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Starting a new project always gets me thinking about the first few pages. After all, they have to impress or they're the only pages a prospective reader will ever see.
In general, I believe good opening hooks come in five flavors which can be mixed and matched to suit.
- Conflict: This is probably the easiest for a new writer to master. When two forces collide it brings out character and it arouses curiosity. Which side will win? Where will this go? This hooks for the same reason you listen at the walls when you hear your neighbors arguing. The urge to watch conflict unfold is a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche.
- Character: There are characters who could read the dictionary and you'd be riveted. Compelling, quirky, funny, dark, or anything else that draws us in. If we want to see your lead character in action we'll read on. (note this one dovetails nicely with conflict because as I said, conflict tends to bring character to the fore)
- Suspense/mystery: These can be tricky. If you're just holding a bit of crucial information back it's bound to backfire. There has to be an inherent danger present in the scene. It doesn't have to be a physical threat, but it should be a permanent threat, getting kicked out of school, or losing a job, can work as well as a deadly threat, but if the threat is passing it will not hook as effectively.
- Plot: If you have a great story and you can really get the ball rolling on the first page, readers will be instantly engaged. Like in a spy movie, where some important secret is stolen in the very beginning and this drives the action to follow.
- Voice: This is always a tricky one (see my previous blog post). Voice on its own can work as a hook, but I recommend combining it with some of the above for best effect (unless you're the second coming of Douglas Adams, then do as you please, and would you autograph a few books for me?)
Which brings me back to my own work. Here's the beginning of my latest, a near-future YA thriller. Please let me know what you think in the comments!
Wake up and Smell the Gasoline
I sit at the back of a large, dingy basement made up like a church. A few dozen congregants, mostly black, listen to the Pastor rattle on about passive resistance, making our voices heard, blah blah blah. A perfectly normal scene, but everything about it – every fucking thing – is wrong.
I don’t know how I got here, I don’t know who I am, and I’m certain the middle-aged woman’s body I’m wearing like a meat puppet isn’t my own.
Three men walk in the back door as I scan around in confusion. An odd bunch, the lead with greasy black hair and ill-fitting cornflower blue suit, followed by an aging pot-bellied punk rocker in a studded red leather jacket, and an Asian man, short, but so muscular he seems ready to burst out of his perfectly-tailored grey silk suit. All three carry army style duffel bags.
The Pastor adjusts his steel-rimmed glasses. “Excuse me, this is a private gathering.”
“This won’t take long.” Rumple Suit smiles broadly. He unzips his duffel and produces a U-lock, which he snaps into place on the exit doors. The other two head for the side doors while Rumple Suit withdraws a heavy pipe wrench from his bag. “Plumbing emergency.”
“You can’t just barge in here.” The Pastor backs away from his lectern nervously.
“Sir, please bear with me, this won’t take a minute.” Rumple Suit takes three quick steps, leaps onto the improvised stage next to the Pastor, and addresses the congregation. “Now, if you’ll all just interlace your fingers behind your heads and bend forward so your face touches your knees we can finish up here with no fuss.”
A few people comply.
The Pastor says, “I demand to see some kind of identifi—“
Rumple Suit smashes the pipe wrench into the Pastor’s nose sending a mist of bright red blood spatter across his face and clothes.
The Pastor crumples like overcooked spaghetti. Blood pools around his head as he stares unblinking through broken glasses.
Rumple Suit draws a pistol and waves it at the pews. “Let’s play a game. Simon says. Heads. Down.”