How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: hooking your reader


Welcome to Part Eleven of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at how to hook your reader. For the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Hooking your reader

Having tried out some different voices and points of view, you will have decided on your narrative style. Although you may want to just get writing, to make the words flow and your story move, you will need to carefully craft – if not now, then later – the opening lines.

The first few sentences, or paragraphs, are crucial to getting the reader’s involvement. If they don’t invest emotionally in the story now, you may lose them. Imagine a potential reader, opening the first page in a bookshop or library, checking the “Look Inside” function online and deciding whether or not to buy. If you have sent your manuscript to an agent, editor or publisher, their decision on whether to read on or pass it up is likely to be taken here. This is your chance to pique their interest, make them want to read on and continue through to the very end.

The dos and don’ts to writing a great opening to your story are known as hooks – as in getting your reader hooked.

Do – start in the middle of some action. Parachute your reader into something exciting, intriguing or extraordinary; the story is already happening as they start reading and they are drawn straight in.

Don’t – start with the back story. It’s a mistake to think you need to explain who people are and why they are there before you can get on with the action. On the contrary, the best fiction writing weaves information in with action, dialogue and character development throughout the plot.

Do – get the reader asking questions. Your first few sentences should make the reader want to know: What is going on? Who is this person/people? How and Why did they get here? And crucially, What is going to happen to them?

Don’t – spoonfeed your reader. Part of the pleasure of reading fiction is building up your own picture from the clues and information that the writer carefully positions throughout the narrative.

Do – provide some context. Hint at the setting, situation and, if appropriate, historical period; suggest that whatever the current position, things are going to change.

Don’t – make the opening so bizarre that readers can’t make any sense of it or identify with the character(s) early on.

Here are three examples of strong openings which hook the reader by sticking to these rules. They are from the winning entries in the Rethink Press New Novels 2012 Competition, and successfully hooked the judges to nominate them.

“A January morning. Terrible cold, terrible hunger. The constants. At the back of those constants, another. Her. Sarah. Far away, eight hundred miles to the south. I opened my eyes and there, across the cabin, her husband, Edward, wrapping rags of blanket around his legs, tying them on with twine from our old parcels. Edward, who had hardly been home a month before planning to leave again.”

How to write fiction without the fussJames Ferron Anderson opens The River and The Sea, a literary tale of romance and adventure, in a very few words  that set us in a place and situation we recognise as dire, though we don’t know why, and introduces us to a romantic triangle – a husband, an absent wife and a narrator who is in love with her. The reader immediately wants to know how those relationships came about, why the two men are separated from “her”, and what cruel environment has brought them to this physical deprivation.

By contrast, Angela Lawrence’s Rumour, a fictionalised account of real life incidents which took place at the start of World War 1, intrigues the reader by opening with a much more specific context:

“Sunday June 28 1914

The day Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, being a Sunday, William Smith and his wife Alma went to church.

The student’s bullets found their mark at about the time they were dismissing their Sunday School classes. And by the time they rose from their pew at the end of Evensong the Archduke and his beloved Sophie had been dead for many hours.

Their corpses by now cold and rigid, their reputations, and the significance of their sudden end, subject to hasty dissection by journalists for the following day’s newspapers.

While the lives of one devoted couple, celebrating their wedding anniversary on a state visit to Bosnia, had been extinguished in the flash of a gunman’s eye, the modest existence of another passed wholly unremarkably in a Suffolk village.”

As well as instant period context, the author contrasts the well known characters and incident which gave rise to the First World War, with a “modest” Sunday School-teaching couple in a Suffolk village. By doing this the author makes it clear that a link between them will be established, but leaves us guessing as to how. Who, we wonder, are William and Alma Smith and what will their story be? Clearly their lives are going to change.

The Runner Up in the competition was a college campus murder mystery called Dead Letter Day by Keri Beevis.

“He had known from the beginning that they would come for him eventually and in a way he guessed he was lucky that it had taken them so long to find him.

Almost eight years. Seven years, ten months and twenty-seven days, if you wanted to be exact.

He knew, of course, because he had counted those days in thick black marker pen on the white emulsion wall, each one that had passed denoted with a red circle, there in plain view for anyone who entered the room to see.

Of course nobody ever had seen. But that was the beauty of hiding; no one was supposed to know where you were.”

This opening introduces the murderer, we assume, and implies an imminent change in his circumstances – the hiding he has been in for almost eight years. In the nature of the crime thriller genre the reader puts together the clues, along with the detective, to reach an unexpected but satisfying conclusion, so the opening must start that process. The beginning of Dead Letter Day raises all the questions that must be answered by the end: what crimes have been committed; by whom; who is the criminal and how will s/he be discovered? It does so without either giving away any of the back story, or making what is clearly a bizarre situation too alienating to engage with.

Whether you spend time fashioning your story’s opening now, or come back at the end to polish it, check out other examples of your chosen genre and bear in mind the Dos and Don’ts of hooking the reader.

See you next week!

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

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“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here


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