Monday, October 12, 2020

The Difference Between a First Page that Hooks and a Novel that Hooks

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Do you really need to hook a reader on the first page?

I read a lot of first pages. Between the Saturday critique submissions, clients, friends, and other random critiques I do, I’ve read the first pages of hundreds and hundreds of works-in-progress. Add in the first pages from published novels and it skyrockets into the thousands.

This past Saturday, I had a submission that sparked an interesting thought—does the first page need to hook if the novel’s premise hooks?

And that’s a really loaded question.

I also think it’s compounded by e-readers, because it used to be you had cover copy, and knew what the book was about before you started it. These days, you don’t always get the cover copy before you start reading. Usually the first time you open the book, a window pops up with the blurb and information, but after that, it goes right to the text (at least this has been my experience—your e-reader may vary).

It also depends on the first page and who it’s hooking. Because hooks are subjective. 

I think to answer this question, we need to look ay several factors.

A first page can be awesome and still not hook the readers of the genre and market you’re trying to hook.

This is the frustration problem with the “start with a hook” advice. Yes, it’s solid advice, but different readers have different ideas on what hooks. Different genres and markets have different hooks. What works in a political thriller is not what will grab readers in a historical romance, and neither of those work for a MG fantasy.

So when a writer is gathering feedback from critiques, they’re likely to get different advice from readers (and writers) based on the genres and markets those writers read and write.

I ran into this last year with my science fiction detective novel. My mystery-writer friends praised elements my YA fantasy-writer friends criticized. Those YA writers praised elements my romance-writer friends also liked, but felt I should go deeper on. The feedback was all over the place.

I had to sift through my critiques and decide what advice helped me craft a novel that would appeal to SF detective readers. And I have amazing crit partners, so it wasn’t easy to disregard great advice that didn’t apply to my intended target audience. But I had to for the novel’s sake.

I digress a little, but this is a good example of how subjective feedback can be—especially when talking about hooks and first pages.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between a Writing Problem, and a “Not For Me” Issue) 

Let’s explore how important hooks are to a novel’s first page:

To set a baseline, what does “hook” really mean?

A hook is something that makes readers want to keep reading. That’s it.

If you ask a panel of literary agents, you’re probably going to get responses that talk about goals and conflict and the sense of anticipation and something either happening or about to happen. If you ask editors, it’ll likely be similar, but might have more focus on the quality of the writing itself. If you ask readers, you’ll get a list a mile long.

The specifics vary widely.

(Here’s more on Story Rulez: Two Things Every Novel Needs to Do) 

Does a novel’s first page need to hook?

Honestly? Probably not—but hear me out.

Some of my favorite novels have first pages that don’t hook. But they didn’t need to, because the premise and the cover copy did, and I was willing to give the author (and novel) a chance to grab me. They were well-written, and all of them did hook me within the next few pages.

But there was also nothing in the first page or two to make me not want to keep reading.

And I think that’s key.

I’ve read amazing cover copy, read the sample pages, and decided not to buy the book—sometimes by the end of page one because something made me say, “Nope, not for me.” Sometimes it’s the writing, or the character, or the voice, or nothing is happening—something just didn’t click for me.

And then there are novels where I read a chapter, maybe even two, and I stopped, because I just didn’t care. They were well-written, the idea was interesting, but the author failed to make me want to know more. They didn’t hook me.

I’m willing to bet some of the books I put down are favorites of other readers. Same as books you didn’t like are favorites of mine or other readers.

That’s the nature of reading.

(Here’s more on So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story) 

Should we try to hook readers in the first page anyway?


I know, I just said we didn’t have to, but that’s the difference between “need to” and “ought to.” You might not need to do it, but you really ought to do it.

Readers have an army of things clamoring for their attention. Even if you just limit it to books, there are probably dozens on their to-read list, and several they’re looking at buying.

If your first page doesn’t hook them, but another book’s does, you lost that reader.

Sure, maybe they’ll save your book on a wishlist and go back to it, but how many books are on your “maybe buy” list right now? I have books I tagged that go back years, because there’s always a new book that wins out over an old one. If I even remember to go back and check those old lists (and this post makes me want to since now I feel kinda bad about those poor novels).

Not having a hook on the first page is missing an opportunity to grab your reader.

It’s that simple.

And not just any hook, but one that captures the readers you’re trying to attract. If you’re writing romance, having someone who never reads romance love your first page probably isn’t going to win you a lot of romance readers.

This is why it’s important to study the novels in your genre and market, especially the ones selling well or have high reviews. Obviously you don’t want or have to copy them, but if you understand the tropes of that genre you’ll know how to take advantage of them for your own novel.

(Here’s more on You Get One Page to Hook a Reader. Yes, Really.) 

Can we rely on the novel’s premise to hook readers?

For that initial purchase? Maybe. A great premise is a strong hook. But is it enough if the first page doesn’t also hook?

In the pre-e-book days, I’d have said yes to this question. Even in the pre-online days I’d have said yes. But these days, readers can sample novels from home with ease, and that changes buying habits.

And “purchase” has expanded to mean services like Kindle Unlimited and First Book Free lists.

Some readers might purchase a book based on nothing but the cover copy, and this is particularly true if it’s a free book. I download a sample of a book I might buy, versus just grabbing the whole book if it’s free and I like the premise. If I make it to the end of the sample and want the next page I buy it. If not…I delete the sample. Same goes for the free or KU book.

But how many readers buy a book without reading at least a page or two these days? (not rhetorical, chime in here. My habits are not necessarily your habits). And I mean from authors you don’t know—we all buy our favorite authors without reading anything. We already know we love their books.

I suspect this number is getting lower, since it’s so easy to try out a novel before we buy it.

I also suspect price plays a role. Taking a chance on an e-book that’s only a buck or two is different from buying an unknown, untested author for $12-24.

And let’s not forget—indie publishing has affected this. Readers have been burned by terribly written books, so they’ve learned to be wary.

But if the premise hooks, and the first page hooks, and the entire first chapter hooks…that’s a book that captured a reader—maybe for life.

(Here’s more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene) 

So, the difference between a first page that hooks and a novel premise that hooks…

My take on this…first-page hooks capture new readers, while novel-premise hooks capture existing readers, or readers looking at free or cheap books.

While both types of hooks can certainly capture both types of readers, I suspect each hook affects readers a bit differently. The factors discussed in this post also play a role in a reader’s buying habits.

What readers are you trying to capture?

If it’s a first or second book (either in a series or by the author), first-page hooks are probably more critical, because you’re trying to capture new readers. Same goes for agents. If you’re an established author or it’s an established series, your readers already know they like you and that first page doesn’t have to work as hard.

But if you do both every time?

Readers for life.

Don’t handicap your novel. It deserves every opportunity it can get.

There are a lot of good writers and good novels out there. But there are also a lot of great writers and novels out there, too. It’s far too easy for a good novel to fall out of sight and mind of a reader who was interested it in, but not quite enough to grab it right then. And with busy lives, readers don’t always go back and search for things they almost bought.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your first page. Is there a hook appropriate for your market, genre, and target audience? Be honest. Will that first page intrigue your target readers enough to make them say, “Yes, I want to read this novel?” If not, brainstorm ways to add the hook.

How do you feel about hooks and first pages? Have you noticed a difference in how you judge authors you know versus ones you don’t when buying books?

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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  1. Excellent analysis -- as usual for you, :)

    Since you asked: I'm one reader who never buys without looking inside. In fact I might skip the book description (and the "book that hooks") if the book came from a recommendation I like; I'm really looking for lines in the first pages that tell me whether the writer has really found their voice or not.

    1. Thanks!

      Interesting. For book recommendations, I'll read the blurb, but unless it really puts me off, I'll try a chapter at least.

  2. I start with the back of the jacket cover, read the first page if I'm still interested, and if I'm mildly interested but not sure, randomly flip to a couple of pages in the middle.

    1. Interesting that you choose a random middle page. Makes sense, since openings are often polished more than the rest of the book. The middle is a good spot to see what they really write like.

  3. Many thanks for mentioning the ending of a story. I recently completed the draft of my new romance story Unforgettable Cruise, but after spending months writing it, I must admit I did not think the ending was as good as it could be. After reading tour article, I will now take a second look to see how I can improve it.

    1. Most welcome, glad I could help. I always have to redo my endings, So I have great sympathy there. :)