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
If 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
Unsurprisingly, 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
When 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
Few 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
Sometimes 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’
Think The Hunger Games, Divergent, Uprooted… 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
Not 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
This 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!