Written by: Lee McGeorge
I was fifteen years old when I first heard my mother use the F word. She was screaming, “You’re a fucking idiot,” because I told her I wanted to be an author, a career path she didn’t understand.
That story is true. My mother really did lose her shit when I told her what I wanted to do with my life, but the reason I’m telling you is to show a method I use to hook people into reading my stories. Go back and read the first paragraph again and look at how the first sentence pulls you in.
Since my first book over ten years ago, I’ve developed theories and methods for capturing the reader’s attention and holding it. There’s nothing worse than a boring book, or one where you feel you could, or even should, skim sections. One of the hardest things for a writer is to hook the reader, but it’s the most important thing and it needs to happen at the top of page one. The first sentence should hook into the first paragraph and the first paragraph should hook into the first page. So how to do it? Is there a magic formula for hooking a reader?
When I’m not writing my own books, I spend a lot of time mentoring teenagers towards writing and publishing their first novels. Through their works I’ve begun to see a clear method of how to do it; but before I show you what they’ve written, let me show you how I progressed through my own work. First, here’s what I would describe as an average opening. It’s from the first book in my Vampire Untitled Trilogy.
“When you move to live in another country you imagine it’s going to be fun, an adventure, exciting. That wasn’t what Paul McGovern was feeling and he’d only been in the country for three hours.”
The opening is kind of okay, but with hindsight it’s just okay. It’s not evocative, or jarring, or exciting, or action packed, or special in any way. A few years later, by the third book in the series, I had progressed to opening more vividly:
“Paul brought the car to a halt, there was blood smeared across the back of his hands. He turned his palms over, stained dark red from the Frenchman.”
That feels a little better, a horror reader might want to go on, but with hindsight I think I could have improved on it. The moment I learned how to write an opening came from a sentence I still receive emails about. It’s from the novelisation of Clair Noto’s The Tourist and I don’t know if I’ll ever write a better opening line than this:
“The penis was sliding in and out of the vagina.”
I mean, wow! You know you want to read the rest of the paragraph. There’s no way anybody is putting the book down after that sentence. It wasn’t even my sentence, I wrote it after seeing a quote from George RR Martin that said, “I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a penis entering a vagina, and I get letters about it and people swearing off.” It’s amazing where inspiration comes from; but what I learned from the reader response is how valuable this sentence was for hooking them in.
From the reader’s point of view, the hooks that draw them into a story are subliminal. They start reading and become engrossed without ever realising how they became so hopelessly addicted. They don’t realise that an author has obsessed over that single first line. They don’t know how hard the author worked to devise an invisible one-way street the reader can’t back out of.
When I began researching and studying opening lines at a deeper level, I discovered the best first sentences are the ones that carry some level of intrigue. Action works also, but intrigue is what works the best. Here are the opening lines from my three most recent works since discovering this:
“The sound rumbled in like a distant thunder, growing with intensity until the men could feel it penetrating their bones. “What the heck is that?” the cook quizzed.” – The Thing: Zero Day
“Jemima Collins was twelve years old; and in less than five minutes, one of her parents would be killed. There were Four minutes and fifty nine seconds to go.” – Slenderman, Slenderman, Take this Child (Released Q1, 2016)
“‘This experiment is quite simple and it’s your opportunity to win one thousand dollars.’ Professor Brian Olivier placed a stack of banknotes on the table.” – Videodrome: Day’s of O’Blivion (Released Q2, 2016)
In my mentoring work, I often spend time getting kids to unlearn what they’re shown at school. In the school system, kids are taught creative writing to focus on metaphors and descriptions; what I call “Doing Writing”. I leave a lot of red ink on my students manuscripts that says, “DW” in the margin. School English seems to adore descriptions and it takes time to unwind the habit from young authors. To help them I’ve devised some simple rules. Firstly, they must begin their stories with an action scene and I force them to strip out descriptions. They’re allowed to show movement and energy and I tell them to be visual in their storytelling… but nothing else. No descriptions. No character thoughts or intentions. They can write only what can be seen and do it in as few words as possible. Here are three examples from when the teens follow those basic rules.
“Frank leaned back as the heat crashed into him. There was a bang from the other side of the platform that blew people’s newspapers from their hands.”
“‘Stop! You’re under arrest!’ Loud angry voices yelled from behind. He could hear gunshots which caused an uproar of screams and running people.” -State of Sleep by Neve Pearce
[Published in paperback at age 15]
“The first shot sounded like a car backfiring. By the third shot, people knew it was gunfire. Edward Sparks grabbed his wife Maeve and threw her to the floor behind the limo. A man was straddling a motorbike, pointing a revolver. He fired a fourth time. Edward covered Maeve with his own body and noticed Jack Jones, city councilman falling backward.” – Ambition Falls by Aimee Sharp
[Age 14] (Release H1, 2016)
“Gunshots boomed and echoed through the corridors. Goldberg was pushed into a room with great glass windows, his guardians in combat armour, clutching their guns.
‘Copy, copy! Sierra-Foxtrot, requesting immediate reinforcements! We have president Goldberg at the helicopter pad, we need rescue helicopter assistance, now!'” – Untitled Sci-Fi Dystopia by Dustin van der Poll
[Age 14] (Release H1, 2016)
These are great openings that will make a reader want to keep going. The invisible one-way street is built into them and the trick was to follow those basic rules. Start with action. Make it intriguing. Don’t describe anything and make sure the first sentence hooks into the first paragraph. Nowhere are the kids “Doing Writing” and their stories hook the reader easier as a result.
The same basic idea can be modified for the rest of your story. In my own style, I’ve developed a prose flow with a lot of propulsion that is supported by this basic idea. The less you’re “Doing Writing” the more momentum your story will have. As I like to say to my students, “Life is too short for long metaphors.” Life is certainly too short for boring books.
Bio: Lee McGeorge releases two novels each year, a premium, original horror and a highly collectable “advanced fan-fiction” paperback. The best way to bag yourself a collectable paperback is to become his friend on Facebook.
Some of the books mentioned here are available for free download