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This is the first post in special series that will unpack the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. Today Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.
A couple of years ago, I attended a writing conference in Baltimore, MD. While networking in the hotel bar, I had the opportunity to meet a number of interesting people, including a handful of writers, a couple of editors, and at least one very well-regarded literary agent.
During the course of the conversation with this agent, the subject around the table turned to what makes for a great hook—a hook being the opening line, or lines, of a story.
As a bit of background, agents only have a short amount of time to look at each submission they receive, literally just a minute or two, so a book’s opening line has to do a lot of heavy lifting. Indeed, most of the busiest and most successful literary agents in the industry process thousands and thousands of novel queries every year. Their time is at a premium. Any writer is lucky to get more than a few minutes.
This was a science fiction and fantasy convention, so we were discussing hooks in the context of some of the most recent novels to hit the shelves. One of the novels we talked about was called City of Lies
by Sam Hawke. It was Hawke’s first published novel, the first in a trilogy that had been acquired by Tor Books, and the reviews were very positive. Copies of the book were often seen around the convention that year, and they were a hot commodity.
Anyway, this agent said (paraphrased, because my memory is good but not that
good), “Check out the first line in that book. Sam didn’t submit that book to me, but if she had, I would have read that opening line and offered to represent her on the spot.”
This particular agent is an extremely powerful man, and he represents some of the most prolific and successful genre authors today. He routinely secures five-, six-, even seven-figure book deals for his authors. It would be any writer’s dream just to make it onto his to-read pile.
To hear that an opening line could move him so deeply and definitively… well, it made a big impression on me.
A few hours later, I found a copy of that book, opened to the first page of the first chapter, and feasted on that opening line that was powerful enough to secure the attention of one of the industry’s most powerful operatives: “I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.”
Indeed, that’s a heck of a hook.
The reason it’s so good is that it teases a lot of questions without overtly asking anything. The sentences takes for granted a few outrageous assumptions—why would this character’s uncle position him/her? how many other times did he/she get poisoned?—and demands that the reader keep going to suss out the backstory. Another reason it’s so successful is that despite the enormous implications of the events teased here, they are mentioned in a casual, almost offhanded way, almost as though in this character’s world it may not be entirely unusual or extraordinary to be poisoned by one’s uncle. Why?
The only way to find out is to read on.
In this example, the author teased us something very unusual about the character’s world and personal experience. There are other great tactics that can produce a similar effect. For example, you could opt to begin the story on a moment of confusion—or perhaps a life-changing moment. Or you could immediately introduce an ominous element of the story.
In any event, the goal is to raise the reader’s curiosity and/or startle them into reading the second line, the third line, and so forth.
Before I close, there is one popular bit of hook-writing advice that I want to mention—not because I agree with it, but because I vehemently disagree
with it. If you go online and search for writing advice about opening chapters, within a few minutes you’ll probably encounter someone suggesting that you start the book on action. An action-packed opening line, or opening scene, they tell you, will raise the stakes and is the best way to suck the reader in.
I would like to dispel this myth and encourage you to be very careful about that approach. Scenes with a lot of action—for example, a high-intensity battle royale between two characters—might seem pulse-pounding and exciting, but it could backfire on you.
Fight sequences are exciting because the reader cares about the characters involved. They may be anxious about their favourite character’s fate, they don’t want them to get hurt, they want to see how a long-simmering feud gets resolved, etc.
The trouble is that the reader needs to spend a good bit of time with the characters before they start to care about them, something which isn’t possible in the opening lines of your book.
If the book starts with a bunch of characters kick-boxing each other, everyone running around and punching with great urgency, the reader is more likely to become perplexed than intrigued. They don’t know who these people are, so they don’t care what happens to them. The result is that this kind of very-early action can have a numbing effect.
So, in closing, think hard about the aspects about your characters, your setting, and your novel’s premise and decide which elements of them are most surprising and unexpected. (If none of your story’s elements are surprising or unexpected, you have an altogether different problem.) Then work to craft your opening line around these elements, teasing them out.
With a little effort, maybe you’ll write the next perfect hook that’s so good it gets you a book deal on the spot.