How to Hook Readers with an Engaging Opening to Your Novel

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Crafting an Opening that Sells Your Story

The beginning of your novel is what sells your story to readers.If readers find your opening engaging and enjoy reading it, they will keep going. If they don’t, they’ll get bored and choose a different book.In order to write a successful novel, you need to make sure that your first line, first page, and first chapter each do their part to draw readers in and get them invested in your story. 

How to hook readers from the first page of your novel: learn the techniques great authors use to draw readers in


Imagine Your Ideal Reader

I want you to picture your ideal reader hanging out in a bookstore. They aren’t planning to buy anything, they’re just bored and want something to do, so they’re wandering around to see if anything catches their attention.Now imagine that they happen to pick your book up off the shelf. They open it to the first page and start reading. They’re not in the mood to sit down and read a whole chapter, so you’ll probably only get them for a few paragraphs.That first page needs to grab their attention and ensure that they’re going home with your book.But how do you get there?You get there by showing them, in those first few paragraphs, that this is the book for them and that they need it in their life.

Your Opening Must Be Interesting and Engaging

A common pitfall that writers encounter is including too much exposition at the beginning.This might be backstory of how the main character got to where they are when the novel starts. You may feel a need to introduce your characters and get readers caught up on who they are and how they fit into the world around them.If it’s a fantasy or science fiction novel with a lot of worldbuilding, you might add in exposition to set up the historical or social context in which your story takes place.I get it, you want readers to know all of that so that they’ll be able to appreciate the story and know what’s going on. But exposition is boring, and they won’t be able to appreciate any of it if they never get past the first page or get stuck partway through chapter 1.

Too Much Exposition Puts Your Readers to Sleep

I don’t care how great your ideas are. Don’t make readers slog through paragraphs of your brilliant characterizations and worldbuilding, because they likely won’t make it to the end.You’ll give readers the false impression that this is a novel where nothing happens. That’s not true, and it undermines all your hard work and time spent crafting the perfect relatable characters and compelling plot.(If you do want help with your characters or your plot, you can find more information on that in my article on the 7 elements of fiction.)Bringing your book to life means skipping right to the story and leaving everything else for later.Large amounts of exposition can slow down the pacing anywhere in your novel. But the beginning is by far the worst place to put it. This is where it’s most essential to get readers engaged in your story and keep them from putting your book down.

Too Much Thinking Also Bores Readers

Sometimes sequences of inner monologue can add to the story. But it isn’t ideal to start with this.A little bit is fine, but if the character is spending most of the first few pages in their head, you could lose the reader’s interest.External action is more vivid and more engaging than internal thinking.I’m sure readers will love to get to know your main character later on. Once they’re invested in the story, they’ll be excited to spend more time with your characters and find out how their brains work.But readers haven’t gotten a chance to care about the characters yet because they’ve only just met. So try to keep internal monologues to a minimum and find a more effective use for those first few pages of the story.

Show What’s Happening “Now”

The way to hook readers from the beginning is to focus on what’s happening “now,” in the character’s present time.The story is what brings your world and your characters to life, so you need to lead with it.Once you convince readers to care about the story, you can work in more information about the main character’s backstory, the political strife your characters are dealing with, or the details of how your magic system works.So take out those sections of exposition and focus on telling the story.

Add Contextual Information Gradually over Time

Readers don’t need to know everything now, but you may need to give readers that contextual information later on in the story.Give readers context and backstory when they need it, but only what they need and only when they need it. Often they’re smarter than you think and can get by without you stating everything as explicitly as you may think you need to.When you do provide this information, don’t do it in large chunks. Work it into the story a little at a time so that you’re never pulling readers out of the action for too long.This will help people stay engaged and make them want to keep reading.Giving them just a little backstory at a time will keep them intrigued and wanting to know more.

Present Context in an Engaging Way

Find ways to work in necessary pieces of information without taking readers out of the story.As much as you can, show them what they need to know through the plot and through the characters’ actions rather than by telling them directly.For example, a conversation between two people can show that they’re old friends through their familiarity with one another in the dialogue without you needing to brief readers on the history of their relationship.Likewise, writing out a scene of the main character going through interstellar space travel will give readers what they need to understand the story without creating an info dump on how the science works.

Avoid Exposition-Based Prologues

There’s nothing wrong with including a prologue. Unless you’re using it to give readers exposition.If you have a prologue, that will be the first thing readers read. And no matter how good your worldbuilding is, a prologue full of historical and background information isn’t going to hold a reader’s interest unless they’re already a fan of your story and of your world.So when you choose to start your book with a prologue, it needs to do all the things I’m talking about in this article; it needs to start in the action and keep readers engaged.If your prologue contains background information, it needs to be worked into the text in little pieces that don’t take away from what the characters are currently doing or pull readers out of the story.For an example of prologues done right, take a look at the beginning of A Game of Thrones or any other book in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire.

Focus on Your Readers and Ignore Everyone Else

You don’t need everyone to find the opening of your novel engaging. You need one specific group of people to like it, and those are your ideal readers.For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, you need it to grab the attention of people who love fantasy. If it’s a romance novel, you need to hook people who love romance.Make sure you’re writing for the right age group, the right gender (or a gender-neutral audience if that’s what you’re going for), and any other demographic that your novel as a whole is intended for.If you pin down who exactly your target readership is, you will be able to assess how well the opening of your story will appeal to them.

Establish the Genre Early On

Your target readers are people who like your genre, so you need to tell them what genre you’re working with and the kind of story they can expect.Try to get this information on the first page if you can. Readers like knowing what they’re getting into so they can choose books that they’ll enjoy.This is like the “Once upon a time…” at the beginning of fairy tales that tells you exactly what kind of story you’re in.If your book follows the genre expectations for a romance novel, including common romance themes and giving readers a happy ending, use the first few paragraphs to make it clear to them.Readers will expect to see some setup for the main couple and or hints at a potential relationship at the beginning of the story. You need to incorporate this into your opening in order to attract your target readers and get them to read past the first page.

Restructuring to Better Establish the Genre

Sometimes in order to make the genre clear early on, you’ll have to move things around and start in a different place than you had planned.If you’re writing epic fantasy, it might be relatively simple to make it clear to readers from the beginning that the story is taking place outside of the normal world.But if you’re writing portal fantasy, your first draft may go for several pages before your main character goes through a portal and suddenly there’s magic everywhere.Experiment with ways to start at a different point in time in order to get some of that magic (or whatever is unique to your genre) into the first few paragraphs.Readers have probably seen your title and your cover art already. It should have given them enough of a sense of the genre that they took it off the shelf. But the text itself is where you show readers that you can deliver on that genre that was promised on the cover.

Final Thoughts on Crafting an Engaging Opening

The beginning of your story is your opportunity to convince readers that this book is for them and that they are going to love it. You only get one chance at this, so you need to use it wisely.Focus on what is happening now and avoid exposition or anything that pulls readers out of the story. You’ll need to keep them engaged and get them invested in the novel if you want them to actually finish the book.Your cover can get readers to pick up the book, but your first chapter shows readers whether they chose up the right one.If you want an expert opinion on how to improve your first chapter and keep readers engaged throughout your story, you can ask me for a quote or read my page on developmental editing.
Image of a forest path with the words "Draw readers in with a engaging hook"
Clara Carlson-Kirigin

Clara Carlson-Kirigin

I’m Clara, the editor behind Prometheus Editorial. I work with fantasy and romance authors who want to invest in professional editing to help their novels succeed. I love teaching people how to harness the power of language, find their voice, and reach their target readership.

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