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How Do We Hook Our Readers?

Lake Huron at Goderich. March 7, 2021. Lake ice hides the water but in the distance is the wonderful blue-green ribbon of the lake. The unknown couple were two of many people out enjoying the weather.

Last weekend showed our Ontario winter to tremendous advantage, and my husband and I took a (safe) drive to St. Jacob’s on the Saturday and another to soak up the sun along Lake Huron at Goderich on the Sunday. The brilliant blue sky with a few wispy white clouds showed off the snow at its best. My favourite time–snow on all the fields and bare roads. I didn’t even wear my boots!

Life is often like that. You have to search out the best parts. My father used to say he never turned down a wrong road without finding something amazing at the end of it. Of course, the glint in his eye usually led his adult children to wonder just what he had done on those isolated roads!

Now, in our writing we have to help our readers get hooked right from the beginning. How do we mimic the appeal of the photo above in our first lines?

Dickens was a master with his opening to A Tale of Two Cities. So much so that almost everyone remembers the first words of his first line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

I love a great opening to a book and have worked hard on the openings to all of my books, even my creative non-fiction book, The Man Behind the Marathons. I hone the words until readers will be hooked with the first words and fully engaged by the bottom of the first page. I worked so hard on The Loyalist’s Wife, first in the Loyalist series, that I still have the opening on the edge of my tongue. “John watched his smiling Lucinda carry the pail of water into the cabin and thought how lucky he was to have fallen for her.”

What did I achieve in that sentence?

  1. I gave her an old-fashioned name to suit the period.

  2. I set the scene. They live in a cabin and she is carrying water.

  3. I touched on character. Lucinda is a happy person. John appreciates her.

  4. I set the tone as positive and upbeat.

  5. I allowed the reader to wonder. Why does John think he is lucky to have found Lucinda?

After I described Lucy in the second paragraph I ended that paragraph with “He longed to stretch out the happy moment.” The suggestion is that something unhappy is coming.

These are some of the ways that writers use to grab our interest and to hang on to it. I am currently almost finished rereading Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour which novel I wrote about some weeks ago. Here is Sharon’s first line: Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods. This is our introduction to the child who became the Yorkist king, Richard III, and who has been so maligned because of Shakespeare’s imaginative but not factual rendering of him.

Penman uses the word ‘frightened’ and immediately we know something is up. Then ‘darkness’ appears. Next ‘woods’. She builds the emotion in us bit by bit. “In the fading light, the trees began to take on unfamiliar and menacing shapes.”

Like bricklayers piling up one row after another to create a finished wall, good authors use their words to elicit emotion and interest. It’s how we humans are wired and ties directly to our innate sense of danger. Should we take flight? Should the main character run? What is happening?

So the next time you are wearing your author hat, think of what one of my beta readers said about her reading habits: “I’m an impatient reader. If my interest isn’t piqued right from the get-go, I simply don’t continue reading the book…” Elaine B You’ll be glad you did.

Lake Huron at Goderich

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