Don't be scared. I'm not Sauron.
Still, think about it. Dude knew the power of One Thing.
You've heard the statistics--probably participated in a few polls yourself. We all know that readers (as well as agents, editors, and publishers) don't promise hours to get wrapped up in our story. They need to know it will be worth their investment first. That's why the hook is crucial.
First line. First page. First chapter. It's all got to make them want to keep going.
I remember sitting at my first writing conference across from an agent I admired, and I actually said these words (*hangs head in embarrassment*): "The main character is in a bad place when the story starts, but after the first couple chapters, you really want to cheer for her and the pace picks up."
Dare I use the old "if I knew then what I know now" cliché? Spare yourselves my pain, people. What I needed wasn't for someone to read past the beginning. What I needed was to make the beginning better. As in way better. Thankfully, the agent told me that. My craft needed improvement, plain and simple.
The firsts have become a major target for me, in both my own work and in my clients'. Here are some things I've learned:
- Make your first sentence killer. Maybe it's an action beat. Maybe it's dialogue that yanks us into the story. Whatever it is, it ought to hint at the conflict that is already affecting the character. Yes. Already.
- Ground the reader in the POV. Whether you've chosen to write in first person, third person, or third person deep, the reader should know immediately who they're connecting to. And they better connect. Whatever the character is experiencing, whatever they need, the readers need to know it. Fast.
- Anchor the reader to the story world. Who is in the scene? Where are they? When does it take place? Use sensory details to describe the scene as the character sees it. Include era-appropriate tools, fashion, and technology to reveal the time period. Name something that hints at the location. Instead of merely describing the main character as she stares out over a valley, have her gaze follow a car winding up the road on the far side of Huntington Valley--toward home. Press her up against a cold steel locker in the crowded hallway of Jefferson High School. Have him wipe the grit out of his eyes as he squints up into the sun of the Gobi Desert. Cause the wiry dog at his knee to bristle and growl at a pony and rider emerging from the shadowy mist of Slattadale Forest.
- Conjure images in their minds, but give them freedom. Ultimately, it will help them connect if they imagine a place familiar to them. Give them important or unique details, but don't draw a map. If they're in a church, perhaps mention the Gothic architecture, or the banners on the wall, or the uncomfortable pew. Likewise, with characters, describe a striking or unusual feature or two, but many readers like to dream up their own characters. Dark and dangerous eyes, callused hands, and three days of stubble describe a very different man than the lean partner in the tailored suit, checking his Breitling watch for the fourth time.
- Give them a reason to turn one more page. Readers need to know what's at stake for the character. They need to care enough to keep going. Is there danger? Is the character rescuing someone? Are they fighting? Injured? Running? Confronted by an enemy? Maybe a dark secret from their past? Pacing is key here. And this doesn't apply only to stories that begin with action. Whatever is going on, keep the plot moving forward.
- Stay away from backstory. While you might want to hint that things are not the way they used to be, drop breadcrumbs throughout the story. Avoid the dreaded info-dump. No one likes to feel as if they're being pulled aside to listen to an explanation.
- Leave them wanting. When they get to the end of the chapter, don't tie it up nicely for them. Ratchet up the conflict. Have the character make a decision. Make the antagonist step back to watch the evil plan play out. Whatever you do, always, always, move the story forward.