Thursday, January 24, 2013

How to Hook Your Reader on the First Page, Part I

If you follow literary agent Jennifer Udden on Twitter, you probably took notice of her little #millionqueries adventure the other day-- she live Tweeted her reactions and judgments on the queries she was receiving, including little tips on what was being done wrong or right (if you didn’t follow along, check out her blog about it here). The main thing I noticed about her reasons for rejecting projects was that she often said she wasn’t hooked by the first few pages. We all know how crucially important our first five or ten pages are when it comes time to find an agent; it’s often what they use to make a decision on whether or not they are interested in the work. If they’re not hooked, pulled in, grabbed, or otherwise arrested, you get a nice little form rejection and a blow to your self-esteem in your inbox.
I recently read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, which is jam-packed with fortune-cookie sized bits of advice for writers and other creators. In the first chapter, he recommends constructing a “genealogy of ideas,” i.e., decide whose work you admire, collect and study it, then find that person’s influences and collect and study them, and so on. Steal from your favorite authors, everyone. If you’re a fan of their work, not only are they doing something right, they’re probably doing something close to what you would like to do. With this in mind, I decided to examine the first page of a few of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi novels to see what I could learn about writing that killer hook. I found so many great things to talk about that I decided to make this a two-part blog post. So here’s the first round:

First line: “I hope you’re reading this, Mark.”
With the first six words, you know that this book is not addressed to you. It’s a journal addressed to Mark. It’s incredibly important to teach the audience how to read your book within the first paragraph or so, and this book pulls it off in the first line.
The rest of the first page juxtaposes the very normal teenager-y moment of the main character’s first kiss with the girl he’s been crushing on and the intense experience of getting “jacked across the universe” to a distant, unknown planet in the midst of war. Instantly, I have multiple things to pay attention to and an honest, interesting narrator. I’m sold. 

2. Sunshine by Robin McKinley
First line: “It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb.”
This is one of my favorite first lines of all time. It sounds a little silly out of context, but it quickly introduces you to the voice of Sunshine, the protagonist and first-person narrator. Of course, as soon as you read it, you’re wondering what the dumb thing was and why it wasn’t that dumb.
And here’s the kicker: you don’t find out on the first page. There’s a vague reference to a lake, and then Sunshine takes the tale back to the beginning, talking about the coffeehouse where she works and her family’s Monday night movie tradition. Ever hear about that technique where you snatch something from later in your novel and frontload it to build suspense? That’s what is going on here, on a much smaller scale.

First line: “Each year, at the end of March, a great fair was held in Cría, the capital of Galla.”
What's great about Tamora Pierce’s novels is that she sets them in very rich worlds, but doesn’t bore you with long descriptions of geography and customs and history. She lays down little hints along the way that gradually create a world that feels familiar and natural.
The weird thing about this first page is that, while the whole book is in third person, it starts in the point of view of Onua, who is meeting the actual main character, Daine, for the first time. This is an interesting choice because the first look we get at Daine is through Onua’s eyes. While risky, it’s an easy way to describe a 13-year-old, who is unlikely to have accurate, honest self-knowledge. I don’t know that I would try beginning in the POV of a secondary character-- I think that belongs more to the realm of the experienced writer.

First line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
This is my absolute favorite first line, hands down, no contest. I get the shivers every time I hear it. It’s on the wall above my desk. In that short sentence, you know exactly what is happening, and yet you have a million questions. Who are the man in black and the gunslinger? Why is the man fleeing and the gunslinger following? What desert, and why? Introducing major dramatic questions in the first few pages is critical; introducing them in the first line is a major achievement.
The first page launches into a description of the desert and the gunslinger’s journey. A useful thing to note is the handful of made-up words-- devil-grass, bucka, khef, Manni-- that let us know instantly that we are not in our own world. This is another instance of teaching the reader how to approach the novel and what to expect from it: the meaning of unfamiliar words is not always spoon-fed in the Dark Tower series and must be deduced from context clues. 

First line: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
Brilliant, this. The Dursleys are pompous and absurd, and that snippy little “thank you very much” says it all.
This is another novel with a first page focusing on people other than the protagonist. Again, if you’re J. K. Rowling, you can pull off describing the most boring and annoying people on the planet in your first few paragraphs, because you end it with “...they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.” Suddenly, the Dursleys become fascinating, and we want very badly for their secret to ruin them because we know people just like them whom we would very much like to ruin.

First line: “The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective.”
Bam. That’s called beginning in media res: starting your book in the middle of the action instead of sitting everyone down for tea and exposition. There’s time for that later, through flashback and conversation. But for an action-packed novel like this one, in media res is often the way to go.
The rest of the page has Max describing her escape from “the School.” Max is a very conversational, first-person narrator; a badass who knows she’s badass and is not afraid to tell you about it. You get this from the very first page, where she’s running from evil mutants and ignoring the pain caused by rocks and briars in her path. Here, Patterson does a great job of jumping into the action and introducing his protagonist at the same time.

I hope this has been as helpful to you as it has been to me! Tune in next time for analyses of first pages from Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Richard Adams, Clive Barker, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Diana Wynne Jones!

1 comment:

  1. This will probably get you some traffic for some time to come.