Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hooking Your Reader in 3 Easy Steps

By Sally Apokedak, @sally_apokedak

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: No matter what type of stories we write, we want to grab our readers and not let go. Literary agent Sally Apokedak visits the lecture hall today to share a few tips on capturing a reader's attention that are sure to get our attention (and help us write more compelling openings).

Sally is a literary agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency and is a popular speaker at writer's conferences around the country. She teaches students from 84 different country through her online courses at Udemy, and you can also find her in all the usual places: blogging about writing and publishing and the new book review blog (if you write for kids, be sure to send her some books to review).

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Take it away Sally...

I'm four years into my career as a literary agent and in that time I've looked at, probably, ten thousand first pages.          


And guess how many second pages I've looked at?

Yeah. Not quite as many. Most stories, I'm sorry to say, don't pull me in.

What draws me into a story?

1. You have to make me want to know something

That's really all there is to it. Make me want to find out something if you want me to turn the page.

And the best way to do that is to give me a character that 1) is in some kind of conflict or that 2) has something mysterious going on in his life. Conflict will make me ask, "Will the character win?" And if you hint at some mysterious thing, I'll probably ask a "who, what, when, where, or why" question.
  • How did his mother die? 
  • Why did her father leave the family and never return? 
  • Where did the note come from? 
  • When will the volcano erupt? 
  • What is the importance of the gun on the mantel? 
  • Who is the man in the red shoe?"

OK this is all well and good.

But don't think jumping right into the action is going to give me the conflict and mystery I'm looking for. How you deliver the conflict and mystery matters.

I got a submission once that opened with a boy and a girl puffing up a mountain. They ran into a cabin and slammed the door. But they didn't have a chance to speak before a helicopter came over the peak and shot missiles at the cabin. The building exploded. The girl was thrown fifty feet. She got up, dazed, picked through the bloody debris, and came upon the boy, lying dead, with one leg blown off. She was so sad. Her heart ached. Then she ran down the mountain to get away from the helicopter.

That was as far as I got.
  • Was there conflict? Heck, yeah. Someone in a helicopter was shooting missiles at the girl.
  • Was there mystery? Yes! Who were the guys in the chopper and why did they want the girl dead?
  • Did I care about the conflict and mystery? Um . . . no.

So how do you write first-page action that grips me and doesn't let me go?How do you make me move from page one to page two? How do you pull me into your story world?

2. Slow it down to speed it up

It sounds counterintuitive but I am convinced that often, in order to speed up an opening, you need to slow it down.

You can't give me action too early, because I don't know the characters well enough to care about what happens to them. What I need in the beginning of a book is enough detail to help me know the character and understand her world.

Opening a novel with a lot of fast action is like putting your reader on a Japanese bullet train going 320 miles an hour. The landscape outside the window is all blurry.

There's no reason to look at it because you can't really make sense of it. You might as well take a nap.

Writers need to open with some scene setting. And some scenery. Put me on a slow train, winding at a top speed of 40 miles an hour through the Alaskan wilderness. The world outside my window is well defined and full of interesting things.

Now put a bear outside that window and the great, snowy mountain peaks in the distance fade from view. My focus is on that bear.

3. Give me the compelling details

One way to effectively open a novel is to give us a wider story world in the background, but bring our focus in to one compelling detail.

When the kids I spoke of earlier raced up to the cabin only to have a missile tear their world apart, there were way too many details for me to hold on to. On the first page there was shooting and glass shattering and flying body parts. Blood was everywhere. It was chaotic. I couldn't find anything to latch on to.

Slow your story down, but don't give every detail. Just give the compelling details.

Show the mouse skittering across the floor for cover. Show the chopper coming over the peak and blocking the sun. Let us hear the whump of the blades and the whine of the missile. Show the boyfriend pushing the girl down and lying on top of her to protect her. Let me feel the heat and the air whizzing by and the jolt as the character hits the ground, fifty feet away from the cabin.

If you hone in on small, concrete details that follow each other in order, you'll make it easy for me to follow you into the story world.

Then if you make each detail do double duty—if each one describes the world but also tells me something about the character or moves the plot forward—you're well on your way to hooking me and keeping me.For instance, because the character is an animal behaviorist, she notices the mouse skittering across the floor and wonders how he knew danger was coming. Or, because she sees the mouse slip between the floorboards, she knows there is a basement and she quickly hacks through the floor and gets down to safety.

And finally if you can use these details to raise a question in my mind, you're opening description will be perfect. Say your girl is leaning against the door, listening to the whump, whump, whump of the chopper blades, and she sees the mouse skitter across the floor. The mouse gets to the hole in the wall, but stops, turns, and looks at her like he knows her. She gasps and puts her hand on the locket hanging by her heart. She whispers, "Dad—" and the missile hits the cabin and all hell breaks loose.

Now I have to read on to see why that mouse reminded her of her father.

So choose your details carefully:

1. Paint in the wider story world

2. Then focus in on one or two small details that tell me something about your character or that serve the plot

3. Finally give me some details that put a question in my mind that I must have answered.

There you go. As easy as 1, 2, 3.


  1. Thanks, Sally. I totally agree. Love these very helpful tips.

  2. Great post! Thanks so much, Sally. You've given me lots to consider as I work on my first draft. :)

  3. I SO totally agree with you! I have an author friend who throws you into the fray with such energy that you really don't "get it," or care to. . . very much like your young people who suffer the missile strike from the helicopter. Thanks for this great post, Sally. You've given me added confidence about my own first pages.

  4. Excellent steps, Sally! Easy as 1, 2, 3? Not so much. :-)

    1. ha ha Well, yeah, if it was easy we'd all be millionaires. :)

  5. Thanks so much for this. You made it easy to understand and not so daunting. We all know when we read a book and it does not grab us, yet it is hard to see it in your own work sometimes.

  6. WOW. That's all I can say is wow. Where have you been all of my writing life????

  7. I'm trying to get started with a new novel, so this is very timely information! Thanks!

  8. Excellent advice. Beginning a new draft of my WIP and I'll work at doing this. Thanks!

  9. Fantastic post, Sally! It's full of great examples of the pieces needed to pull the reader in. Thanks for the list of necessary elements. Such a big help!

  10. Fantastic post, Sally! It's full of great examples of the pieces needed to pull the reader in. Thanks for the list of necessary elements. Such a big help!

  11. Sally, thank you for this post with tips and examples of how to pull your reader into a story.

  12. Three excellent tips. Thank you, Sally.
    ~Suzy Leopold

  13. This came at exactly the right moment. Preparing Nano atm and was unsure which of two possible scenes to start with - now I know! Thanks!

  14. Thanks to all of you for reading and for taking the time to comment. I'm glad this helped you some. I hope you'll send me your compelling first pages when you get the novels done--if you aren't already repped by someone. :)

  15. Excellent article! So helpful. Thank you so much, Sally! Thank you for sharing this, Janice.

  16. Great! Definitely gives me something to think about, but how should it develop on page 2 to keep you reading?

    1. Jumping in in case Sally doesn't see this...

      Pretty much the same way, really. Readers keep reading when they have questions they want answers to, and they want to know what happens to the characters they care about. So if you show characters trying to solve a problem and answer those questions, those answers lead to more questions, and new information if revealed, readers stay with you.

      Reveals can be plot, world, or character related. Pretty much anything that's new and keeps the story fresh. I did a post on this for more information that could help:


  17. Sound advice for the new writer.