My lifelong habit, when choosing a book to buy, is to pick it up and read the first few pages first. I value this more than the back-cover blurb or the book description on Amazon. That quick look inside (whether it’s in a physical book store or on a platform like Amazon or Kobo) tells me a lot about both the story and the author’s style. I’m either drawn immediately into the story, or I’m not. If the answer is ‘not’, then the author had better do something quickly, or they’ve lost the sale.
YOU NEED TO GIVE ME A REASON TO KEEP READING.
After I’ve read the first page or two, if I like what I’ve seen, I’ll have a quick look at the reviews and the book description. Sometimes the reviews will reflect my feeling that the book will be a good read; sometimes they might complain that the book slows down or that the ending disappoints. If the overwhelming feeling is that the book is a good read, though, I’ll usually buy it.
What can you do to ensure that your book (a) hooks readers upfront and then (b) keeps them turning pages?
- Show that things have changed or are about to change. If there’s something life-shattering that will happen on page 20, don’t waste all of the previous 19 pages in bland scene-setting. Give us a hint of what is to come, even if it’s just showing that the main character is feeling unsettled or scared.
- As quickly as you can, give the reader something to wonder about; some sort of question that they must have answered.
- Give yourself half an hour to write the opening of your story, and then go back and rewrite it so that the reader can’t put the book down without finding out a bit more.
- When you finish the book (knowing what happens at every turning point throughout, and knowing the ending) go back and take a final look at the first page/scene/chapter. Can you rewrite it again to make it even more gripping?
Here’s an example for you. Wendy, a writer I know has released a series of short reads. She’s keeping them fast-paced and entertaining, perfect for her target market of busy mothers.
Here’s the first 150 words or so of Naughty Mummy and the Bad Anniversary, the first book in the series. Note how it gives you an insight into the character and sets the tone for the book, and leaves you wanting to know more.
“Tess, honey, it’s time to wake up. You have to look after the kids.”
I rolled over, opened one eye and stared blearily at my far too energetic husband.
He HAD to be kidding. My body felt as if a derailed train had crashed somewhere in my stomach.
Why had I gone to my high school reunion yesterday? And why had I drunk so much champagne on an empty stomach instead of eating the smorgasbord lunch? I cringed as an image of me insisting the barman create a new cocktail called Motherhood Sucks flashed into my brain.
“I’m going now.” He stroked my hair.
I made a grab for his hand. “You can’t leave me.”
“I have to. I’m getting your surprise ready.”
You can see that a good many young mothers would identify with this situation! Tess’s day is not off to a good start, and we have a sense that it’s not going to get any better. And we’re already wondering: ‘What’s the surprise? And how is this going to go wrong?”
I asked Wendy about her approach to writing a story opening. (It was no surprise to find that it was pretty close to mine!) Her response was:
“When I go to a bookstore, I check out the cover and then I turn to the first page. If it doesn’t hook me, I put it down. Every publisher and every writer’s newsletter tells me the book they’re launching is great, and I’ll love it, but it’s simply not true. I’ve read so many books that promised so much in their blurbs, yet they didn’t deliver. So, when it came to launching my first book in a new series – Naughty Mummy and the Bad Anniversary – I knew the opening had to be good. I wanted women to empathize and identify with the main character: a mother who’s suffering from a hangover after accidentally drinking too much. I love it because I’ve been there. I assume others have been too.”
Here’s another opening, to a book with a completely different tone: Rachel Abbott’s KILL ME AGAIN. The very first sentence grabs the reader’s attention, and the author builds on that until we simply have to keep reading.
It was raining when they came for me. I was staring out of my window watching fat raindrops flow down the glass, streaking across the reflection of my pale face. I was regretting the impetuous decisions I had made — even though at the time they seemed right — and wondering what was going to happen next in my life.
When the knock came at the door, I didn’t even check who it was. I thought I knew. I thought I had been forgiven. I hurried to the door, pulling it wide, smiling to show my visitor how pleased I was to see him.
I knew instantly it wasn’t the person I had been expecting.
That opening hooked me enough to buy the book!
FINAL TIP: Copy and paste the first 250 words of your story into a new document. Now focus just on those 250 words. Make every sentence earn its keep. Ask: “Would this hook the reader’s interest upfront? Does the opening suit the genre and tone of the story? Does it leave the reader wondering?”