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How to Hook Your Readers

June 14, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 8, 2010

Remember the musical number from Gypsy, “Gotta Get a Gimmick”? The strippers advised Gypsy Rose Lee that to be successful, she’d need a gimmick, something eye-catching that would grab the attention of audience members.

Writers likewise need attention-attracting elements to steer the focus of their readers to the story in their hands (and keep it there).

Books compete with TV, computers, movies, hand-held devices and who-knows-what-else for attention. If your book’s opening doesn’t capture the reader, doesn’t draw her into your tale, you’re going to lose her. (Cover art and cover blurbs also need to do their part, but those items we’ll leave for another discussion.)

So, how do you entice your reader to stay with your book?

You hook her, engage her with an incident from the life of your lead character.

No, you don’t need to shoot someone or blow up a building and have your lead save someone from burning to death (even though those scenes work for action movies), but you do need to make the reader pay attention.

Consider events from your own life. When you get home at night, do you tell your spouse about the ordinary moments from your day or do you share those stand-out moments? I’m guessing it’s the departure from the normal that you share. You may even embellish the events or the emotions to make those moments more involving for your spouse.

That’s the same kind of incident you want to start with to open your novel.

Only, you don’t want to report the incident later in the day. You want to drop your reader into the action while it’s happening so she gets a real-time experience. Let her feel the emotions. Get her interested, as if she were the character going through the incident.

Not so much a gimmick, then, but a proven technique to plop the reader into the action.

This is the time for showing, not telling. This is the time for action or emotion or dialogue to move front and center and for description and exposition and back story to move out of the frame.

Open with dialogue—an exchange that sets up the events to follow or dumps us straight into a character’s motivation.

Open with action. A character on the phone, a character in a bed (alone) and thinking on her life, a character driving alone at night (and thinking on her life), a character wandering the woods (alone and thinking on her life), is not the most exciting starting place for a story.

Open with an incident that displays character motivation, even if the incident itself is not the focal point of the story.

Can a story successfully open with description or a character’s thoughts? Of course. Anything can work for a competent writer. But remember your competition—why handicap your story from the start? Give your reader something interesting and engaging. Three pages of description on the flora and fauna of upstate New York is not likely to hold the interest of mystery fans. Give them a mystery to solve. Give them something unusual. Give them something they won’t find in their own world.

Or, take something they would find in their everyday world and twist it, shocking them with the unexpected.

Hook your readers. Compel them into your story. Make them want to start the first chapter. And keep drawing them deeper with each word, each paragraph, each scene.

Give them characters they can identify with (or hate). Engage their emotions.  Give them an imaginary world they can play in, where they can become a character who saves the world or loses a marriage or outwits the police, the bad guys, and a despised older brother.

Create an irresistible opening scene, one the reader can’t escape from. Make it alluring. Compelling. Intriguing.


Present your fictional world from the first words, immersing the reader from the start. Don’t tell the reader what’s behind the door; open the door and draw him inside.

Make him want to enter. This is fiction—use what you know about human behavior and motivation to intrigue your reader. Entice and entertain, the same way you do with your spouse when you’re talking about your day. Get a gimmick (that’s not technically a gimmick) and put it to work. Write something that will grab the eyes, mind, and imagination of your readers.

Make it appealing.

Hook your readers.


Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

12 Responses to “How to Hook Your Readers”

  1. Vivian A says:

    Great tips, Beth. Finding the beginning is rarely door number one or two for me. It generally lurches out about 60 pages in, WHAM! Now if I could just cut to the chase and lose the writing warm-up.

  2. Beth says:

    If we could only begin in the perfect spot on the first draft each and every time. But that warm-up stuff can be useful. You can learn a lot about your characters and setting from what you include in the opening and use that information to strengthen the story.

  3. Kat Sheridan says:

    Wonderful article! Yes, I usually write at least 40 pages (because I do LOVE setting and description), and THEN find my beginning! I need to learn the knack of getting to it earlier. Great tips!

  4. Judi Fennell says:

    All good advice (as I check the beginning of the current WIP for about the fiftieth time…)

  5. Beth, well stated examples of how to grab the reader from the beginning. In my first novel, I struggled with where and how to begin, but learned a few lessons that helped in writing the second one. As you point out, there’s lots of competition out there — and not just writing — so a memorable beginning become that much more important.

  6. Beth says:

    Novel openings are wonderful. Here’s an adventure, ready to begin, and I get to take part in it. I love when an author grabs my attention right away and we’re off into an imaginary world.

    It’s incredible, the power of the written word.

  7. Something I’m good at! I think. It’s the saggy middle I struggle through. I let the opening scenes churn around in the cranium until I know where to start. Where does the story grab me as the author? That’s where I start. Occasionally I’m off by a scene or two, but not often.

    And I agree. I can’t think of much worse than a big ol’ info dump at the beginning of a novel. I never finish reading those that start that way. Heck, I usually don’t get past the third page. I do have a short attention span.

  8. Beth says:

    Attention-getters are definitely what we want in those opening scenes. Olivia, I look forward to buying your books from a store. It’s such a kick to see photos of people I know looking back at me from my local Border’s.

  9. Glad you found it helpful, Dawn.