10 ways to hook your reader from the very beginning

If you want your short story, novel, essay or memoir to be published or win a competition, the beginning of your piece must hook the reader. The first paragraph, even the first sentence really counts. Publishers, editors and competition judges are pressed for time, so your opening lines must persuade them to keep reading. You’ve got to hook them straight off.

What we’re talking about here is the beginning as in the final, revised version of your piece as you will submit it. Keep working on it until it’s the best it can possibly be.

One example of hooking the reader is the first sentence in Robert Drewe’s short story ‘The Lap Pool’:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K backstroked steadily up and down his lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake.

What strikes me about that sentence is its unusualness: first, it begins with two adjectives rather than a noun or pronoun, second, it begins with “naked”, and third, it juxtapositions “naked and forty-seven”.

When I asked Robert Drewe in my interview, included in my book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors , whether he works particularly hard at beginnings, he said:

Yes I do. I try in the first paragraph to capture the reader’s interest, so they want to read on, and I think you actually owe it to the reader to engross them, if you can.

 

So here are ten ways to hook your reader from the very beginning:

  1. Do something unusual
  2. Excite the reader
  3. Surprise the reader
  4. Move the reader
  5. Give the reader a sense of identification or recognition
  6. Dazzle the reader with the beauty of your writing
  7. Pose an intriguing dramatic question
  8. Create a sense of suspense
  9. Include something mysterious
  10. Begin with a character’s speech or thought, especially if that character has a strong voice

 

Here are a few more examples of writing that hooks the reader in the very first sentence:

Memoir:

“The night before I married Noah, in the oldest Australian synagogue in Ballrat, I kissed a girl in a nurse’s uniform.” (Lee Kofman, The Dangerous Bride)

Essay:

“Every few months my mother flies north from Perth to Karratha with a prosthetic penis in her carry-on luggage.” (Rebecca Griggs, ‘Open Ground’ in The Best Australian Essays 2015)

Novel:

“On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales and unleashed itself on the fly-speck town of Flint.” (Chris Womersley, Bereft)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, reflected Jo, that a teenager armed with a Nikko pen is a pain in the fucking neck, and if it isn’t then it fucken well oughta be.” (Melissa Lucashenko, Mullumbimby)

Crime Novel:

“My name is Piper Hadley and I went missing on the last Saturday of the summer holidays three years ago.” (Michael Robotham, Say You’re Sorry)

“Even if he’d wanted to, the boy couldn’t scream because of the mask.” (Gabrielle Lord, Whipping Boy)

 

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