Many of us think we can measure success in writing by sales, but any number of factors can impact your book sales that don’t have to do with your writing. You are a writer. Your job as a writer is not to sell units of books — that’s the job of the publisher and the bookstore. Your job as a writer is to keep the reader reading.
Keep her reading the next word, sentence, page, and chapter despite all the distractions she has in her life competing for her attention.
A Great Beginning
A great beginning does three things well: It grabs the reader’s attention with a hook, it makes an implicit promise to the reader about what’s to come and it establishes the writer or narrator’s authority to be the best at telling this story.
I’ve written about how to grab the reader’s attention here in “Four Ways to Grab the Reader’s Attention in the First Sentence.”
Once you have your readers’ attention, you need to keep it. This is where the hook comes in. You will never catch a fish if you just throw delicious worms in the water without a hook.
Many writers misunderstand the hook in writing. They mistake the flash and awe of a hot, surprising or shocking first sentence as the hook. That’s not the hook, that’s the worm. That’s what grabs your readers attention but not what keeps it.
Without a hook to sink into the readers’ imagination, she will soon get distracted and move on to something else. Many writers think it is enough to display their lyrical language or to just barrel into the story with authority because the reader must be as interested in the story as the writer. This is a mistake. Most readers aren’t going to be as impressed with a writer’s fancy word-work as the writer himself, and unless we have an idea of what is coming, we may feel indifferent about any given story.
The best way to hook a reader is the same as the best way to hook anyone on any subject: make a promise. Fulfilling the promise is the payoff. If the payoff is something the reader wants, she will keep reading to collect it. A promise between writers and reader might look like this:
If you keep reading, I promise I will
- Take you on an adventure
- Let you in on a secret
- Give access to something no one else
- Make you feel excited
- Surprise you
- Tell you why everything is different now
- Turn you on
- Introduce you to someone you will love
- Or, someone you will hate!
The promise is implied. You tease and tempt with the promise. The promise should hint at the overall conflict and the payoff.
For example, in A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, a town is irrevocably changed by an event that happens at a local church. Addie, the narrator in the first chapter begins by looking at a storefront and reminiscing about how the store and by extension the town has changed over the years.
“I sat there in the car with the gravel dust blowing across the parking lot and saw the place for what it was, not what it was right at that moment in the hot sunlight, but for what it had been maybe twelve or fifteen years before: a real general store with folks gathered around the lunch counter, a line of people at the soda fountain, little children ordering ice cream of just about every flavor you could think of, hard candy by the quarter pound, moon pies and crackerjack and other things I hadn’t thought about tasting in years. And if I’d closed my eyes I could’ve seen what the building had been forty or fifty years before that, back when I was a young woman: a screen door slamming shut, oil lamps lit and sputtering black smoke, dusty horses hitched to the posts out front where the iceman unloaded every Wednesday afternoon, the last stop o his route before he headed up out of the holler, the bed of his truck an inch deep with cold water. Back before Carson Chambliss came and took down the advertisements and yanked out the old hitching posts and put up that non-yellow newspaper in the front windows to keep folks from looking in. All the way back before him and the deacons had wheeled out the broken coolers on a dolly, filled the linoleum with rows of folding chairs and electric floor fans that blew the heat up in your face. If I’d kept my eyes closed I couldn’ve seen all this lit by the dim light of a memory like a match struck in a cave where the sun can’t reach, but because I stared out through my windshield and heard the cars and trucks whipping by on the road behind me, I could see now that it wasn’t nothing but a simple concrete block building, and, except for the sign out by the road, you couldn’t tell it was a church. and that was exactly how Carson Chambliss wanted it.” Quoted from A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash
Right off the bat, we know that there has been a significant change. Something has happened that has changed this building, and this town and it was the direct result of one person’s will: Carson Chambliss.
The implied promise is, “I promise I will tell you what Carson Chambliss did to change this building. I promise to tell you what went on in secret behind the newspaper coverings on the windows. If you keep reading, you will know everything I know.”
The last promise is the promise of the narrator’s authority to tell this story which I cover in this article, “How to Establish Authority and Gain the Reader’s Trust.”
In Fight Club, which I won’t quote because we’ve all read it, (right!?) Palahniuk grabs our attention with shock and violence and by dropping us into the middle of the action. The narrator has a gun in his mouth placed there by his friend, or ex-best friend, Tyler. They are standing on top of a building that “won’t be here in ten minutes.”
The promise is “I promise I will tell you how I survived a. having a gun in my mouth b. getting off this building before it is demolished in ten minutes, c. how things changed so much that my former best friend now has a gun in my mouth and how I know so much about guns and explosives.”
There are probably more micro promises in there. It is such a gripping and compelling beginning. There are multiple things at stake for the narrator and the stakes are so high, the highest — life or death. It’s almost impossible to be dropped right into such a high-intensity moment, with so much at stake, so many promises for answers and with the insider perspective of this story being told by the man who lived it himself and not read on.
Again, the author grabs our attention, promises to deliver something we want and establishes the narrator is the authority we can trust.
Fight Club has got to be one of the best books written and it’s easy to see why.
If you want to hear me talk about writing a successful beginning, listen to my podcast “Write Naked Die Famous: On Beginnings“.