Monday, March 04, 2019

You Get One Page to Hook a Reader. Yes, Really.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Most readers really do decide before the end of the first page if they’re going to keep reading.

A lot of attention and pressure is put on the opening page of a novel, but for good reason. It’s the first impression a novel makes on a reader, and if the reader isn’t hooked in some way, they won’t move on to the second page. As unfair as it seems, 250 words (roughly one page) is all you get to convince readers to stay with your story and your book.

But you don’t have to pack the entire story into that first page. All you have to do is give readers something that promises them that your novel will be worth reading. Which is much easier to do in a single page.

One caveat before we move on: I’m referring to new novels and authors without an established readership. If you know you like an author, you typically buy their new book without reading a test page first. Well-known authors and bestselling novels can also skip the “testing” phase of a new reader based on reputation and personal recommendations.

Is the first page really that important?

Yes. Think about how you buy books. Odds are, something about the title, cover, genre, caught you attention. Most readers read the cover blurb to see what the book is about. If that intrigues them, they look at the first page. If they keep reading (or want to), they buy it. If not, they don’t.

With ebooks and the “look inside” features online, readers can now read samples before they purchase. How many abandoned samples are currently sitting on your ereader? How many novels that just didn’t grab you have you put back on shelf? While you might have given an ebook sample a few more pages to hook you, odds are novels with a bad first page never got beyond that.

(Here’s more on if ebooks put unfair pressure on opening chapters)

If the first page has done its job, readers want to read the second page.

I’m sure there are some good-natured readers out there who will read a few pages past a horrific opening page, but not many. If readers turn the page, then the first page had something on it that enticed them enough to keep reading, even if it’s weak. Maybe it’s mild curiosity, maybe the novel’s premise was strong enough to keep them reading despite a so-so opening, but it passed muster in some way.

(Here's more on setting up your story in the first few paragraphs) 

Different genres will have different first-page needs.

writing a great first line
Make readers pick your novel.
Which is why it’s important to know your genre before you try to write in it. Reader expectations play into what’s necessary in that opening page, and what’s critical to one genre isn’t as important to another. In romance, the “meet cute” is often seen on page one, while many mysteries offer a body, and science fiction and fantasy present a fantastical world or idea. There’s a lot more on the page as well, but what the writer needs to establish will change to suit the expectations and needs of the readers of the genre.

What can you really tell about a novel by the opening page?

A lot, actually. All the skills that go into a strong novel are exhibited in that first page. Writing skill, characters, voice, mood, tension, plotting, conflict, motivation, dialogue, world building, description—it’s a sampling of how good a storyteller and writer the author is.

The opening page shows readers:

hooks, opening scenes
Don't bore your readers.
How well the writer writes: A skilled writer will open with skilled prose. Sentences will flow, the scene will be clear, the descriptions strong, the dialogue natural. It will read like a professional novel. But if readers find awkward sentences, poor word choice, purple prose, vague description, heavy infodumps and backstory, or grammatical errors, it’ll say the writer still has some learning to do.

What the voice sounds like: Voice alone can be enough to hook a reader, and that can happen in one single sentence. I once bought a book (A National Book Award Winner) based on the opening line of “Getting punched in the face is a singular experience.” I’ve also put books back on the shelf because I didn’t care for the voice or style of the writing. Genre and market plays a strong role here as well. Middle grade and young adult novels often live or die by voice, and the voice needs in a romance differ from that of a thriller.

(Here's more on the first 250 words of a manuscript)

What the characters are like: Unlikable or boring characters on the first page can make readers set the novel back down. Interesting or likable characters can earn a few pages to see how the story unfolds. For some genres, such as romance or character-based mysteries, if readers don’t care for the protagonist, they won’t read on no matter how well written the rest of the novel is. The protagonist is everything.

How well the writer can set a scene: An opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel, and makes a promise to readers about the trip they’re about to take. If it’s confusing and vague, it sets up the expectation that the rest of the novel will be as well. Movies are good examples here, believe it or not. The opening scene is created specifically to hook viewers into the movie and prepare them for what’s about to come.

Two that stand out for me are Pirates of the Caribbean, and Lockout. You can tell exactly the type of movie you’re going to see after just a few minutes of each. You can see the opening of Lockout online, and it made me want to see this movie—fair warning: it’s rated R and is a bit violent, so skip it if fight scenes and punches to the face aren’t your thing. It’s called “Guy Pierce gets punched in the face—a lot” for a reason. But it’s actually really funny, which sets the tone perfectly.

(Here’s more on how the wrong tone can change your novel)

How well the writer can build tension: If readers get to the end of page one and need to know what happens next, the tension was well-crafted to hook them. If it’s all description and setup, and there’s no tension at all, that’s one fewer reason to stay with the book. No tension means the other aspects have to be that much stronger to compensate.

(Here’s more on the difference between good setup and bad setup)

If the story is going anywhere: This shows the plotting and story development skills of the writer. Even if what’s happening in the opening scene has nothing to do with the main plot, if there’s a sense that the story is leading somewhere, readers will usually stick with it to see where it goes—especially if combined with interesting characters and good tension. An opening that wanders around and offers readers nothing “to do” is one they usually stop reading.

Don’t try to pack too much into the opening page.

tension, great opening scenes
Yours isn't the only book out there.
You don’t have to cram everything into that opening page, and trying usually results in a vague and confusing opening page, because there’s no room to build the story. It’s all pieces of what the writer thinks needs to be there. Give readers a reason to stay, and then keep doing it until the end of the novel. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs leading them where you want them to go, not a smorgasbord of everything cool about the novel at once. 

(Here's why "start with the action" messes up so many writers)

The first page of a novel has to do one thing only—make readers want to read the next page. That’s a lofty goal, but there are plenty of ways to achieve it that suit every novel.

What are some of your favorite first pages? Or opening scenes in movies for more examples.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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