Hook Readers, Not Agents

Five ways to polish the opening of your novel for your desired reader, not potential agents.

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You’re a new writer and you’ve written the first draft of your novel. It’s likely nowhere near finished yet, but you start thinking about what you’ll do when it’s finally complete. You discover that when applying to literary agents you usually only, at first, send them the very beginning of your novel, and only when – and if – requested can you send them the rest. When I was at this stage I had an utter panic due to knowing I could only send off the opening of my story to attract an agent. I forgot completely about trying to hook readers and thought instead of the characters the agent wouldn’t meet, and the pivotal scenes they wouldn’t read, and I pulled apart my opening for the sake of the extract I would send to them.

There is no need to do this. If you focus on writing the beginning of your story for your reader, it will have all the hooks and alluring questions and enthralling mood to set the scene for the rest of the novel, and that is what an agent is looking for – not something they will enjoy reading themselves, but a great opening that they believe will attract a mountain of readers and, ultimately, sell a lot of books.

Instead of worrying about hooking an agent with the opening extract of your novel, you need to be thinking only of how to use the very beginning to get a reader interested enough that they keep turning pages.

Stagger Introductions

Don’t be tempted to bring forward character introductions so that a reader or agent can meet the most beloved of your creations in the first few chapters – you placed them where you did for a reason and a purpose. And unless all your characters are trapped together in one place and remain there for the bulk of the story, it is unrealistic they will all be together at the start. Do not be tempted, as I was, to shove them all into the opening for the agent to meet. Agents will presume there will be more character introductions throughout the journey of your story. Focus instead on making sure the first characters your readers will encounter are strong and realistic.

Start with Impact

Don’t write a mellow opening line or a mediocre first paragraph. The words and meaning of your chosen opening line need to reach out from the page and grab your reader. When I read a book I make the decision as to whether it’s my cup of tea in the first few lines, and if it doesn’t hook and intrigue me, why continue to read it?

A dead bolt has a very specific sound.

Baby Doll by Hollie Overton

This is an example of a simple but strong opening that sucked me in and created enough intrigue to keep me reading.

It’s getting harder and harder to tell the living from the dead.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

Both of these opening lines may not have the same impact on you as a reader as they did on me, because everyone’s taste is different, and the opening line of books will vary from genre to genre. Have a look at the opening lines of the books you enjoy reading and question how they grabbed your attention. You should also do this with the books you imagine your published novel would sit beside in a bookstore.

Hold Secrets Back

Don’t feel the need to give away everything in the opening. If you do, what would be the point in reading the rest of your story? You barely need to give any information at the start because readers will fill in blanks for themselves, in different ways from each other depending on their own individual preferences and experiences. Let readers do this, let them think for themselves. It will get them invested in your story, make them feel part of it, and help you to avoid writing a huge exposition dump in your opening.

Use Atmosphere

Set a mood. Write so that there is a lingering feel of what could potentially happen. If you have written quite brutal fighting scenes in the middle and end of your novel and you want to attract a reader that will appreciate these scenes, then let something happen, or almost happen, near the start of your story to give these readers a hint at the possibilities that more are to come.

Compare

Have a very good look at the first few chapters of successful or wide-selling books you believe have a similar readership to the story you’re writing. Look at how the authors avoided exposition, and how, if they used a trigger (an event that gets the story moving along its course) near the start, where was this trigger placed and why? What is the protagonist doing at the start? What state of mind are they in? How old are they? Is the antagonist or villain introduced early on? If there is a love interest; do they appear in the first chapter, or the second, or the middle of the story? If you’re writing a love triangle and are looking at similar books, at what point do each of the three characters appear?

 

Please do not do as I did and allow the panic of sending only the very start of your story to cause you to make drastic changes to your opening. If it’s good enough for a reader, being that it intrigues them and leaves them wanting more, and therefore reading more, then it will be good enough for an agent. Because, at the end of the day, an agent will only take you on if they believe your novel has the potential to appeal to readers and, ultimately, sell.

Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.

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