My nine-year-old daughter wants to do two things when she grows up: 1) be an author; 2) work in an animal shelter. The other day, she told me that to be a successful writer, you have to start your story with something that gets the reader’s attention.
“You’re right,” I told her. “We call that hooking the reader.”
I recently took a couple weeks off from working on my Scary Tales series to crank out a couple short stories. In both cases, the first draft of each story had the same flaw (among a few others, of course): it started too early.
As writers beginning our stories, we need to know the full context of our characters as they meet the conflict that will drive the narrative. But guess what? Readers don’t. Readers need the conflict, and they need it fast! If you bog down those crucial early paragraphs with a bunch of backstory and description, you’ll lose your readers.
But here’s the thing: don’t focus on this too much in a first draft. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to start your story with a hook. Personally, I think it’s much better to start your story wherever you intuitively feel it begins. Finish the draft. Then, you can go back and see where your story REALLY begins. Odds are, it’ll be somewhere on page two or three, and that is where you should start the tale. And all that stuff that led up to it? You can sprinkle out whatever’s necessary throughout the story.
A great example of a snazzy hook is the first couple sentences of Horns by Joe Hill:
“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby protuberances.”
Bam! I’m hooked. Aren’t you? We know right away that we have a troubled, hungover protagonist who has a pair of freakin’ horns on his forehead. Giddy-up! We don’t need to know yet all the details of what he did the previous evening. That can wait. We know he has horns, and we have a crap-ton of questions. Joe Hill, as usual, did his job well. He hooked us.
If you want to learn more about how to hook the reader, check out the classic book on writing by Les Edgerton called, appropriately enough, Hooked. It’s pound-for-pound, the best damn book on the craft I’ve ever read.