How Do I Hook a Reader in the First Chapter?

By Johnny B. Truant

Man reading the first chapter in a book

Today’s question is how do you hook a reader in the first chapter?

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

First of all, let’s go ahead and be clear that you do need to hook your reader in the first chapter.

So many beginning readers feel the need to tell the story from the beginning. That is a good place to begin a story, at the beginning.

Bored readerHowever, depending on how you’re defining beginning, it can be really, really boring.

You can get away with asking the reader to be patient in like literary fiction, but in just about any genre fiction or I would argue, even within most literary fiction, especially if you don’t have an established name, you are really on trial in that first chapter to get a reader to decide, well, I’m going to continue reading or I’m going to bail.

If you’re selling books digitally, the preview function on most ebook retailers allows people to read that first chapter without actually buying the book. Or they can download a sample or something like that.

In many cases failing to hook a reader in that first chapter doesn’t just mean that you lost a reader, but you lost a sale.

Like that was your audition and you failed it if you don’t hook them.

So if you tell a story truly from the beginning in the most literal sense, a lot of times what that means to people is well, you know, John and Sally are at home and they’re cooking dinner, and then their son comes home and they talk about his day and blah, blah, blah, life goes on, and then things slowly build, and then there’s an alien invasion.

But they’re so intent on starting the story at the beginning that they don’t get to the crux of the story because they feel that they need to set the stage first.

I came across an idea recently where it would have covered a large span of time and in the last bit of the span of time is when all the action happens.

The writer was going to do a journal style thing where you learn about the entire span of time and that’s kind of not how that should have taken place. The story is the story of that last little bit of time where everything goes wrong and ruins that year’s worth of plans.

But it makes sense.

This is about a year or a few years and so you say well, I’m going to tell the story, the whole thing and you end up with this long journal.

Usually you need to start and say what is it that I need to do to present the exciting part of the story early, even if I feel the need to go back and tell the beginning?

Number one is to understand that you don’t need to tell as much as you think you need to.

Magic lamp in the middle of a desert. You can usually start a story right in the middle of the story, in the middle of things is the way that it’s said.

That means that if you have, for instance, an alien invasion, that should begin in the first chapter.

We famously have a book called Invasion where the alien invasion doesn’t actually happen till the end.

But the action of the story is basically what happens during the invasion and it’s the story of humanity reacting to it, so it does begin in the first chapter because in the first chapter that’s when we learn that they’re coming and the panic begins.

That’s something that needs to happen right away.

If you need to do this with a prologue, and this is kind of a funny example, but Twilight wants to tell the story of the girl going to Washington and it’s grey and it’s rainy and she slowly has a bad teenage time and then falls in love with a vampire, blah, blah, blah.

That’s some degree of interesting, especially to the right reader.

But you also risk losing people because it’s this long thing that’s kind of ordinary for a while.

What Stephanie Myer did was to put in a prologue where it takes place later, actually towards the end of the book chronologically when this would occur, and she’s going to the forest and being chased or something like that.

It’s a clue of what is to happen.

You don’t need to necessarily cheat forward with a prologue, that’s not appropriate in every case, but you want something that indicates why the reader is there.

What is the chief action?

What is the chief conflict?

It doesn’t need to be action, but what is the story about and how does it present itself as a deviation from a disruption of somebody’s norm, and basically why should the reader care?

Have something change within that first chapter in a way that challenges a character.

Have something change within that first chapter in a way that challenges a character. Click To Tweet

Have a disruption. Have something that is personable and relatable too by the person who’s reading it.

Just make sure that whatever the book is about does present itself in that first chapter in a way where objectively a reader’s going to be like oh, I want to know what happens.

Don’t just start telling the story. This happened, then this happened, then this happened and then oh, then this really exciting thing happened in Chapter 5. Get to it earlier.

Johnny B. Truant is the author of the Fat Vampire series and The Bialy Pimps, in addition to everything he has written with Sean at Realm & Sands.

Johnny and his family live in Austin, Texas (after several years of planning to move and complaining about life in northern Ohio).

Keep Reading