As promised, I compiled a list of opening scenes that successfully hooked me in recent years. These are books I either did or would spend money to read based on the opening pages. I haven’t finished them all—I generally have multiple books in progress—but the opening scenes and sample chapters hooked me enough to shell out money for the rest of the book.
In compiling this list, I further refined the concept of using urgency to hook readers in the opening pages. The urgency that compels me to keep reading arises from a need to get somewhere. It can be a character’s need to reach a destination, either physical or metaphorical—safety, justice, love, conquest, information, etc. Or it can be my own need as the reader—to achieve understanding, solve a mystery, explore an imaginary world, resolve an emotional issue vicariously through the characters, etc.
Author and writer C.S. Lakin, who is currently doing a blog series on first pages, explains it thusly:
To make a brain go into alert mode, some mystery or element of danger, or the incongruous, must cross its path.
With that concept in mind, the following are hooks that worked for me:
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, by Matt Bell:
BEFORE OUR FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.
In the hasty days that followed, I feared we moved in too fast and too early, the house’s furnishings still incomplete, the doors not all right-hinged—and in response to my worries my wife said that was no trouble, that she could quickly finish what I had mostly made.
Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before. I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired. We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared—the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child—and when the earliest signs of my wife’s first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration.
The voice is strong. The prose is clean and clear, yet distinctive, and pleasing in pace, structure and lyricism. It inspires confidence in the author.
A potential destination has already been suggested: the birth of a baby. Obstacles have been presented: the encounter with the bear, the struggles to furnish their home. Complex and potentially dark emotional dynamics have been presented: the point-of-view character has failed to complete the necessary preparations; his pregnant wife has had to take over the lead role; yet he still speaks of having “given her” their shared dreams. There is an implication in the wording of the last line that later stages of the pregnancy will not be attended with the same joy and celebration.
All of this is interesting. My “spidey sense” is tingling in wariness of an emotionally charged and possibly disturbing tale to come. Because the writing is so strong, I feel confident the author knows how to deliver that tale.
I have not read past these three paragraphs. Based solely on their strength, I would pay money for the rest of the book—if magical realism were one of my genres. It happens not to be (I only got the sample chapter because a friend and fellow writer is reading the book) so for now this remains on my maybe list.
The Martian, by Andy Weir:
LOG ENTRY: SOL 6
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.
For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them.
This opening doesn’t merely foreshadow a coming challenge—it opens smack in the thick of one. An urgent destination has already been presented: the POV narrator needs to get unfucked. We already know some of his obstacles: he is stranded alone in a location so isolated no one will find his records for a hundred years—and everyone thinks he is dead. That’s pretty dire.
I also liked the clean, confident prose and voice, both of which made me want to spend more time inside this character’s head. Based on the sample chapter, I bought the book. I haven’t finished it, but only because I ended up seeing the movie first.
The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker:
We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.
We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Second beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.
But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big-rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick.
Again, we have the urgency presented up front. There is a disaster of some sort. It has to do with hours not pooling into days. It is like “a tumor blooming beneath the skin.” That sounds bad. Plus it’s mysterious. I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s so horrific my mind has never contemplated the possibility.
I also like the prose. I don’t think it’s perfect—do seconds really “bead” into minutes?—but I do think it’s some of the best. And from a first time novelist! I loved the imagery of the night workers, tuned in to the hours of darkness, somehow perceiving an impending disaster before everyone else.
I bought and finished this book, and will check out any future novels by this author.
The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison:
Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.
“Cousin? What…” He sat up rubbing at his eyes with one had. “What time is it?”
“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”
“Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”
“Get they clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”
“A message from my father?”
“Is’t not what I said? Merciful goddesses, boy, canst do nothing for thyself? Here!”
What hooked me was the way they talked. What’s toward? Is’t not what I said? Canst do nothing for thyself? I wanted to keep reading just to “hear” more of that.
Notice that the language was set in an urgent scene. Setheris is snarling. Maia is fumbling. There is an absent father. A messenger has arrived, creating a stir in the household not unlike a fire.
This immediate urgency combined with the pleasing manner of speech kept me reading to the end of the sample chapter, by which a point destination had been announced, obstacles presented, and conflict demonstrated. Based on the sample chapter, I bought the book and finished it quickly.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel:
THE KING STOOD in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene. The king stumbled and reached for them as they flitted here and there in the shadows. His name was Arthur Leander. He was fifty-one years old and there were flowers in his hair.
“Dost thou know me?” the actor playing Gloucester asked.
“I remember thine eyes well enough,” Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.
“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” he said, and not only was this the wrong line but the delivery was wheezy, his voice barely audible.
I bolded the line that hooked me. This is an interesting example, because it may have succeeded due to my own ignorance. Having never seen or read King Lear, I didn’t know if there were supposed to be centaurs (I also had no idea what the book itself was about). I read into that line that something otherwordly might be occurring, and it gave me chills. Enough to keep reading the sample chapter, which maintained the lyrical, otherwordly undertones, lending an almost mystical atmosphere to what were seemingly ordinary surroundings.
I loved the first chapter, loved the book, and it is now one of my all-time favorites.
Now, there was an immediate, dire emergency occurring by the end of the fourth paragraph of the book. But it was not occurring to the POV character of that chapter. Another, different thread of urgency pulled me along. That was the sense of being on the brink of something uncanny, potentially disturbing about to occur; something that made you tense and overcome with the beauty of things all at the same time, reluctant to continue but lured onward by the beautiful writing.
Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer:
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little further down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.
I bolded the elements that hooked me. A potential destination has been presented: the resolution of the expedition. An obstacle has been foreshadowed: the impending threat no one sees. Mysteries have been revealed: a tower that is not supposed to be there; an untroubled landscape called Area X that has been abandoned for decades for strange reasons.
Based on those hooks, and the clean prose, I finished the sample chapter. It had a certain similarity to Station Eleven’s first chapter, in that nothing outwardly awful happened—yet it managed to leave me tense and disturbed with the sense of impending horror. Can’t stop reading and can’t bear to go on.
This isn’t one of my usual genres. Actually, I’m not even sure how to characterize the genre—speculative horror, I guess?—but it’s not one of my usuals, however we slice it. I still bought the book. I had to read it with all the lights on. Even then, it was hard to go on sometimes. Yet I finished it in two nights.
And I LOVED it.
I have also read the second in the series (the third is downloaded and waiting). I am fascinated by these books. The prose is powerful and has some of the same lyrical graces as Mandel’s. Beyond that, VanderMeer does two things so skillfully I can’t wrap my mind around the level of talent. He shows, without telling, nuances of psychological and interpersonal dynamics that turn every interaction between the characters, however seemingly mundane, into riveting story elements. And he imparts a near overwhelming sense of psychological disturbance without resorting to anything overtly gory or horrific.
Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman:
I remember being born.
In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sounds enfolded me and I was safe.
Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.
I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.
My mother left me a complicated and burdensome inheritance. My father hid the dreadful details from everyone, including me. He moved us back to Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, and picked up his law practice where he had dropped it. He invented a more acceptable grade of dead wife for himself. I believed in her like some people believe in Heaven.
I was a finicky baby; I wouldn’t suckle unless the wet nurse sang exactly on pitch. “It has a discriminating ear,” observed Orma, a tall, angular acquaintance of my father’s who came over often in those days. Orma called me “it” as if I were a dog; I was drawn to his aloofness, the way cats gravitate toward people who’d rather avoid them.
He accompanied us to the cathedral one spring morning, where the young priest anointed my wispy hair with lavender oil and told me that in the eyes of Heaven I was as a queen. I bawled like any self-respecting baby; my shrieks echoed up and down the nave. Without bothering to look up from the work he’d brought with him, my father promised to bring me up piously in the faith of Allsaints. The priest handed me my father’s psalter and I dropped it, right on cue. It fell open at the picture of St. Yirtrudis, whose face had been blacked out.
The priest kissed his hand, pinkie raised. “Your psalter still contains the heretic!”
“It’s a very old psalter,” said Papa, not looking up, “and I hate to maim a book.”
“We advise the bibliophilic faithful to paste Yirtrudis’s pages together so this mistake can’t happen.” The priest flipped a page. “Heaven surely meant St. Capiti.”
Papa muttered something about superstitious fakery, just loud enough for the priest to hear. There followed a fierce argument between my father and the priest, but I don’t remember it. I was gazing, transfixed, at a procession of monks passing through the nave. They padded by in soft shoes, a flurry of dark, whispering robes and clicking beads, and took their places in the cathedral’s quire. Seats scraped and creaked; several monks coughed.
They began to sing.
The cathedral, reverberating with masculine song, appeared to expand before my eyes. The sun gleamed through the high windows; gold and crimson bloomed upon the marble floor. The music buoyed my small form, filled and surrounded me, made me larger than myself. It was the answer to a question I had never asked, the way to fill the dread emptiness into which I had been born. I believed—no, I knew I could transcend the vastness and touch the vaulted ceiling with my hand.
I tried to do it.
My nurse squealed as I nearly squirmed out of her arms. She gripped me by the ankle at an awkward angle. I stared dizzily at the floor; it seemed to tilt and spin.
My father took me up, long hands around my fat torso, and held me at arm’s length as if he had discovered an oversized and astonishing frog. I met his sea-gray eyes; they crinkled sadly at the corners.
The priest stormed off without blessing me. Orma watched him disappear around the end of the Golden House, then said, “Claude, explain this. Did he leave because you convinced him his religion is a sham? Or was he … what’s that one called? Offended?”
I bolded the hooks. The opening paragraphs about music from the time before birth were enough to draw me in initially.
Then there are touches of humor: Orma calling our POV character “it;” her being drawn to him like a cat; her father inventing a better grade of dead wife; the priest purporting to improve on Heaven’s intent.
There are mysteries presented: Why does she remember the time before birth? Why does Orma call her “it?” Why does he seem unfamiliar with the concept of “offended?” What is the complicated and burdensome inheritance from the mother? What did Yirtrudis do to earn the priest’s disfavor?
There are also hints of obstacles: the emptiness inside; a dead mother and distracted fatherr; a hidden past; religious conflict.
The scene in the cathedral intrigued me. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but there were elements that stimulated me—saints and heretics, superficial piety, intellectual honesty–and I wanted to know more.
I prefer bold, confident world-building where the author does not feel the need to explain or justify it. She just believes in it so strongly the reader can figure it out from the vivid details; no explanation required. This book was like that.
Arguably there is not a lot of urgency in the opening pages. Nevertheless, several strains of mild urgency combined to draw me along: wanting to figure out the mysteries; wanting to understand the world; the character’s need to fill the emptiness inside with music; my vicarious indignation on behalf of the fallen saint Yirtrudis and the character’s distracted but intellectually honest father.
I bought this book and LOVED it. There’s a sequel called Shadow Scale that I own but have not yet read.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth E. Wein:
I AM A COWARD.
I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers–and even though I am a girl, they always let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, i know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.
The writing is clean and confident. The voice is strong and clear, but anguished. The narrator is in some dire situation in which she has given up resistance. What happened to make her do that? What deal did she make? I would have to keep reading to find out. Bonus points that there’re apparently Scottish people involved and I’m going to get historical information about WW2.
This book is also not one of my usual genres. It has a bit of a “girl power” vibe that isn’t my usual thing. I loved it nonetheless. The fascinating illustration of what it was like to be a British pilot—and a female pilot—during WW2 will stay with me forever. I was moved to write a (positive) review, and bought this book for someone else as a gift.
Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey:
Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a short-fallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.
It is hard for me to resent my parents, although I envy them their naïveté. No one even told them, when I was born, that they gifted me with an ill-luck name. Phèdre, they called me, neither one knowing that it is a Hellene name, and cursed.
When I was born, I daresay they still had reason for hope. My eyes, scarce open, were yet of indeterminate color, and the appearance of a newborn babe is a fluid thing, changing from week to week. Blonde wisps may give way to curls of jet, the pallor of birth deepen to a richness like amber, and so on. But when my series of amniotic sea-changes were done, the thing was obvious.
I was flawed.
It is not, of course, that I lacked beauty, even as a babe. …
No, the problem was elsewhere.
To be sure, it was my eyes; and not even the pair of them, but merely the one.
Such a small thing on which to hinge such a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. …
And it shone red, and indeed, red is a poor word for the color it shone. Scarlet, call it, or crimson; redder than a rooster’s wattles or the glazed apple in a pig’s mouth.
Thus did I enter the world, with an ill-luck name and a pinprick of blood emblazoned in my gaze.
My mother was Liliane de Souverain, an adept of Jasmine House, and her line was ancient in the service of Naamah. My father was another matter, for he was the third son of a merchant prince and, alas, the acumen that raised his father to emeritus status in the City of Elua was spent in the seed that produced his elder brothers. For all three of us would have been better served had his passions led him to the door of another House; Bryony, perhaps, whose adepts are trained in financial cunning.
But Pierre Cantrel had a weak head and strong passions, so when coin swelled the purse at his belt and seed filled to bursting the purse between his legs, it was to Jasmine House, indolent and sensual, that he hied himself.
And there, of course, betwixt the ebb tide in his wits and the rising tide in his loins, he lost his heart in the bargain.
Again, I bolded the parts that hooked. The prose is bold, distinct and sensual; the voice haughty yet defensive; and the world intriguing. What’s a cuckoo’s child? What does it mean to be House-born? What is the Night Court? What are adepts?
I would have to keep reading to find out.
Plus, there’s a child involved, one that is cursed, flawed, and marked—born of star-crossed lovers. It’s not clear yet what the destination is or precisely what form the obstacles will take. But the girl’s need to overcome her curse and my need to solve the mysteries (and keep reading that prose) was enough to draw me in.
This was the first book I read by Carey. I thereafter finished the whole Kushiel’s Dart trilogy, two more trilogies set in the same world, and a handful of her other books. I also recommended them to a good friend who liked them as much as I did.
Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones:
Polly sighed and laid her book face down on her bed. She rather thought she had read it after all, some time ago. Before she swung her feet across to get on with her packing, she looked up at the picture above the bed. She sighed again. There had been a time, some years back, when she had gazed at that picture and thought it marvellous. Dark figures had seemed to materialise out of its dark centre—strong, running dark figures—always at least four of them, racing to beat out the flames in the foreground. There had been times when you could see the figures quite clearly. Other times, they had been shrouded in the rising smoke. There had even been a horse in it sometimes. Not now.
Here, now, she could see it was simply a large colour photograph, three feet by two feet, taken at dusk, of some hay bales burning in a field. The fire must have been spreading, since there was smoke in the air, and more smoke enveloping the high hemlock plant in the front, but there were no people in it. The shapes she used to take for people were only too clearly dark clumps of the dark hedge behind the blaze. … It was called Fire and Hemlock. She sighed again as she swung her feet to the floor. The penalty of being grown up was that you saw things like this photograph as they really were. And Granny would be in any minute to point out that Mr. Perks and Fiona were not going to wait while she did her packing tomorrow morning—and Granny would have things to say about feet on the bedspread. …
Her hand knocked the book. Polly did not get up after all. And books put down on their faces, spoiling them, Granny would say. It’s only a paperback, Granny. It was called Times out of Mind, editor L. Perry, and it was a collection of supernatural stories. Polly had been attracted to it a couple of years back, largely because the picture on the cover was not unlike the Fire and Hemlock photograph—dusky smoke, with a dark blue umbrella-like plant against the smoke. And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet—here was an odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it. And, surely, hadn’t one of the stories actually been called “Fire and Hemlock” too?
Polly picked the book up, with her finger in it to keep the place in the story she was reading. “Two-timer” it was called, and it was about someone who went back in time to his own childhood and changed things, so that his life ran differently the second time. She remembered the ending now. The man finished by having two sets of memories, and the story wasn’t worked out at all well. Polly did not worry when she lost her place in it as she leafed through looking for the one she thought had been called “Fire and Hemlock.” Odd. It wasn’t there. … Odder still. Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there—and yet she did, very clearly, remember reading all the stories which seemed to be in the book now. For a moment she almost felt like the man in “Two-timer” with his double set of memories. What a madly detailed dream she must have had. Polly found her place in the story again, largely because the pages were spread apart there, and stopped in the act of putting the book face down on her rumpled bedspread.
Was it Granny who minded you putting books down like this? Granny didn’t read much anyway.
“And why should I feel so worried about it?” Polly asked aloud. “And where’s my other photo—the one I stole?”
A frantic sense of loss came upon her, so strong that for a moment she could have cried.
There were several hooks for me here. The first was prose that managed to be conversational without being muddled. It got bonus points for being in British dialect.
The second was the mystery-imbued illustration of what it is like to imagine significance into a treasured childhood possession (the picture) and then suffer the nostalgic loss as its power fades with maturity.
Then we get a repeat of the conversational prose, as Polly imagines her grandmother lecturing her not to stretch the spine of the book by laying it down open-faced.
Then comes the coup de grace:
An alternate timeline?! False memories?!
Chills! I’m in. I’m buying. I don’t even have to finish the sample chapter.
But as if we needed more, Diana Wynne Jones delivers the urgency: Polly’s frantic sense of a loss so profound she suddenly must weep.
This is another one of my all-time favorites. I was obsessed with this book after I finished it, as evidenced by this marathon post about the ending (don’t click if you don’t want spoilers!).
This and some of the other examples above illustrate the point from my previous post: there is a strong correlation between loving the opening pages and loving the book. It’s not an absolute 1:1 correlation—I have loved books that did not hook at first and hated books that did—but it is very strong.
And that is why so many in the industry insist on hooks in the first pages.
Not every book will hit the mark as hard as these authors did. The goal is to incorporate as many of their elements as possible. Strong, clean prose. Unique voice. Rich worlds. Mysteries. Urgent destinations. In my own future writing endeavors, I plan to use C.S. Lakin’s First Page Checklist as a reference.
Feel free to share in the comments examples of hooks that worked for you