Many times the first sentence or paragraph is the deciding factor between a sale or a rejection letter. Editors are very busy and if you don't grab them right from the start, more than likely a rejection letter will be coming your way. After all, if you can't get the editor's attention, how is your story going to catch the attention of the readers?
The start of your story or article is called the hook...and that is just what it has to do. Hook the reader and drag her into the story. It does this by causing the reader to ask questions and continue to read until those questions are answered. That's a pretty big job for just a sentence or paragraph so let's look at what it takes to make a good hook.
Many times a hook starts with action. Whether waking up on a runaway train or finding that dead body we are left with questions. What is our character doing on the train, why is the train out of control, where is train going? Or who is the body, who killed the person, who is the person who found the body....and just what happened to begin with? A great hook leaves us wanting more.
Other hooks start with the character doing something interesting. The character is one of the things remembered most about stories. Making the reader care about your character is a sure way to draw them into the story. Give the character a problem to solve, a seeming impossible goal or unusual dilemma and readers will stay around to cheer.
Catchy dialogue is another way to grab attention. Why is your character yelling "freeze" or begging the old lady to take care of her baby? Once again, the reader wants to know and this will draw them into the story.
The best hook in my opinion is a combination of these. Here is an example.
He’s coming...go faster. Carly checked the rearview mirror, gave the aging Caviler more gas. The engine coughed, hesitated then settled into a smooth hum. The car skidded around the curve then straightened out. She checked the rearview mirror again and fastened her seatbelt. “I’ll be gone for Christmas.” she sang along with the radio. Headlights approached from behind, she held her breath, clenched the steering wheel. Please don’t let it be him. The car turned off leaving her in darkness. She sighed and wiped her palms on the jacket in the next seat. Gotta go, gotta go she repeated in time with the windshield wipers. She brushed a strand of hair back from her eyes and flinched. Carly flipped down visor, opened the mirror and gazed at the reflection of a stranger.
We have dialogue in the form of thought. Who is coming? Why is he coming? Where is he coming from and where is she going? These are just a few of the questions we can come up with.
We also have action. The car skids around a curve, headlights approach from behind, the windshield wipers are doing their job. But what is causing our character to drive in this manner?
Now, our character. We can tell right away she is probably afraid. She has an interesting sense of humor since even in a trying time she sings along with the radio. As she repeats the phrase 'gotta go' we see she is obsessed with putting some distance between her and whoever or whatever she left behind. Again, we are left with more why questions we want the answer to. When she flinches after brushing her hair back we wonder why. How did she get hurt...we start to care about her. And that keeps us reading to see what happens. And that is exactly what a hook is supposed to do.
Now for your homework. Grab your favorite book off the shelf and check out its hook. When you are at the bookstore, spend a few minutes browsing and check out the hooks. Consider the opening line and paragraph. Do they make you want to read further? Study them, make some notes, see what works and what doesn't.
A great hook won't guarantee an acceptance letter but it sure cuts down on your chances of receiving the dreaded rejection one.