How To Hook Your Reader: Starting Your Story

Posted at 02:04am on 17th November 2008

Revised & Updated: 10th August, 2010

Right! You’re sitting in front of your computer to begin your novel, and you’re raring to go. You’ve read my article, Writing & Publishing A Book: Ten Tips Before You Begin, and identified your readers, as well as Fiction: Main Characters & How To Choose Them, so you know, as an author, which of your characters are going to be conveying your story. You know, too, that right from the outset, you have to hook your reader. But how do you actually go about doing it?

WHAT, WHY, WHEN, HOW, WHERE & WHO

In a guest, blog which David Scott, former newspaper editor, wrote for me, he recited the essentials in opening any story – be it biography, fiction or journalistism. Here’s what he said:

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I know);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

As an author, you need to incorporate each of these components: What, Why, When, How, Where and Who into the opening paragraphs of your novel or biography. Let’s take a look at the beginning of my latest book, A Painful Post Mortem, and see how that works.

“A copy of the Pathology Report – promised, and ambivalently awaited – has arrived in my absence. For some reason, the timing upsets me, though I can’t think why. What possible difference can it make? By its very nature a Post Mortem is posthumous. And death brings an end to influence and change. Doesn’t it?

1. WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT?

Clearly, from the fact that a Post Mortem is alluded to, a death has occurred and there’s bound to be a body. But whose? We don’t yet know. This first sentence is designed to raise enough intrigue in the reader’s mind to encourage her to read on to answer the questions that are implied in the text. Added to this, a Pathology Report has been promised. But by whom? Again, that’s something that may be answered later.

In order to get your readers to want to know the answers, you need to engage them, emotionally. Here, the personal impact, designed to make the reader feel empathy with the narrator, is implied in the very first paragraph: For some reason, the timing upsets me . . .

What is it about the timing that’s upsetting the main character? The reader doesn’t yet know! But these human emotions are important elements in story-telling, in order to engage the reader’s curiosity and compassion sufficiently for her to want to read on – to understand what it is that is causing such distress.

2. WHY IS THE STORY BEING TOLD?

There are two ways of looking at the Why of a story. We’ve already touched on one, above, in trying to ascertain Why the main character is feeling as she does.

The other, the way I think of the Why, is to do with Theme. Why is this story being told? The Theme is hinted at in the phrase at the end of the first paragraph: “. . . death brings an end to influence and change. Doesn’t it?”

The obvious and natural assumption is that death is the end. But now some doubt has been raised! Subtly, the reader is invited to read on to answer that question: “Doesn’t it?” The implication is that this marks the quest that sets the main character off in pursuit of some answers. Is there something not quite right about this death? Something that’s been overlooked? Something suspicious, perhaps? In asking herself that question “. . . death brings an end to influence and change. Doesn’t it?” the protagonist appears to be convincing herself that there is, in fact, something that she can do to influence and change the status quo.

3. WHEN IS IT TAKING PLACE?

When is the story taking place? This is answered in the second paragraph:

“I’ve dragged myself round the usual early morning circuit – beside the vapid, dust-strewn waters of the canal basin, through St Kit’s to the Thames footpath and the muted early summer sounds of the river, under Tower Bridge and back home again – driven by a half remembered sense of the comfort to be derived from routine, familiarity, activity. That’s how it’s been for the past ten days . . .

Many aspiring authors would include this information by stating, baldly: It was early morning in the summer. But here I’ve incorporated this information into the action of the piece, finishing with the phrase: “that’s how it’s been for the past ten days” to inform the reader, in a subtle way, how long has passed since the death occurred.

4. WHERE IS THE STORY SET?

As with the When of the story, only rarely is it appropriate to make a bald statement when it comes to conveying information to your reader about the location of the story. Thus we know from the route taken by the main character not only that the opening of the novel is set in London, but that it is near the Thames, close to where the main character lives (because this is her usual early morning circuit and she refers, in familiar fashion, to ‘St Kit’s’ instead of St Katherine’s Dock.)

The description of the setting does more than merely convey a sense of what it looks like, however. The vapid, dust-strewn waters allow the reader to know the appearance of the canal, but those adjectives – carefully chosen - also give a sense of the desolation, the lifelessness that the main character is feeling as a result of the shock brought on by the death. In the same way, the muted early summer sounds of the river communicate the ‘cut-off, other-worldliness’ feeling that she is experiencing – again, as a result of trauma.

4. WHO IS THE NARRATOR?

It would appear, from the first and second sentences, that we know little about the main character. All that’s made clear at this point is that this is a nameless first person narrator, hence: my absence; and the timing upsets me. The reader might deduce from the reference to this person being upset that the narrator is female; and, from the fact that she clearly runs regularly in the morning, that she is youngish.

Note that the extent of her distress – and hints as to the cause of it - are amplified by the short, staccato sentences at the end of the third paragraph.

“Activity has come easier: planning a funeral – an event that can have no date until the body is released; helping in preliminary enquiries with the police; learning that an Inquest has been opened and adjourned. Keeping on. Keeping going. Feeling in control of a spiralling situation. Or at least kidding myself that I am. The role of grieving mother might not be an everyday occurrence, but it’s one I’ve rehearsed many times in my mind.”

The reader now knows that this is the mother of the deceased, and that the death of her child is not unexpected.

Further down – but still on this important first page – the female identity of the narrator is confirmed, and she is given a name and a hint of status.

“A large brown envelope – on top of the customary wad of junk mail, flyers, and business letters addressed to Mr Richard Lombard – the handwritten scrawl is instantly recognisable as Mark’s. Claire Lombard, it reads. No title, then! No Mrs, or even a despised Ms. As if, even after all these years and the precedent of his own remarriage, Mark is indicating his disdain of mine to Richard.”

The reader now knows that the main character is a Claire Lombard, married to Richard and, crucially, divorced from someone called Mark. In this way, a second, and a third character, are introduced and through one word disdain the idea of conflict continues to be built.

5. HOW IS THE MAIN CHARACTER’S GOAL TO BE ACHIEVED?

A plot in a novel is made up of a series of causes and effects, in which the main characters have goals which they aim to achieve, but which some internal or external influence thwarts. The main character’s goal is barely alluded to at this point of the narrative. But that crucial first paragraph has given a taste of what’s to come.

Claire is ambivalent about the arrival of the Pathology Report. Why? What does she know that the reader doesn’t yet know? What possible difference can it make? she asks – suggesting that she is looking for some way of making a difference but isn’t sure that this is it. Clearly she has already spent some time trying to change something, because she then states: Death brings an end to influence and change. And then, in the last two words of the first paragraph we have it: Doesn’t it?” she asks.

The goal is not clear to the reader at this point, but what is clear by the end of the first page, is that Claire is not satisfied with the influence and change that may or may not have been achieved in the past. She is looking for ways in which she may influence and change the future – even though this will be posthumously!

This, then, is her goal! This is how her storylines will be developed. This is what the whole book is about. Claire is not satisfied with the conclusions brought by the Post Mortem. She is out to influence and change the assumptions that have been made about her daughter’s death.

NEXT TIME

We’ve touched, in this article, on the need to incorporate information with action. In Part 4 of the series, we’ll take a look at Viewpoint, and discover the difference between Showing and Telling.

All Royalties from Mel’s latest novel, A Painful Post Mortem, are for charities benefiting children worldwide. Read reviews here. Buy a copy here and help to raise funds for children like Rachel, who, at 13 is mother to 6 kids orphaned by AIDS, or this project, drug-proofing teenagers in the UK

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