Originally published on Commas & Sense Editing.
You’ve probably heard that if you want to sell your novel to a publishing house, the beginning of your story has to have a great hook. However, did you know that many editors make a decision based on the first sentence or paragraph?
The opening of your novel has never been more important, and here’s why.
Agents and editors will quit reading if your opening sentence doesn’t have zing, or your opening paragraph must have hook. They have dozens of submissions to read every day, and if the opening doesn’t hook them, they won’t bother with the rest. Sadly that also means you can write a brilliant book, but if your introduction doesn’t start right it won’t matter.
The good news is, there are 6 simple tricks to creating a strong opening sentence that hooks them into the story.
1) Shock and awe
You can win editors over with a good, shocking sentence. The trick is, that sentence has to be something with significant value to the overall story. For instance: It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)
What a great shock value! Who wouldn’t want to read just a little more to find out what that means?
2) Lead to Something
What this basically means is the opening sentence compels readers to move on to the next, and the next. For instance: There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
This sentence is taking us somewhere. What did he deserve and what does it have to do with his name? Readers will move on to find out more.
3) Use Attitude
The attitude alone of the narrator in the opening sentence can compel readers onward. Everyone has a little attitude, so we are naturally drawn to it a little more than the ordinary. For example: Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. —Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
That opening makes me smile every time. The amount of attitude rolled into it is brilliantly played forward and entices the reader to want to know more about why the protagonist was trying to distance her/himself.
Just like attitude, we are drawn to controversy. A hint of controversy in your opening sentence can strike the right nerve to get readers to keep moving along. For example: I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
Right away we can see the controversy that underlies the struggle of the novel, and we want to take that journey with the protagonist.
5) Be Up Front
Some stories benefit greatly from jut coming out and saying what the point of the story is. Their hook is that the story is strong enough to pull readers in. For example: Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
There’s no question from the beginning just how the protagonist feels about the girl in the story. The thing that intrigues readers is why, so they keep reading to find out.
6) Some Clichés are Okay
In general, clichés are frowned upon by pretty much everyone. However, some authors can get away with it if they do it right. For example: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
The opening sentence is loaded with clichés, but they are strung together with a purpose.
Where the opening sentence must catch readers, the opening paragraph should have a clever hook. Here is an example from a piece I have been working with. The opening sentence is leading to something and the paragraph hooks the idea but doesn’t fully answer it.
Ordinary. A word that’s understood as that which is normal, commonplace, or standard. Most people take for granted just how ordinary they are. After all, to them it’s just… ordinary. But I will never be like Jimmy Caldwell with his stylish hair, perfect physique, and awesome Naturalist talent. I will never get the attention of a girl like Bianca Pond, with her delicate fingers hanging from Jimmy’s arm as she flirts. God. She doesn’t even remember I exist. And there is one simple reason for that:
I will never be ordinary.
This opening paragraph sets the stage for the entire book, has a leading opening sentence, and hooks readers at the end. Most readers want to know what makes this protagonist so unique, and why doesn’t he/she want to be?
Take a look at your opening sentence. Can you identify which trick you use? If not, consider revising it.
Take a look at your opening paragraph. Does it have a strong hook at the end which encourages readers onward? If not, how can you change that?
Tammy Davies is on a lifelong mission to help aspiring science fiction and fantasy authors find an audience and get published. She is the senior editor at Metamorphose and works as an independent editor. You can check out her free email series: Build Your Author Platform from Scratch. In her free time, she dabbles in writing her own fiction.