By Brooke Favero
I'm querying right now and this week I was gently rejected by an agent. The agent held onto my query and pages for nine weeks, so I want to believe I was on the bubble--meaning, I was close but not quite there yet. When I received the rejection I wasn't devastated, sure I would have loved to be represented by the agent, but I'm seasoned enough now to pick myself up and learn from it.
Gratefully the agent didn't send me a form rejection and said my story had a lot of potential. My pages just weren't enough to get the agent excited. I took this two ways: 1) one my writing/voice needs to get stronger and 2) my first chapter needs a stronger hook. I'm so grateful for this criticism because it got me thinking and rethinking and thinking some more.
The beginning chapters are critical for hooking the reader. I know this, you know this, this is a known thing. I thought my story started with a hook--it has action and character but where it falls short is hinting to what the story is about. After reading my first chapter, my daughter said, "It's interesting, I guess, but when do they get to the good part." The good part, my inciting incident doesn't happen till page 18. For a middle grade book, page 18 might be the kiss of death.
So as writers, how do we hook the reader, develop our protagonist, and hint at the ride the reader is about to experience all in the first few pages? I thought I knew but apparently I need to keep working. I'm a goals-and-lists kind of girl, so I created:
The Top Five Ways to Ram a Hook into Your Reader:
- Strong Writing Style. Duh. So what is it? It needs to balance mimetic writing with showing, not telling. It grows weak with play-by-play narration, overwriting, and telegraphing. And it needs a voice, the style with which you write. Your voice will develop the more you write, study and learn...but mostly write.
- Tight Tension. Here are the 5 T's of Tension: The Stakes, The Pace, The Dialogue, The Setting, The Stakes. (Yes, "The" is the common T but it's late people, work with me.) The reader has to feel some sort of tension to turn the page. So give them a reason.
- Creating Characters Readers Want Care About. Readers will stop reading if the characters don't feel real, flawed, proactive, motivated and somewhat likable. My husband is reading Game of Thrones right now and he hates all the characters so much he feels no desire to finish the book.
- Hinting at a Plot. Readers need to know where the story is going or they will stop reading. You don't have to give the story away but foreshadow, hint, wink, bat your eyes, or something.
- Avoiding First Chapter Pitfalls. Backstory, info dumping, exposition, throat-clearing and setup are all snoresville and turn readers off. Don't justify them, don't do them. I know, it's tempting but good writing weaves backstory and info into the story's action.
What are your tips for hooking the reader?
Seriously people, I need to know your tips.