The Lure of the Hook: 4 Ways to Begin Your Novel That Will Keep Readers Reading

No sentence bears the weight of responsibility quite like a novel’s opening line. It sets the tone for the entire story, establishes the reader’s expectations, and determines their level of engagement from the very first word. It hooks your reader.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a single sentence.

But the pressure is necessary. Researchers continuously warn us about our ever-shrinking attention spans (the current rate is 47 seconds), and the competition for our limited time is more intense than ever. With so much content available at our fingertips, readers have become increasingly picky about what fictional universes they choose to invest their leisurely hours in. If something doesn’t grab them from the get-go, they’re not sticking around.

Great writing hooks tap into the reader’s curiosity, and draw them further into the story. Build interest by getting readers to ask questions.

So while the opening line may seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of an entire novel, it could very well be the determining factor for whether or not your hard work is placed back on the shelf after just a few pages. Luckily, you’re not the first person to write a book. Countless authors have faced the same, and thus, there are some tried and true techniques for creating an irresistible hook.

Say something shocking

Don’t save the good stuff for later. If you have a bombshell to drop on your readers, do it in the first sentence. Without giving every single detail away, tease a major twist, or reveal a shocking truth. Consider any potential expectations the reader may have for the story because of the genre, cover, or title, and then subvert them with your opening line.

Drama instantly drives curiosity. No one will be able to resist plunging into a story that starts with a bang. Just take a look at these famous examples:

  • “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” — The Outsider by Albert Camus
  • “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” — The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” — The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

Put them right in the action

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: your novel needs less build-up than you think. Sometimes, the best way to hook a reader is to simply thrust them into the story. Don’t worry about introducing the characters or setting up complex backstories. Start with an immediate — and intriguing — conflict, and your readers will be begging for more details as they go along.

For some inspiration, check out these heart-pounding opening lines:

  • “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomson
  • “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” — The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • “124 was spiteful. Full of Baby’s venom.” — Beloved by Toni Morrison

Create a strong voice

If your novel relies on a single narrator, you want to establish immediately who this being is. Are they witty? Sarcastic? Morose? Inquisitive? Capturing their essence in your opening line will not only set the tone for your story but also give readers a taste of the character they’ll be spending hundreds of pages with.

Here are some examples of opening lines that perfectly capture their narrator’s voice:

  • “The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  • “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” — The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Play into their senses

The most effective opening lines aren’t just words on a page—they’re an experience. By using vivid language and sensory details, you can transport your reader into the story right away. Use sight, sound, smell, taste, or texture to clue them in on where this story is taking place and what it might be about.

Look at these examples of opening lines that immediately engage the senses:

  • “My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge.” — Bettering Myself by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” — City of Glass by Paul Aster
  • “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” — Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

Opening lines: the key to a captivating story?

Great novels don’t always have great opening lines. I’ve continued to read — and eventually loved — books that didn’t necessarily hook me from the very beginning. But there’s no denying that a killer opening can set the tone for your story and entice readers to keep going. It’s a piece of literary real estate you don’t want to waste.

So, if you’d like some eyes on your first couple of pages and feedback on how you might improve your opening line, click here to check out my book coaching services. Together, we can craft a beginning that will have readers turning pages until the very end.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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