Monday, June 14, 2010

Hooking the Reader: How Rowling and Others Pulled It Off

In an effort to understand the art of hooking the reader, I decided to take a peek at a cross-section of authors in my library to see how they managed those first few lines.

I'm interested in seeing if they have anything in common, what magic they bring to the page, and perhaps if they can inspire some direction for those of us who are struggling with revising that first chapter. Just so you know, I didn't have any strategy in picking these authors. I just grabbed some books off the shelf that I knew held my attention.

For time constraints, I'm just including the first few lines. As a note, some of these books have prologues or a note to the reader in the voice of the book's character. I'm going to include that because that's the first encounter a reader has with the book.

First up, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. This one begins with a note to the reader from the point of view of the main character:

The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper. Recently, however, a shock of sorts has prompted me to look back over the most troubling episodes of my life and the lives of several people I loved best. This is the story of how as a girl of sixteen I went in search of my father and his past, and how he went in search of his beloved mentor and his mentor's own history, and of how we all found ourselves on one of the darkest pathways into history.

This is pretty much straight up narrative and sets up what will be an epic (and I do mean epic; this book is 642 pages long) story. But it's very intriguing. Check out what is happening in those sentences—she never intended to tell the following story, so we already know that this is a letting out of a secret. Then Kostova uses words such as "shock" and "troubling" to give little hints as to what may be in store, pumping up the premise with "one of the darkest pathways into history." Not "in" history but "into." Interesting word choice.

There's no dialogue or action.

Next up is Aldous Huxley's Brave New WorldI'm going to include some of his foreward and his first chapter.

Foreward: Chronic remorse, as all moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

And the first chapter:
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, Community, Identity, Stability.

I'll admit, I haven't picked up Huxley since I probably had to write a report about him in high school. It's fascinating coming back to it as an adult. In the foreward, we get a sort of reminiscence from someone who is trying to move past something that happened, something he is responsible for? Trying to justify it? And what a fantastic visual sentence, "Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean."

His first chapter begins with a world-building that is immediately intriguing. What is a hatchery and conditioning center? Who is the World State? In those first two sentences he raises a ton of "what-if's" that keep reeling the reader in.

Let's turn now to J.K. Rowling. Whether you are a Potter fan or not, when you consider what these first few sentences launched, it's worth looking at how she did it. From Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Again, this starts with narrative, and it isn't until the third paragraph that Rowling starts any action. Yet she sets up a premise here from which seven novels and a world so enchanting they actually built a theme park around it. Worth taking note. She doesn't start in the middle of a spell or a fight with a dragon or the Great Hall of Hogwarts. She starts with a very ordinary suburb, in a family that wants, above all, to fit in, and twists it. I like how she puts the "thank you very much" on the end of that first sentence. It gives a nice flavor to the Dursley's personalities.

Finally, I'll end with  Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie:

It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness.

Bradley doesn't mess around; he drops the reader right into some major conflict (as we perceive it). The first line is quite a simile. Old blood? It's jarring. In the next line we understand this person is in captivity, and in the next line she's trying not to panic. Because of that first line, it's as if the reader is in there as well, seeing nothing, confined. So there is a vested interest in seeing if this person gets out. It certainly kept me reading.

So what is the common thread from these very different authors in how they started their stories? For me, I'm seeing how they kept crafting the those "what-ifs" and spinning them out. Each sentence works hard, but there is also a great variety in how the stories are launched, some of them breaking "rules" that get hammered at us writers as no-no's: telling, prologues, internal monologues, etc. But it's the way that they are handled that makes them intriguing.

What about you? What do you notice in them? What books do you think have a great beginning?


  1. Interesting post and great examples! Thanks. I'll have to consider the great beginnings I've remembered. Have a great day.

  2. Thanks! It was interesting to see the variety and how many of them actually didn't use dialogue or action. Hope your Monday goes well!

  3. I like opening lines that catch my attention and pull me into the story so that I don't want to put the book down.

  4. Helen - I totally hear that. And the best books just keep pulling me in. :)

  5. Are these all books you enjoyed or just memorable openings? I somehow got through school without reading Brave New World so I bought that today (only $2.39 on Kindle baby!) and you know how much I love the HP series, but I was unfamiliar with the other two titles. I'm always looking for a good read.

  6. Olivia-I just remember them being books that I really enjoyed and they kind of stuck out when I glanced at my bookshelf. Of all the books I read in high school, I think Brave New World was one of the more disturbing ones. I enjoyed The Historian and Alan Bradley's. Bradley's protagonist is only 11, so that made for a really interesting book, but it isn't a kid's book. He has a great point of view.

  7. Graham Greene's Brighton Rock has that great opening line which informs the reader that 'Hal knew they were going to kill him..."

  8. Eeleen- That sounds really intriguing! I'll have to check that one out. Thanks!

  9. Great post - much food for thought.

  10. Great variety in your choices to illustrate your point. I'm especially intrigued by your insight that each one kept crafting the "what-ifs" and spinning them out.

    It's also a great reminder that "breaking the rules" often works very well.

  11. Cathryn-
    Thank you! I just chose books that I remember grabbing my attention, so there was no rhyme or reason to it at all. And yes, if you really, really know what you are doing, I think you can break most rules. Thanks for your comment!

  12. Spent an hour dipping into first chapters of YA books and noticed how the ones that clicked succeeded in dropping you right into the emotion/tension of the story. They assumed the reader was already 'there' by not spelling things out in detail. This drew you in and made you feel part of the story.

  13. Great point, Jonathan! And I do wonder if different beginnings work better for different genres.