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Monday, October 28

How to Hook Your Reader in Every Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Everyone knows how important the first line of a novel is, but in truth, every opening line in the book matters.

As the saying goes, “Well begun is half done.” This is particularly true in writing, where we often get a single line to hook our readers and convince them to give our novels a try.

But it’s also true for the rest of the novel—not just that critical opening sentence.

Tension Starts with a Scene’s Opening Line


Every time we break a scene or end a chapter, that’s a chance for us to lose our reader’s attention. If we end at a low-tension moment, the odds of them putting the book down go way up.

If we end in a high-tension moment, there’s a good chance we’ll keep them for the next scene or chapter. But if the next opening line drops that tension…

Back on the nightstand goes the book.

The last thing a writer wants, is a reader putting down the novel.

(Here’s more on What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

First Lines Are One of the Strongest Weapons Writers Have to Hook Readers


A tension-filled opening line is a way to re-hook readers every single scene. It grabs them, gives them a reason to keep reading, and pushes the plot forward.

An opening line sets up the scene to come—good and bad.

Start with a description of the tedium of travel, and readers will expect the scene to be a boring recount of the trip. Start with the protagonist’s apprehension at the destination, and they’ll want to know why, and see what happens now that the character is there.

Create tension in the first line, and readers will want to know where the scene is going.

Readers wants to know what happens next, and strong story questions make them want to know the answers. Tease them with clues and hints about the terrible dangers, and make them worry about what the protagonist is getting into.

(Here’s more on Are You Asking the Right Story Questions?)

A First Line Without Tension Says, “It’s Okay, You Can Put the Book Down.”


How many times have you finished reading a chapter, looked at the start of the next chapter, and decided if you wanted to keep reading? I do, especially if I’m getting tired and it’s close to bedtime.


When it’s clear the excitement keeps going, we keep reading. But if the tension drops the excitement also drops. We often decide we don’t need to know that badly, because clearly, the answer isn’t going to happen soon.

But we’ll stick with the story a while longer if something suggests the answer is forthcoming, or something even better is about to go down.

Without a sense that something is about to happen, the tension in a scene falls.

Protagonists with goals, conflict at hand, stakes to make it all a risk—these are the things that drive the plot and make the story happen. Start every scene with the something that makes readers fear the characters they love could fail at any moment.

If the tension falls too far, you lose your reader.

This is where a lot of scenes fail. They “start over” in some way, setting up the new scene or even switching to a new point of view character with another problem. The point of view switch is particularly tricky, as not only does it drop the tension, it often begins an entirely new problem at the lowest tension point of that problem.

If you switch points of view, you’d better give readers a reason to make the switch with you.

Shifting from one character in a tension-filled moment to another in a different location, probably with another problem, is jarring, even when done well. Readers are hooked in the story and then they’re whisked away to another aspect of that story.

If you’ve done your job well, the tension levels are close or equal, so the readers’ need to know doesn’t drop, but if you aren’t opening that new scene with the same tension, you lost everything you just built.

(Here’s more on Handling Scene Transitions With Multiple POVs)

Tension-Filled First Lines Make it Easier to Write the Scene


An extra-handy aspect of a strong opening-scene line is how easy is makes it to write that scene. It takes much of the guesswork out of what the scene is going to be about and where it will go.

The goal is clear from the start, so you know what the scene is going to cover.

Tension is connected to conflict, which is connected to goals, and goals drive a scene. If the protagonist is worried about meeting her lover’s parents, you know the scene will focus on that meeting and what can go wrong.

When you know what the protagonist wants and what can go wrong with getting it, the scene practically writes itself.

It’s clear for readers, which makes them feel secure the story is going somewhere and not wasting their time.

Stories that amble and drag can make readers feel nothing is going on in the plot, and the characters are just wandering around waiting for things to happen to them. Rambling stories usually end up with bored readers.


It hints at the conflict (or states it outright), creating even more tension in the scene to hook readers further and drive the story forward.

Goals will only get you so far, vital as they are to a good plot. It’s the fear the characters won’t get them that piques reader curiosity, and wanting to see the characters struggle to win that advances the story.

(Here’s more on Skill Builder: What is Tension? (And How to Make it Work for You))

Well begun is half done, and when we start our scenes with tension from the first line, we entice our readers to eagerly turn the pages to see what happens next.

Do your scenes start with a tension-filled line?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

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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