Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Setting the Stage: How I Hook Readers From Page One

By Stafanie Gaither, @stefaniegaither 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Hooking a reader is a vital part of any story--if they don't care, they won't read, so as writers, we need to make our readers curious about our stories. Please help me welcome Stefanie Gaither to the lecture hall today to share some tips on how she hooks readers from the first line.

After owning and co-managing a coffee shop for several years while simultaneously earning her BA in English, Stefanie Gaither left the small-business world behind to focus on her author career instead. Now, in addition to penning YA novels, she also works part-time as a copywriter for an advertising agency. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and an incredibly spoiled Shih Tzu. Visit her at StefanieGaither.com.

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Take it away Stefanie...

First impressions are important. Think about the last occasion where you met somebody for the first time; you may not want to admit it, but chances are, you formed an opinion about what sort of person he or she was within the first few seconds of shaking his or her hand. Everything from their tone of voice, to their name, to the firmness of that handshake and any other detail you pick up about them and bam—your brain is already off, processing what you’ve seen and taking those details and putting them together to form a picture of what this person might be like as a whole.

For me, it’s exactly the same when I “meet” a book for the first time. A glance at the cover, a few seconds of skimming the blurb and the first few pages or so, and I usually have a pretty good idea of what a book is going to be like. Am I wrong sometimes? Too quick to judge? Of course. But unfortunately, my to-be-read pile is already staggeringly, dangerously high, so most books only get one chance to convince me to read them. And that’s a scary thought, thinking about all of the books I could be missing out on as a reader because of my brain’s tendency to jump to conclusions. But it’s even scarier as a writer, thinking about all the readers who might skip out on my book if I don’t manage to pull of that initial “hooking” of their interest.

The need to hook readers doesn’t end after the first few pages, of course (if only it were that easy!) but for the sake of not making this the longest blog post in the history of ever, I’m only going to share the three things that weigh most heavily on my mind when I’m crafting the first few pages of a new project.

Number One: The Opening Line

I’ve seen lots of other blog posts from agents, editors, authors, etc… that focus on this, and I’ve seen differing opinions about its importance—some think writers worry too much about getting this line right, others believe it’s not possible to spend too much time on those pivotal first few words. I’m pretty firmly in the latter camp. One thing that I’ve noticed as I’ve written more books is that a great first line can go a long way toward making me excited about a new project. And, on the flipside, if the first line feels “off”, the rest of the opening pages often do too, and sometimes a project fizzles out before it even gets started, just because we got off on the wrong foot. I can only assume this excitement/fizzling will translate to the reader—the old adage “if it’s boring for you to write, it’s boring to the reader” comes to mind.

There are a lot of different ways to make a first line great, and, as with most things in writing, there’s no surefire formula to getting it right—but there are a couple of things I aim for, and here they are, along with examples:

1. A great showing of voice

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”—From Feed by M.T. Anderson
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

2. Impact (think of this as a “gut-punch” sort of line you can’t ignore)
“My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die. I counted.” –From On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

3. Mystery/Intrigue (the reader immediately needs to understand more about this world or this character)
“It is the first day of November and so today, someone will die.” –From The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I would probably add the first line of my debut novel, FALLS THE SHADOW, to this last category as well: “I took some of the flowers from my sister’s funeral, because I thought her replacement might like them as a welcome-to-the-family present.” With this line, my goal was to make the reader immediately start asking questions about what sort of world this was, and about these two sisters—questions that they’ll have to read on to find the answers to. And planting questions like that is actually the next important thing for me to do within the first few pages. That is,

Number Two: Planting the Breadcrumb Trail

Particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, the first few pages serve as an intriguing glimpse into the world of your story. This is where having a synopsis/detailed notes comes in handy to me; I look at all the things I have planned, all the cool ideas I want to work into this story, and then I try to think of ways I can plant enough interesting crumbs of them so that the reader wants to (has to) find out more about said things. To use FALLS THE SHADOW as an example again, throughout the first chapter, I build on the question raised in that first line—why and how does this world have replaceable children? But I don’t answer all of that question immediately, either. Readers learn some things about cloning, and they get a brief glance into the main character’s family, but there are still plenty of things left unanswered. There’s an important balance that has to be struck, between “intriguing information about this world” and “overwhelming info dump about this world”.

Basically, what I want to give the reader with these “crumbs” is the promise of a world that’s worth their time to explore. And in addition to that promise, there’s one more that’s especially important for me to make in the first few pages:

Number Three: The Promise of Conflict

Conflict is what drives a plot, and, particularly as a genre writer, I think plot is essential to hooking readers and keeping them turning pages. So, in the opening chapter of FALLS, I tried to include sparks of both internal and external conflict. Internally, we have a main character who is trying to deal with the death—and replacement— of her beloved sister. Externally, we have the controversy that surrounds the cloning movement that makes these “replacement” children possible—a controversy that the main character’s politically powerful family is at the center of. Readers glimpse violent protestors and intrusive paparazzi, and there’s the first mention of organizations on both sides of the cloning debate. These are big, Story Driving Conflicts, and I waste no time in introducing them to the reader.

And as the story progresses, these conflicts are further fleshed out and built upon until all the different sides ultimately collide, leading to the climax—a climax that doesn’t happen for three hundred pages. But it all that starts in that first chapter, which is why I never underestimate the power of properly setting the stage in any story.

About Falls the Shadow

When Cate Benson was a kid, her sister, Violet, died. Two hours after the funeral, Cate’s family picked up Violet’s replacement. Like nothing had happened. Because Cate’s parents are among those who decided to give their children a sort of immortality—by cloning them at birth—which means this new Violet has the same smile. The same perfect face. Thanks to advancements in mind-uploading technology, she even has all of the same memories as the girl she replaced.

She also might have murdered the most popular girl in school.

At least, that’s what the paparazzi and the anti-cloning protestors want everyone to think: that clones are violent, unpredictable monsters. Cate is used to hearing all that. She’s used to defending her sister, too. But Violet has vanished, and when Cate sets out to find her, she ends up in the line of fire instead. Because Cate is getting dangerously close to secrets that will rock the foundation of everything she thought was true.

In a thrilling debut, Stefanie Gaither takes readers on a nail-biting ride through a future that looks frighteningly similar to our own time and asks: how far are you willing to go to keep your family together?

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  1. Great post, Stefanie. Love your suggestions for making the first few pages so compelling the reader must turn the pages. And from reading your ARC, I must say you did a fantastic job with this. I was hooked from page 1.

    1. Thanks Natalie! So glad you enjoyed the post (and even more glad you emjoyed the arc!!!)

  2. Great post! If a book doesn't grip me right away, I tend to assume it won't later. This post is awesome and now I've added the book to my wishlist.

  3. This is a terrific post. I appreciate the tips and the examples. Thanks for this.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I appreciated the opportunity to write it :)

  4. Those are some great examples of first lines that hook the reader.

    1. Right??? It took me a while to narrow down from all the great first lines on my bookshelf. Glad you liked these :)

  5. Great, great, great post! And utterly timely for my purposes: working with newbie authors. I used to advise authors that they had 250 words to hook the reader. Last year, I cut that advice down to 100 words. This year I cut it further still and now have fallen back on the old 3-second rule used in copy and web content writing.

    Your post and examples are measured and intelligent - and very helpful. Come visit us again. :D

    oyes - just sent your book to the kindle - love the premise! Will leave a review once I'm done and all the popcorn is brushed off...

    1. So pleased you found it helpful! And thanks so much for getting FALLS for your kindle! Happy reading :)

  6. I could have been taking the dog for a walk, cleaning up my cluttered desk, or responding to the phone making all sorts of ring tone chatter. Instead I stayed here and got inspired. Thanks for making this topic so clear and attainable.

    1. Thank you for reading! Glad you were inspired by it (also, clutter-free desks are totally overrated)

  7. Well done! I rewrote my opening wondering if it works... :
    What a nothing way to die David’s thoughts flashed forward. He stood at the forty-yard line trying to get the sound of the screaming crowd out of his head. So I’m going to work for the county, steady work, look dead because I’m loosing a football game.