With all the competition from Kindle Unlimited, self-published books, and traditional publishing’s blitz of new releases and re-releases, getting and keeping a reader’s attention has gotten difficult. You need to entice the reader from the very first line, otherwise you’re going to lose them to apathy, boredom, or something they think they should be doing instead of reading. The goal of your first sentence is to hook the reader into wanting to go on and read more. You want them asking questions, and desperately reading on to find the answers.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
–Stephen King, The Gunslinger
Who is the man in black? Why is he fleeing? Who is the gunslinger and why is he after the man in black?
“They shoot the white girl first.” – Toni Morrison, Paradise
Who shoots her? Why? Why is it important that she’s white? Is the narrator next?
Or you could also start off with something that shocks the reader out of their complacency. Show them that something out of the ordinary is happening in your seemingly ordinary world.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Both of these examples play with the idea that the reader is expecting a contemporary story with the usual setting and BAM, it turns those expectations on their head. Suddenly, we’re in a world where clocks go to thirteen, or men wake up and find themselves giant cockroaches. That’s definitely worth a second look to find out just what in tarnation is going on.
A similar technique is to start your novel off one way, but then go in an opposite direction.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was
to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
The reader is wondering what the heck ice has to do with a man about to be executed, and will read on to find out why the ice was so significant that it was a dying man’s last thought. And in the background they’re thinking, what did Colonel Buendia do to be in this situation?
Of course, sometimes you get lucky and you write something so beautiful and poetic that you cast a spell and it enchants the reader to continue reading. If you can weave in lush descriptions that paint a picture as well as having a bit of mystery to it, at the very least your reader will stay with you to see if you can continue with the spellbinding prose.
“If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter an open window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.”
— Mark Helprin, Sunlight and Shadow
If you don’t want to use imagery to hook the reader, you can also use voice. If your character has a distinct turn of phrase or a way of talking, you can definitely attract a reader’s attention by having them speak directly to them.
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple
In the above example, you can almost hear the fear and dread in Celie’s voice as she’s describing what her stepfather said to her. Parts of the story are told in Celie’s letters to God about what’s going on in her life.
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of
coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”
––Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen
Lehane gives his readers a glimpse into the Bobby’s back story in this first line of his short story that appeared in The Atlantic. In just one sentence, the reader gets a very clear idea of Bobby and his father. You’re compelled to read on to see what other outrageous things Dennis Lehane is going to write about. Hint: a man in a chicken suit with a gas can.
“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with
an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside
of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
––James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss
Much in the same way Lehane peaked interest in Bobby, James Crumley uses interesting turns of phrases to get our attention and you have an idea that this is going to read like a hardboiled detective novel.
Another way to hook the reader into your novel right away is to tap into our collective love for storytelling. If it fits your voice and writing style (and genre), you can try the “Once Upon a Time” type of opening.
“Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember,
a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and an
ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Whatever way you decide to hook your readers into your story, make sure you don’t fall back on boring, old stereotypes like describing the weather or starting the book off with the hero getting out of bed and getting ready for the day. Start as close to the action or the “meat” of the first scene as you can.
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.