Some people say “start where the action starts”. Most people say “hook the reader”. But what is a narrative hook? What makes people keep reading? I raided my bookshelf and found a six different examples of novel beginnings:
1) Start with a character
Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
~ American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2) Start in the middle of something
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.
~ The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
3) Start with a question
Anderson spits the black pit into his hand, smiling. He has read travelogues of history’s botanists and explorers, the men and women who pierced the deepest jungle wildernesses of the earth in search of new species—and yet their discoveries cannot compare to this single fruit.
Those people all sought discoveries. He has found a resurrection.
The peasant woman beams, sure of a sale. “Ao gee kilo kha?” How much?
“Are they safe?” he asks.
~ The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
4) Tell a story
I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.
I must try to remember.
My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.
~ The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
5) Start with atmosphere
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.
~ Neuromancer by William Gibson
6) Describe a normal day, but hint something’s off
An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophecy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read FORGET IT.
Inside, a man walked through the big hall, past a double stair and a giant skeleton, his steps loud on the marble. Stone animals watched him. ‘Right then,’ he kept saying.
~ Kraken by China Mieville
Some common elements of these beginnings: they’re loaded with micro-tension, and they raise questions. The questions are: who is this, where is this, what’s going to happen, or what already happened?
Maybe a hook = question + tension. What makes it a hook is that the reader needs to turn the page to answer the question and relieve the tension? That’s my current theory.
Do you have any favorite novel beginnings you could share?