Those First Few Pages: 8 Hooks That Get Me

One of the criticisms I often hear levelled at books is that they take a while to “get interesting”. Even well-crafted first chapters can be a tad slow if the characters, world and story haven’t fully sunk their claws in yet. Nonetheless, I think most readers know to stick with a promising book even if it’s not immediately riveting, because they will be rewarded if and when those claws do sink in. Some of my favourite books had beginnings that didn’t powerfully hook me, so I don’t expect to be utterly wooed from the first line, or even the first few pages.

Occasionally, however, I am. Some books have striking openings that grab me and tug me forward, creating a level of excitement I might not normally expect for at least a few chapters. I always find these beginnings impressive, and enjoy trying to pinpoint what it was about them that drew me and other readers who raved about them in so completely. So for this post, I thought I’d do just that, and look at few “hooks” from beginnings that enthralled me:

1. A Great Injustice

Book Cover: The Hunger GamesIf a book opens with a character being treated unfairly, or facing great injustice, it can be a powerful hook. This is probably because it’s a quick way to provoke empathy and outrage, and make us tense as we wait to see if the unfairness will be seen through to its conclusion (e.g. impending execution, forced marriage, exile, punishment). It can also make us long for revenge, and let’s face it, there are few more thrilling hooks in a story than revenge! Both The Hunger Games and The Tombs of Atuan grabbed me with beginnings like this.

There is, however, one caveat: because of the flood of YA dystopias out there, a standard “downtrodden peasant teen at the mercy of an oppressive government” scenario can just as easily elicit eye-rolls as turn heads, especially if it is written in an unimaginative, clichéd way.

2. A Fascinating Concept or Premise

Book Cover: Ready Player OneUnsurprisingly, a book can lure readers by dangling a fascinating premise in front of them in the form of a tagline or blurb… but it will only seal the deal if that premise is laid out well in the first pages. Ready Player One, for example, opened with an explanation of a premise that immediately made me want to stick around (the designer of virtual reality world dies and leaves massive fortune to whoever finds the ‘easter eggs’ he hid in the game).

But it’s not all about glitzy premises that sound good in a tagline – fantasy and science fiction lovers such as myself can also be swayed by openings that introduce highly original worlds and situations, intriguing magical powers, and fascinating futuristic concepts. For example, the way the necromancy in Sabriel worked had me intrigued from the get go.

3. A Compelling Unanswered Question

Book Cover: The Ill-Made MuteWhen a book introduces a question or mystery so intriguing that you just have to know the answer to it, you’re likely to have trouble putting it down. The Ill-Made Mute does this well, because the opening introduces us to a main character who has survived a near-death experience but lost their memory and their ability to speak. I immediately wanted to know who they were and what had happened to them. The Knife of Never Letting Go also raised compelling questions in its first chapter: Why are there no women left in the town? What happened here? Why can everyone hear each other’s thoughts as “noise”? What creates the moving “hole” in this noise that the boy notices when he’s out walking?

4. A Big Secret

Book Cover: The Black PrismFew things create tension like a character who is keeping a huge, game-changing or relationship-changing secret from other characters. Kept secrets create a wonderful sense of anticipation as we wait for them to be revealed. A common ‘big secret’ scenario in fantasy stories is a character concealing their magic from others for fear of persecution (such as in the TV Show Merlin). I’d like to mention The Black Prism here, however, because it offered a darker kind of secret, and while it is only hinted at early on, it is revealed in its full tantalising glory further into the novel.

5. A Particularly Intriguing Character

Book Cover: Throne of GlassSometimes the sheer force of a personality can draw readers in. If a character is not what we expect, has a vibrant personality, or an interesting emotional conflict at their core, we can come to care for them more quickly. It’s hard to get to really know and like a character in a few pages, but some books make it easy. For example, one of the things that compelled me about the opening of Throne of Glass was the dishevelled and wild state of the protagonist, her snarky words, her deadly skill and her willingness to kill. Many fantasy assassins are reluctant killers, and while Celaena later becomes that, at this point in the narrative she was intriguing to me for being the opposite.

6. An Approaching ‘Selection’ or ‘Choosing’

Book Cover: UprootedThink The Hunger Games, DivergentUprooted… or indeed any book that opens with an impending high-stakes competition or choosing ceremony. As I mentioned in a post last year, selections and competitions are powerful openers in young adult fiction. They reel readers in quickly because there’s an immediate tension as we wait to see what will happen when our heroine gets “chosen”, or root for her to win.

However, because these scenarios have now been done to death, I feel they have lost some of their potency. It has to be a subtle and clever use of the trick to intrigue me now.

7. Romance or Sexual Tension

Book Cover: CinderNot everyone enjoys romance in their books, but for those who do, the introduction of sexual tension early on, or the suggestion of impending romance, can be a powerful thing… especially if there are great obstacles to be overcome for that romance to succeed. For me personally, romantic openings work well if the characters have chemistry and depth, if I like them (or at least, don’t find them irritating), and if there’s no instalove involved. I’m also unlikely to be wooed by “teenage girl becomes obsessed with handsome new boy at school” scenarios because I’ve seen them too often.

8. Something Unexpected

Book Cover: Prince of ThornsThis is harder to explain, but I think readers are more likely to be wound up in a story if the opening runs counter to their expectations or offers something surprising that they haven’t seen before in the genre. For example, if a fantasy offers me an unusual style or point of view, the likes of which I’m not used to seeing, I’m more likely to sit up and take notice. This is a different kind of feeling to the usual “oh this story is so intriguing I want to see what happens”. It’s more of an analytical, “wow, this is new, I wonder if I will like this and if the author will pull this off”.

Prince of Thorns, for example, opens with a protagonist so unlikeable, and a scene so grim, that it was grittier and more confronting than anything I’d encountered before, even in other grimdark fantasies. I didn’t like that character or that world… but one question compelled me to keep reading: “I wonder if I can come to like a book which such an irredeemable main character and want him to succeed?” (and it turns out that yes, yes I can).

__________

These are the main ways books have gotten me addicted in their opening pages, though I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten, or simply haven’t encountered yet.  As I said, an enthralling beginning is not crucial for me – I care more about the quality of the overall book and story, and am willing to wait for things to warm up a bit. However, it’s still a great feeling to be sucked in straight away, and it does the book plenty of favours when I go to rate or recommend it.

Do you have a favourite kind of ‘hook’ or beginning? Or do you think I’ve I missed a particularly enthralling one? Feel free to mention it in the comments!

Advertisements

28 thoughts on “Those First Few Pages: 8 Hooks That Get Me

  1. I’ve been reconsidering the start to my book after receiving the first round of agent rejections. My first chapter/prologue starts a bit slow. The major hook for the book doesn’t come until around page twelve. But agents seem to want the book to start with a band and never stop running in those first pages. Most agents only read the first five pages or less before delivering their judgement. It has me thinking I should reorganize the first chapter so the hook comes right at the front, then backtracking to the details that lead up to the event. What do you think of starting a novel with in the middle of a tense drama/action scene?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah yes I see your dilemma – as a reader I’d normally stick around for at least 12 pages but I know agents often stop reading sooner. I do like novels that start in the middle action/drama scenes, but only if I feel at least a little bit of connection to a character or understand a little of what is at stake. E.g. if a book opens with sword fight, but I don’t get a sense of who the participants are/what they are feeling, or a sense of what is at stake, I find it hard to care. So as long as you can open with that tense scene in a way that gives people a reason to care about its outcome, even if only a little, then I’d go for it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • What I’ve done is started with the fight, and a bit of magic, then flashbacked showing the character and the lead-up to the fight. In the original draft, the narrative simple went from beginning to end. Now it starts at the end then explains the meaning of the confrontation and explores the character.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That sounds like you get to the meaning/character exploration quite soon after the scene, so I think that’s fine too. I think if a book opens with a fight, part of me is always going to be intrigued as to the reason for it and will stick around (especially if I get a sense of the character’s emotional involvement through the descriptions), as long as it is actually revealed to have a significant meaning… i.e. the character didn’t just attack a random aggressive passerby merely for the sake of starting on an action scene, then go on with his/her life as if it was utterly superfluous to the story.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Bingo. I have to say I’m probably more generous and would give a book time to grow on me even if it doesn’t “wow” me right away. It helps when the intro has an intriguing premise or interesting ideas, but good action or humor will often hook me too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah yes true, can’t believe I didn’t think of humour! And a good action scene can be a great hook as well. I’m also willing to let a book grow on me though – actually, provided the writing is good, I often stick around for many chapters, even if I don’t necessarily feel “wowed” by it yet. Some books just take longer to warm up I think.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Haha yeah true, can’t say I ever liked him either… but I did still wanted him to succeed (I guess because I didn’t like the characters he was up against). I think of him a bit like Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards… I don’t really like them, but I like watching them use their dastardliness to succeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah yes agree with you so much- the downtrodden teen can be a powerful hook, but I think authors need to be more careful trying to make it effective these days, cos it’s a little overused (likewise with the selection idea, which you’ve mentioned- I’m the same about that now- it really has to be special to make me intrigued at this point). Big secrets always draw me in straight away- I’m a total sucker for that (yay for mentioning Merlin by the way!!!) And yes, intriguing characters definitely get me on board straight away- I was the same about Celaena- I also liked the hint of fae lore at the beginning, which was the main reason I stuck around. And I totally agree about something unexpected- I didn’t know what to make of Jorg when I first tried reading it and (would you believe it) returned the book to the shelf before I even gave it a chance… But after hearing so many people rave about it I picked it up again and ended up loving it! Anyhoo- love everything on this list- awesome post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!! Glad you agree re the downtrodden teen and selection tropes, they can be good but are also very overused. And I always love a chance to mention Merlin, it’s the best 🙂 I can totally understand that you didn’t know what to make of Jorg and put the book down at first – as I mentioned, I can’t say I liked the beginning or him much either, but the fact it was so unusual, and also had been so raved about, had my curiosity piqued!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome! Definitely- especially the selection thing- I thought that was getting old back when Divergent came out… It really is!! 😀 Yes- I totally get that- I think it was so unusual that it threw me and someone I knew described it as “standard fantasy fare” (having read it, I now have *no idea* how he came to that conclusion)- so I was really thrown by that assessment coupled with what I was reading… But the second time I picked it up I had dispensed with my preconceptions and was hooked from the first page. Like you said, it was so intriguingly unusual that it definitely piqued my interest.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Saturday Miscellany – 6/3/2017 | The Irresponsible Reader

  5. What a great list. I’m also probably a bit of a softie and give a book a bit more time to hook me but great openings are so good. That book that you pick up and you know within even a few paragraphs that you’re going to sink into a wormhole and not come up until you need air.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My favorite hook is from Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch: “Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it.”

    This strikes me as the perfect way to lead the reader in–get them to ask themselves just a small question (Why did he finish shaving first?) to keep them going to the next sentence. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sexual tension, feelings of unease, secrets, anything that hints at something important that is not fully known at first is sure to hook me on the story. I don’t mind a slow build up, but it is good to be hooked early on so I know for sure that story is one I want to stick with. However, I hate it when a story is good at the beginning but weakens as it progresses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooo yes feelings of unease are good too in a beginning! And yes it’s so disappointing when a book has a killer beginning but then fizzles afterward, or has a weak ending. I adored the start of Warm Bodies, for example, but the ending was a bit strange and totally changed the tone – and the tone was what made me fall in love with the book in the first place! Still a great book, just wish it’d had ended better.

      Like

  8. Recently, I found a great book that got me caught up in just the first few pages! It was Gravy Mercy by Robin LaFevers, the first book in the His Fair Assassins series. It’s YA, so I was hesitant to try it at first, but now I’m planning to read the entire series.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s