Beyond the hook (In-depth guide)
In hooking your reader we went over the basics of making your story Immediate using a hook, with a deep dive into inciting incidents. Now we’re going to look at your first chapter and how you can create a compelling narrative that will keep your reader hooked.
The Inciting Incident is not the only way to hook your reader. Sometimes the inciting incident needs a little bit of context to make sense. While the inciting incident should always happen in the first 10%-15% of your story, sometimes you need some on-ramp first. But that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your story’s Immediacy. You can (and should!) still include a powerful hook in your first chapter, even if the inciting incident comes a little bit later.
If there’s a particularly juicy moment later in your story that you know readers are going to love, you can use your first chapter to give the reader a preview of that moment. Think of it like a movie teaser trailer, where the audience gets a hint of what’s to come. The reader doesn’t need to have all the answers right away, and creating some questions you’ll answer later can be a powerful hook. If you give your reader an explicit promise of what’s to come in the form of a flash-forward, you can get them immediately invested in your story even if you need to do some setup. This can be especially useful for slow-burn romances where the leads take a long time to get together. Tease the reader with what’s to come and then make them wait!
Case study: The Many Dates of Indigo
This is a romance story that starts at the end: with the wedding. This makes an explicit promise to the reader, that no matter what happens in the story, Indigo is going to get married. This is especially effective for this story because it straddles the line between romance and chick lit, and this cues the reader to the fact that there is going to be a happily ever after romance ending for this story. What’s not clear is who Indigo’s going to marry. This creates intrigue for the reader that is amplified in the chapter that follows. In the present moment of the story, we meet Indigo again and the first thing we learn is that she’s “over it.” How does she get from being tired of romance and dating, and questions about babies, to excited to get married? We understand the shape of the journey she’s going to go on, but not how she’s going to get there. This opening is particularly effective for this story because the story features a number of potential love interests, rather than a single love interest that is standard for the romance genre, so opening with the wedding amps up the sense of intrigue.
This technique is similar to the Flash Forward and is particularly common in genres like horror and mystery/thriller. It puts us in a high-tension moment from someone else’s perspective, like the murder from the perspective of the killer, or the monster from the perspective of its first victim. This type of opening is best suited to high-tension stories and is usually used to build up our sense of the antagonist, to make them seem scary and dangerous so that we understand why the protagonist has to defeat them. This type of opening is not generally appropriate for romance-driven stories, because it pulls the reader’s focus away from the romance and onto something else. But for stories with a lot of external conflict and a scary antagonist, this can be a great choice to create investment for the reader.
Case study: Paradise thriller
This is a classic Threat Teaser in the mystery/thriller genre. We start from a separate point of view and see the murder as it happens from the perspective of the victim. This opening scene is short, sweet, and to the point. The life-or-death stakes are on the page immediately, and the high tension immediately gets the reader invested. This opener serves to set up the protagonist’s conflict (finding out who killed her sister) in a visceral and highly Immediate way, even though the protagonist isn’t in this opening scene. Because we believe in the threat, we’re invested in seeing it stopped, so the story has effectively hooked us.
Case study: The Search for Juno
While it’s labeled a prologue, this is a good example of a Threat Teaser in the fantasy genre. This scene takes place in a different POV from the rest of the story, and demonstrates the power of the antagonist of the story: the Greek god Poseidon. The inclusion of references to an earthquake and a tsunami immediately contextualizes Poseidon’s power, and placing the scene on Mount Olympus indicates that he’s not a lone god, but instead backed up by other powers. Readers who don’t know Greek mythology that well will find this an approachable introduction to the world that grounds it in the conflict. Readers familiar with the Greek pantheon will find something engaging here because this chapter establishes the conflict between Poseidon and our protagonist. In one short chapter, we’re made aware of the power of the gods, and that they have it in for our main character, with just enough mystery as to what “a fate worse than death” could be. The stakes are abundantly clear and the tension is high. We haven’t even met our protagonist yet, but we already care about what happens to her.
A logline is an essential part of the pitching process, but it’s also a helpful tool for thinking about your story. A logline is a one sentence description of your story designed to quickly grab a reader’s attention. Thinking about a logline can help you clarify your story’s hook and determine if your opening chapter is Immediate enough.
A logline will generally contain the following elements:
Protagonist + Inciting Incident + Protagonist’s Goal + Central Conflict
The Protagonist is the main character of the story.
The Inciting Incident is the moment that kicks off the plot.
The Protagonist’s Goal is the thing the protagonist is trying to achieve.
The Central Conflict is the main problem or question the protagonist is trying to solve.
Your first chapter should include at least 2/4 of these elements.
An Inciting Incident hook should introduce us to all of these elements. A Flash Forward hook should make us aware of the Protagonist, the Goal, and the Central Conflict. A Threat Teaser hook should strongly emphasize the Central Conflict and implies the Goal.
Go through your opening chapter and identify where you introduce each of these elements. If something is missing, that might be an indicator you need to revise your opening chapter to make it more dynamic and is usually an indicator you’ve focused too much on exposition or backstory, rather than the front story.
Writing your logline
The great news is now that you’ve gone through this exercise and identified your Protagonist and their Goal, the Inciting Incident, Goal, and Central Conflict, you have the basic structure of your logline ready to go.
Try this formula as a way to get a feel for writing your logline: When [Inciting Incident] happens, [Protagonist] must [action] in order to [Goal].
Deepening your first chapter with specific detail
So far, we’ve focused on the story’s conflict and characters as the primary way to create a dynamic opening chapter. While that should definitely be your focus, including a bit of tantalizing detail on your setting can help your story feel bigger than a first chapter before the story even gets underway.
Specific Detail is a way of creating interest for the reader by gesturing to an important piece of backstory or history without giving the whole thing away. When you boil something big down to a Specific Detail the reader can notice and connect to, it significantly enhances their experience of the story by making them feel like they’re discovering something. It also keeps your reader’s attention much more focused, because it’s easier to take in and remember one Specific Detail than a lot of fuzzy generic details.
Hinting at characterization
In the opening chapter of your story, we want to meet the characters and get to know them a bit. But this is more than just getting to know their plot motivations and personal goals. We want to get an idea of what makes them distinct and interesting and to hint at their backstory. Incorporating some Specific Details about your character will help the reader understand what makes them unique, and thus help the reader to connect to them.
Write out four memories that are important to your character. Now take those events and turn them into a Specific Detail about your character. Maybe it’s a scar, a gesture, or their favorite outfit. Now that you’ve got those details, how can you incorporate one or two of them into your opening chapter?
Hinting at world-building
Readers love big, expansive worlds with lots going on, the sense that there’s a new potential story lurking around every corner. While this is most obvious in genres like fantasy and science fiction where there’s a lot of worldbuilding, this is also true in contemporary romance. In a small town romance, we expect the small town to be fleshed out, to have its own cast of characters for us to get to know. Similarly, if the story is set in a familiar big city like New York or LA, we expect to get a sense of fast-paced city life going on outside the immediate bounds of our story.
The promise of a rich world can help to hook your reader, but the focus of the hook should be on the front story. How does this work?
Rather than giving the reader a crash course on the history of the world, use your opening chapters to give them little hints. If the reader gets the sense that there’s a lot going on under the surface of the scene in front of them, they will want to hang around and find out more. Showing them the tip of the iceberg is more effective than describing the iceberg’s dimensions.
Sasha kept her hands at her sides and her steps steady as she circled slowly around the perimeter of the temple. The hem of her ceremonial robe dragged over the tiled floor. She kept the hood up and her eyes downcast, in a picture-perfect image of devotion, even as the fabric chafed the back of her neck.
The temple was all but deserted at this hour. As usual, a few worshippers gathered around the statue of the Patron of gambling, but that was all. The only temple guard posted was a young woman with a handsome face fixed in the sourest frown Sasha had ever seen.
Sasha didn’t speed her pace as she passed the guard, though it took a concentrated effort to keep her steps and breathing steady and unremarkable. The woman peered at her, and Sasha curled involuntarily into her hood. She’d long since taken out her piercings, but the puncture scars on her lips and nose would mark her for suspicion anyway.
Not that it wasn’t warranted, in her case. But the guard didn’t know that.
At the shrine to Dalios, the legendary founder of the Empire, Sasha grit her teeth and made full obeisance. She pressed the stud in her tongue to the roof of her mouth; it was the only Oberite piercing she kept, the reminder that she was to be a messenger for the gods’ truth. She spoke apologies in her mind even as she spoke heresy with her tongue.
But her betrayal wasn’t in vain. Heaped on the altar were coins and a few pieces of jewelry, the wealth of the Empire given back to itself. As she rose from her bow, Sasha’s fingers met cold metal, and she secreted those minor riches into the special pocket sewn into her sleeve.
“Hey, you there!”
Sasha turned slowly and came face to face with the sour-faced guard, her sword drawn.
In this example, we’re not told very much outright, but we get a sense of the world through how the main character interacts with the world. From the very first paragraph, the idea that the ceremonial robe chafes sets Sasha subtly at odds with the environment she’s in. We learn that gambling is popular in this society. As we progress through the scene, we learn that Sasha is a religious dissenter in a society that venerates its own semi-mythical founder. All of these details are introduced in the context of the rising tension of the scene, so there is some emotional resonance attached to them. The way Sasha feels about the temple gestures to an external political/religious conflict of which she is a part and sets up some of the worldbuilding for the story to come.
Write out the history of the place where your opening scene takes place. It can be as extensive or as brief as you like, as political or mundane as you want, but should have at least three events in it. Now, take those events and turn them into a Specific Detail in your scene. Maybe a historical battle becomes a statue or a place name. Or, if you’re writing something in our contemporary world, maybe the protagonist’s grandparents’ wedding becomes an heirloom tea set, or a fight with their parents when they were a teenager becomes a bedroom door that doesn’t shut right. Try going back through your scene and inserting these little details where you can. How does this change the way the scene feels?