen a violent fight work as an opening because until I know why they’re fighting, it’s just so much noise. It’s neither relatable nor simple. Conflict is the why, not the what. Why are these people fighting? Why is Sarah so sad? Why is Beth angry?

4. Make it about someone. This is just another way to make things relatable, but basically, most people care about people, not scenery. I know some will disagree with me on this, but little bores me more than the panoramic opening focusing on the forest before zeroing in on the people hiding in the trees. Since I tend to ignore description that I don’t find relevant, I will often forget anything you say before I have a conflicted character with which to sympathize.

5. Remember, we know nothing. When the reader picks up a book, assume they haven’t even read the back cover. You’re at zero. Well, technically, your reader has a large set of preconceived notions and prejudices that you can draw upon (when you make it relatable), but they know nothing and the second you say anything, that will be the whole of what they know.

6. Trust the story to speak for itself. This is how you avoid information dumping. An information dump is when you provide information that is either not necessary or goes on far too long. Don’t be tempted to over explain, just let the characters have their heads and drop in details as they become necessary.

7. Don’t hold back. On the other hand, don’t hold out on us. If we need to know something, spit it out. I’m sometimes amazed at how often a one-sentence explanation would turn a first page from chaos into perfection. Don’t be so afraid of the information dump that you won’t tell us what we need to know. Remember:An information dump is either unnecessary or over-explained information. If Sarah spends the first page in tears, it is not an information dump to tell us that she just broke up with her boyfriend and in fact, a few details about the relationship might be in order as well.

After that, if you’re still not sure what hooks, all you can do is find yourself some wise readers and ask. I do.

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