Hooking the reader with a killer opening to your book #writetip

This month’s Round Robin topic has been set by author Skye Taylor. Here’s Skye’s question:

Has so much emphasis been placed by readers, publishers, reviewers, etc, on authors having a spectacular opening page/chapter, that the rest of the story gets left behind? What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

round robin, helena fairfax

This is another topic that has made me take a good look at my own writing. My first thought is that it’s vital to have an opening that hooks the reader. Some people say a killer opening is even more important now, since online stores like Amazon have a facility to “Look inside” the book, or to download the first few pages as a sample. They say readers have too much choice and a short attention span, and we have to be hooked immediately or you lose us. But I think back to the days when there was no Amazon and I could only obtain books from bookshops or libraries. I used to do exactly the same thing before choosing a book – check out the blurb, and then have a read of the opening to see if it grabbed me. If I wasn’t hooked, I put the book back.

Stories have always had to grab the reader from the opening. That’s exactly what a good story-teller does. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic opening, with bombs or car chases. It just has to set up a scene that makes the reader think, ‘I wonder what happens next?’ I expect when cavemen sat round the fire telling stories, they always began in a way that would grab their listeners’ interest.

helena fairfax,editing, editorI’ve also heard people say that writers now can’t afford a long, meandering description for an opening, which books used to have in the past. But I struggle to think of any classic novel that doesn’t begin with a great hook. Charles Dickens has some brilliant openings. I think of the convict Magwitch grabbing Pip in the foggy cemetery in Great Expectations, or of the grizzled father and daughter on the Thames, trawling for bodies in the opening to Our Mutual Friend, and the girl’s look of dread and horror. A long while ago I wrote a post on great openings in fiction. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find it here (and see if you can guess them!)

A while ago, too, I wrote a post called Let’s Start at the Very Beginning for the website Romance University on the subject of creating a great opening to a romance novel. It goes into writerly detail on “the inciting incident”, etc, and expands on the things I’ve said in this post.

As for my own books, I write and write and re-write my openings time and time again until I feel that a) I have written something interesting enough to hook the reader and b) the book is starting with something relevant to the story – ie not just a gripping incident for the sake of it – and c) I’m starting when the action starts, and not with a lot of backstory.

Over the summer I’ll be releasing a short story I wrote for an anthology. The story is called Come Date Me in Paris. Here’s how it opens:

Alice stood outside the door to her neighbour’s apartment, trying to quell the queasiness in her stomach. It was Saturday, and Edmond had been cooking his usual weekend breakfast. A delicious aroma of pancakes, crushed blueberries and coffee drifted through the door. It should have been a comforting smell – a smell that conjured up leisurely mornings dressed in pyjamas, immersed in the pages of a book. Not this morning, though. As soon as Alice thought of cooking, she thought of what she was about to let herself in for, and her insides turned to mush.

She raised her hand, ready to knock.

‘Come on,’ she cajoled herself. ‘How hard can it be? A man who can cook like that isn’t going to bite.’

I’ve rewritten the start to this story several times. Hopefully it now starts in a place that will leave the reader wanting to know what happens next, and that it starts in the place where the real story begins – with Alice meeting Edmond.

The opening to a book is crucial, but Skye is right that sometimes writers focus on the opening, and then let the rest of the book either drift away or rush towards an unsatisfactory conclusion. It’s not just novel writers who do this. How many times have you watched a film or TV programme – sometimes a whole TV series – and been massively disappointed in the ending? Writers have to keep that momentum going and keep the reader turning the pages, but they also have to have an ending that delivers and that the reader feels satisfied by. Since I write romance, it’s obvious how my stories are going to end, but I like to make sure they end in a way that’s totally uplifting and gives the reader an “aah” feeling, instead of just fizzling out.

helena fairfax, editor
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Thanks very much to Skye, and to author Rhobin Courtright for organising this Round Robin. Today is the fifth anniversary of the Round Robins, and it’s wonderful that Rhobin has kept this series going with authors around the world. Happy Round Robin birthday!

If you’ve enjoyed this topic and would like to check out what other authors are saying about it, please click on the links below.

* * *

How important is a book’s opening to you? Do you think writers are under more pressure to create a stunning opening than they were in times past? 

If you have any comments at all on this subject, I’d love to hear from you!


A.J. Maguire  http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-YV
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

34 thoughts on “Hooking the reader with a killer opening to your book #writetip

  1. Hi Helena, I know I’m guilty of that massive hook which turns out to have little to do with the whole book. However, I think I now understand that what it does is set the scene in my writer’s mind – and I can let it go, or murder my darlings (ie the words, folks). anne stenhouse

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne, yes, i totally understand about setting the scene in your mind. I’m guilty of starting my books with a lot of backstory – ie not when the actual story starts – but I go back later and often delete the entire first chapter. It’s helped me set the scene for myself, though.
      Interesting topic today. Thanks very much for dropping in!


  2. As a long time reader I understand the various ways stories start, and at times I’ve enjoyed that slow building of place and time start, but I think younger readers need that excitement at the start, although that is only my opinion. Enjoyed your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Opening are important, but so is the rest of the book. I’m currently reading a book that started out with a bang and has devolved into not that great. It’s a three, in my book, because I’m reading it as a reader and not an editor. As an editor, I’d shred it a bit…kindly. LOL

    I think Skye is right about how TV, movies, and commercials have changed our attention spans. Many years ago, a storyteller could enthrall an audience for hours with just their story and music accompaniment. You’d be hard pressed to find that happening today.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marci, it’s so disappointing when a great opening fizzles out, whether in a book or TV, when you’ve invested so much time in it.
      I think maybe storytelling has changed, but I do think audiences are still capable of concentrating if the story is a good one. The Lord of the Rings books and films are long, and readers still love them. This has been another interesting topic. Thanks very much for dropping in!


    1. Dr Who has some great openings, but often the episodes are a classic case of a great beginning and brilliant premise, and a rushed ending. I find so, anyway! I much preferred Dr Who when the storyline ran over six episodes and the story was well-developed.
      Also, these days the Dr Who opening is a classic case of hooking the viewer – the opening comes before the credits. In the olden days – back in the day – the opening music came first, and the story often started in a more leisurely way.
      Your comment is food for though, James, as always!


  4. I was discussing the topic of this month’s blog with my son (after I’d written my post or I might have included his comment.) He pointed out that in addition to the fact that we live in a world of sound bytes and instant gratification, we also live in a world where books are relatively cheap, easily available and plentiful. But 100 years ago, books were far less easily come by. If you had a printed book in your hand and enjoyed reading you read it regardless of whether it started with a hook or dragged you into the story at a snail’s pace. And often you would reread the book over an over because it was the only one you had. I guess we should consider ourselves blessed that we have access to so many choices of books to read. And thankful for the authors who can grab and hold our attention throughout.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting point your son makes, Skye. We do have a lot more choice of entertainment these days, that’s true. But maybe also – because there is so much competition for readers’ attention – we have got better at telling stories. I personally thing readers are just as capable of concentrating on a long story if they want to.
      Thanks very much for setting this topic, Skye. It’s brought some very interesting comments and posts!


  5. Your heroine is fooling herself. Of course he is going to bite — the pancake, or why would he be cooking it? :)
    But you are right about where the story should open: when the protagonist has a lot at stake, or will be dislodged from comfortable normality, or has a life-changing experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point about the biting! :) Also, most TV chefs are terrifying, even if their cooking is divine, so she’s definitely fooling herself!
      Thanks very much for dropping in Dr Bob. An interesting topic again!


  6. I think it’s a question of mood and tiredness! Sometimes I can stick with a book and sometimes I need one to grab me immediately. Occasionally one that doesn’t appeal and I set aside is the perfect read from the first word when I return to it on another occasion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so true, Linda. There are some authors I know I can return to again and again, and others I have to be in the mood to read. It’s funny how some books appeal and others don’t. I’ve never been able to get past book two of the Lord of the Rings, for example, and yet my brother reads it every year. Maybe this is the year I manage it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Helena, I enjoyed your post. And I pick a book like you do, except I check the cover first and then the blurb. I’m also getting some interesting points from all the posts to hopefully improve my own beginnings. And I think this covers it very well – Writers have to keep that momentum going and keep the reader turning the pages, but they also have to have an ending that delivers and that the reader feels satisfied by.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Beverley, this has been another thought-provoking topic and I’ve picked up some very interesting points, too, from the other posts and from comments – here and on Facebook. Thanks very much for your comment!


  8. The post is very interesting. I know I possibly bore the pants off folk relating everything back to music but it is what I know best. When listening to music, the intro of the song – first few notes and lyric, needs to hook the listener from the first 30 seconds, otherwise they won’t listen on. The producer of the song knows that for it to get played on radio where competition for play listing is enormous, so the song needs to open and catch you from the get go, build and build to a chorus within one minute or so with something familiar to latch on to, and then there comes what we call the middle eight, (key change) where it takes the listener to another level, another place – possibly another hook. then the whole thing is repeated building to another chorus and at the end the climax – leaving the listener wanting more. Tricks and devices to draw the listener in, get them hooked and then hold their attention to the last, leaving them wanting more…sounds familiar? All in 3-3.5 minutes max. Easier said than done. But when it is done well, oh boy! Paul McCartney always knew The Beatles had a hit when people said they could hear the milkman whistling their tunes. A writer knows this when people say they can’t put a book down, don’t want it to end, and so many readers rave about it and recommend it….the whistlers. Thanks so much Helena.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great analogy, Jane. It hadn’t struck me before that pop songs must have a great opening, but of course so many of them do! I used to play “Name That Song” with my brothers, and we’d play the first couple of bars. So many of them are instantly recognisable. But of course it’s no good just having the hook – the rest of the song has to deliver, too. I love your comment. Making a hit with “the whistlers” is what we’d all love to do. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve come to the point in my writing where I ignore all advice and just write the story the way I want to. It’s when I’m editing that I go through and “fix” everything. This helps the opening lines, though there are moments where I feel I’m committing some sin by slashing graphic detail in favor of keeping a break-neck pace.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi AJ, I have to just write the story now, too. Before I used to agonise over the opening, and nothing got done. Now I know to just write that first draft. Writing is rewriting, and I can always go back to the beginning and rewrite.
      I enjoyed your post. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh I don’t agonise, I just write. I’ve never read one of the ‘how to’ books either. That is another area where music comes in – you either have talent or not, it cannot be learned. It is a gift. Some of us have to work at it and will soon find out if we are rubbish, and it used to be that way with music. Now of course, with my ‘friend’ Mr Cowall, all this has gone out the window, and any rubbish is made famous and ‘stars.’ But, in the end the truth will out and the star will fade rapidly. The home recording studio where anyone can write and produce music took off, so did Indie record labels, and the same is going on with self-publishing and publishing in general. It will all come out in the wash. You know, what – just do it and it will work (sales) or it won’t. Readers vote with their wallets. My humble opinion of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do like the fact that Indie record labels and self-publishing have taken off, Jane. There are some excellent musicians and writers who would never have reached an audience otherwise. There is a lot of “rubbish” out there, too, but like you say, their star fades rapidly.
      “Just write” is great advice!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I completely understand re-writing that opening in your story. I do the same. Sometimes I dump the first chapter and start the story at a different point entirely. I agree we have to have a good opener, but I bet the caveman did the same thing too. I believe many writers work hard on the first 3 chapters because that’s what the publishers might request when deciding whether to contract for the work and many contests judge only the first 3 chapters.. But the story and the editing go downhill after 3 chapters! By the time I reach the end, I am tired of all the typos/misspelled words, etc and the rush to just get the story done. I’ve enjoyed all the comments by the folks visiting your blog too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi JQ, I sometimes do exactly the same as you – dump the first chapter, or at least the opening scene, because it’s backstory and not where the story starts. I’ve found my writers’ group or beta readers are really helpful for this. I ask “Would you want to read on from here?” and if the answer is no – and sometimes they tell me outright that they are bored! – then I know the story is definitely not starting in the right place.
      It’s very disappointing to read a great opening to a book and then find it goes downhill. The ending is just as important – that’s often the bit the reader is going to remember the most.
      There have been some interesting comments and great posts on this topic this month. Thanks so much for dropping in and for your great comment!


  12. I’ve read many books, Helena, where the blurb on the back, and the opening page, suggest a great story in the making, only for the rest to be at best disappointing, at worst, boring. I’m a staunch member of my local library and I borrow lots of books. But because it’s so easy, and doesn’t cost anything, I am definitely guilty of not ploughing on with a boring novel. If I’ve bought a book at full price I’ll probably read it all; if I bought it for buttons in a charity shop, or borrowed it from the library, I’m far less likely to carry on. This probably says more about me than the novels……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I was younger I always used to finish a novel, no matter what. I used to feel guilty for putting it down. Many is the book I’ve ploughed through, not really enjoying it. I no longer do that these days. There are just so many brilliant books out there still to read, that I don’t feel bad if I’ve read a few chapters and just give up on it.
      I like your comment about reading on if you’ve paid full price for it. The Yorkshire woman in me would identify with that :) Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!


  13. Helena, I think about how Dickens was paid by the word whereas nowadays we’re encouraged to be as succinct and exciting as possible. If I was paid by the word, I would definitely start off with a lengthy description!


    1. Hi Rachael, I had no idea Dickens was paid by the word. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? My last editor told me I was slowing the story down with too many descriptions. I should have been born a Victorian :) Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


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