You might not know how to create a good narrative hook, but if you’ve ever read a book you ended up finishing, you know the power of being able to motivate the reader into reading onward. Really, once the reader is past the first few pages you’ve passed the first big hump, and you can congratulate yourself on prey well-caught. (but then there’s keeping the prey, but more on that later)
So you’re looking for a great narrative hook. Something that will grab the reader’s attention and force it down into the page until they are unable to look up. They are compelled to finish the story (and, hopefully, buy copies for all of their friends and extended family).
But how do you pull this off? Well, one of the difficulties that presents itself when trying to create a narrative hook is that the reader has no investment in the story in the very beginning. You assume they want to be told a tale (otherwise they wouldn’t have picked up your book), but at the beginning you have no characters that the reader is attached to, no villains that the reader desperately wants dead, and so on. You have no leverage on the reader, so to speak.
In addition, if you can’t manage to draw the reader in within the first couple of pages, they will probably drop your book in favor of some highly-acclaimed series like The Wingfeather Saga. You’ve got to find some way of grabbing your reader’s attention in a viselike grip and keeping it there until the end.
Okay. Let’s start at the basics of reader interest: what kind of things is the reader interested in? Well, the reader likes to hear stories of danger, of battle. Stories of wars, of heists, of high-speed chases, of desperate battles, of rickety relationships, of plucky underdogs pressing their luck. What’s the keyword in all of this activity? Conflict.
Conflict is what motivates your story. It’s what moves characters to act. It makes the world change. Fortunately, it also excites the reader and encourages them to keep reading. But, as I said before, at the very beginning of the book it’s not as if you have this much-beloved character whom the reader is invested in that you can put in danger, because the reader doesn’t know anything about your story yet. You have very little leverage.
As such, you’re going to want to introduce a very simple (but still pressing and dangerous) conflict for a character to deal with early on. Have the book start out in the midst of a great disaster or dangerous battle, and make it clear to the reader what’s happening: there’s a guard lowering his lance to stab the hero, a terrorist draws his weapon and starts toward a group of frightened civilians, enemy fighter jets incinerate a few houses.
You want the reader to think that they’re not wasting their time by reading your book. How can a reader waste their time when there’s obviously something important happening? The main hero, a pirate captain, is about to be hanged, and he’s waiting for his untrustworthy First Mate to break him out of prison only minutes before his execution. Never mind about the dishes! This really matters!
See what I mean? If you can get the reader to say, “this is important right now”, then you’ve got their attention. The more invested they are in the characters, the more the conflict matters to them. If you’re emotionally invested in the charming vigilante pirate who had an abusive father and a rotten childhood, then the conflict that this character undertakes is (in a way) personal for you. It not only matters to the character, it matters to you.
Having this sway over the reader is important. You must convince them that the characters are relatable and interesting and the conflict heavily concerns them, and you must do so within the first couple of pages. It doesn’t matter if the story gets interesting later on: the reader’s never going to get to that part if they get bored with the first couple of pages.
So your goal within the first couple of pages is to do the following: introduce likable, interesting, and relatable main characters into a setting that’s fraught with danger and conflict. Since you can’t resolve the conflict within the first few pages, the reader feels compelled to read on to find out what happens to Captain X (spoiler alert: he’s kidnapped by the Ebon Priests, a dark cult of sorcerers bent on revenge before his first mate is able to save him)
Once you do that, you can launch into the story and start processes of world building, further defining the setting, introduce other characters, and heighten the conflict further. However, once you’ve got the reader, it’s easier to keep your hold on them, but losing your grip is fatal.
The #1 way to keep a hold on your reader is to entertain them with further conflict. Create promises for the future: build on the first thing that got the reader hooked and escalate until you reach a pinnacle of suspense, from with you resolve the story. But once you’ve reached the end, you’ve completed the journey…and so has the reader.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!