Your First Chapter: The Hook
The first thing a first chapter must do is hook the reader with one or more catchy opening sentences. Learning how to write the first chapter of a book is difficult, but mastering how to write a great first sentence is at least as important.
First in a Series
This is the first post in a four-part series about your first chapter. We will cover the hook, establishing point of view and the setting and genre. We will cover all the things a great first chapter must do, including: showing the normal world, the stakes, the conflict, and finally, creating a cliffhanger. See the Resources section at the bottom for the links to the other posts.
Why is the first chapter different from others?
First chapters are how you attract new readers, right after the cover and the book description. First chapters have lots of moving parts and must do some heavy lifting to ensure the success of your book. This is why we need to study how to write an engaging first chapter.
If your first chapter doesn’t work for the reader, then you will probably have lost a customer for life. If they flip open the cover or use the Look Inside feature online to read the first page and you fail to hook them, then you’ve lost your best opportunity to land a new reader. It’s so easy for them to close the book and put it back on the shelf or to click off of the web page.
The importance of the opening line.
The first thing in your first chapter is the opening line. You may get as many as three paragraphs to generate interest in your novel, but after that, you can expect the reader to pass judgment. Do they want to keep reading, or would they rather move on? Are they going to buy the book or borrow it from the library? Or are they going to put your book back on the shelf?
But I’m thinking like an indie author. Agents and publishers absolutely won’t hesitate to reject a book with a weak opening line or a first chapter that doesn’t do the job. Indeed, your first sentence may be all they read. If the opening line is interesting, then they may read the next. And the next. Make no mistake, though, agents and acquiring editors are trying to get through their slush pile; they are searching for any reason to reject your manuscript and move on to the next.
So, no pressure.
Every scene begins with a hook. The hook can be one sentence or up to five or six sentences.
The hook raises questions in the readers’ minds and makes them a promise—if they keep reading, their questions are going to be answered. It also sets expectations about tone, mood, voice, setting, and genre. Frequently, characterization, conflict, and point of view begin in the first few lines.
Let’s take the first paragraph of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008), as an example:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”—Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, 2008
Automatically, the reader wants to know the answers to the following questions:
- Why is Prim missing?
- Why is there only a rough canvas cover on the mattress, and why does the main character have to share the bed with Prim for warmth?
- Why does Prim have regular nightmares, and what is a “reaping?”
Notice the clues to characterization. The main character is concerned for Prim. Mother is nearby and sleeps alone. Prim is the victim of frequent bad dreams. There are clues to setting, both place and time. These two people share a shabby bed for warmth, so we know it’s cold at night. And it is morning on “the day of the reaping.” This sets an ominous, foreboding tone for what follows.
Here is another example from my book, Healer’s Curse (2015):
*“The fever returned to Northern Marst in the spring of my eighteenth year and rocked the capital city of Kaeson to its foundations.After several years with only the odd case or two, new cases cropped up every day, keeping me and my fifteen-year-old apprentice, Princess Renélan, frantically busy. Most of our patients responded to a regimen of rest, gruel, and fluids, but for the serious cases, I needed to use my gift of healing.
“El had called me to be a healer at age twelve, but these days, I hesitated to use the gift. People gave me doubtful, sidelong looks as if to say, Lady Elilan couldn’t even heal her own husband. Less charitable people whispered, ‘I heard Elilan caused Lord Jayson’s death.’”—Kathrese McKee, Healer’s Curse, 2015
The reader wants to know the answers to these questions:
- What is the fever?
- Why is this young person of eighteen being called to heal people?
- Why does she have a fifteen-year-old princess as an apprentice?
- Why does she hesitate to use her gift of healing?
- Why do people distrust her?
- Is Lady Elilan a murderer?
Clues to characterization, setting, and mood are presented. The character’s inner conflict is also revealed; she is reluctant to use her supernatural gift. The setting is a fictional kingdom in a time before antibiotics and modern medicine. The reader can tell the story is in the fantasy genre from the details given.
Let’s look at one more example from Sally Bradley’s contemporary romance, Kept (2014):
“Mark was leaving—again.
*Miska Tomlinson let the gauzy curtain fall across her living room window, obscuring the view of Chicago’s lakefront eighteen stories below. If she’d known a year ago that their relationship would stall like this, she might have thought twice about accepting his offer of a drink. That would have saved her this roller coaster of pleasure and pain. The pain was worth it, though, wasn’t it? The two of them hiding out in her condo three or four days at a time. No one hassling them, no one knowing …”—Sally Bradley, Kept, 2014
These three paragraphs raise several questions:
- Why is Mark leaving again?
- Why does Miska put up with it?Is she thinking about ending their relationship?
- Does she regret it?
- Why do they hide their relationship from the rest of the world?
The reader is introduced to two characters, Miska and Mark, and characterization begins right away. Miska is powerless, for some reason, to stop Mark from leaving. This hints at the conflict. The setting is vividly established as modern-day Chicago in a luxurious condo overlooking the lake. And the mood is established as one of pain and wistfulness.
In all three examples, we catch a glimpse of the main character’s normal world. This is their status before the inciting event. None of these examples dwells on the backstory or dumps information on the reader.
- The main job of the hook is to raise questions.
- You are promising to answer those questions.
- You are setting expectations about tone, mood, and genre.
- The hook is the beginning of a scene, so make sure you set the scene and reveal who it is about.
In The Hunger Games, we start in Katniss Everdeen’s point of view, even though we don’t know her name yet. It is morning inside a shack on the day of the reaping.
In Healer’s Curse, we start in Lady Elilan’s point of view, and the reader learns she lives in the capital city of Kaeson in the kingdom of Northern Marst in medieval times. The main character has a supernatural gift, and she lives under a cloud of suspicion. These droplets of information set expectations about genre and conflict.
In Kept, we start in Miska’s point of view inside a contemporary penthouse apartment in Chicago. Her focus is on her lover, Mark, who is leaving her behind again.
So, what if you are having trouble writing the beginning of your story?
First, try this unexpected tip for how to write a first sentence.
If you are having trouble writing your hook, DON’T write it yet. If you are having trouble writing your hook, don’t write it yet. Some authors know right away what their first lines will be, but most really struggle with the hook, and rightfully so. The first few sentences need to achieve many things. To get over the hump, SKIP IT until later. Most of the time, I type the following as I begin to write:
“This is my first sentence.”
That’s it. That’s the sentence. Let the first sentence rest so your subconscious can work on it while you move ahead. It is quite possible that your “first sentence” will turn into several paragraphs or a scene when you return to it. Meanwhile, plunge into your story, knowing that later the perfect beginning will occur to you.
You may even be able to tie the beginning and ending of your story together, bringing it full circle.
Second, do not begin with an information dump or backstory.
As an editor, I have lost count of the times new authors have sent me their manuscripts which begin with pages of information, thinly disguised as a character’s thoughts. Most of the time, the beginner writer has a character doing something, but often, the action is banal, like taking a shower or getting dressed for work or looking in the mirror (God forbid) or walking the dog.
Pages and pages of boring explanation or excessive description go by. The author needs to know this stuff, but the reader does. Not. Care.
Set things in motion. Establish the main character. Get some dialogue going. If your first two pages contain only prose, that’s a sign to take a second look and/or get a second opinion before you send your work to an editor.
There are exceptions to the rule, but openings should always involve conflict and include important action.
Here is an example from Dance Hall of the Dead: A Leaphorn & Chee Novel by Tony Hillerman, published in 1990.
Sunday, November 30, 5:18 P.M.
“Shulawitsi, the Little Fire God, member of the Council of the Gods and Deputy of the Sun, had taped his track shoes to his feet. He had wound the tape as Coach taught him, tight over the arch of the foot. And now the spikes biting into the packed earth of the sheep trail seemed a part of him. He ran with perfectly conditioned grace, his body a machine in motion, his mind detached, attending other things. Just ahead where the trail shifted down the slope of the mesa he would stop–as he always did–and check his time and allow himself four minutes of rest.”—Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead, 1990
The opening contains no dialogue. In fact, the first chapter contains no dialogue, but it shows crucial action. As frequently happens with whodunnits, the first chapter is about the crime. But what a great first sentence!
The Little Fire God has track shoes taped to his feet. He is on a sheep trail, running along the top of a mesa. He is all alone. Why? He seems so intent on doing everything just right, and he has trained for this moment. Will he succeed? I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Third, establish point of view (POV) and setting.
The third tip is to be clear about point of view and setting. Also, show, don’t tell. In the previous example, we were firmly in the head of Shulawitsi. Because it is evening on the last day of November, we can guess that it is cold. We are running with the Little Fire God and enjoying the feel of the track shoes biting into the sheep trail. We are a perfectly tuned machine, and we are on a mission.
Fourth, set the tone and mood through what you focus on and the words you choose.
If your book is meant to be funny, then start off that way. If it is brooding or foreboding, then choose the opening words accordingly.
Dance Hall of the Dead is a mystery murder … or a murder mystery… Dance Hall of the Dead is a murder mystery, so Hillerman starts off with a mysterious scene. He draws the reader in and raises serious questions from the beginning.
In the funny and heartwarming memoir series by James Herriot, he begins with:
“They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back. “I lay face down on the cobbled floor in a pool of nameless muck, my arm deep inside the straining cow, my feet scrabbling for a toe hold between the stones.”—James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small, 1972
Herriot’s dry humor comes through the first sentence and never lets up. Sometimes, the author will make you cry, but then he will make you laugh through the tears.
Fifth, be consistent with your genre.
Going back to The Hunger Games, a dystopian book for Young Adults, Collins chose to use first person, present tense. This is not my favorite choice, but it works well for the genre and the audience.
Let’s take a look at a few other examples with genre in mind:
“It was a pleasure to burn.
“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953
Obviously, this is dystopian science fiction. And we cannot look away as the books burn.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
Some people mistakenly believe Jane Austen’s books are romantic historical fiction, but no, she was writing contemporary satire about her time in history. And this tongue-in-cheek opening line is exactly right for what she meant to achieve.
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 1895
The Red Badge of Courage is a novel of the American Civil War, published just thirty years after it ended. Crane sets a brooding tone right away through his imagery and word choice.
“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”—Sue Grafton, “A” is for Alibi: A Kinsey Millhone Mystery, 1982
This is the perfect beginning to a thriller about a private investigator. Just the facts, ma’am.
And so on. If your opening is not in line with your intended audience and genre, you have work to do.
Beginnings are as individual as the people who write them. Here are a few, general ideas:
- Reveal something personal, either about yourself or a character.
- Break the fourth wall and ask the reader a question.
- Say something shocking, surprising, or unexpected.
- Write something in a mysterious way to intrigue the reader.
- Make a bold claim.
- Lead with a confession.
- Invite the reader in, as if letting them in on a secret.
- Communicate what is at stake.
- Set the scene with imagery.
- State your theme.
- Mention an odd detail.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Remember, you want to raise questions in your reader’s mind. Then you want to hold their attention.