First chapters are problematic for me. I rewrite them dozens of times – especially those first paragraphs, because they must do many things well. Of course, they must hook the reader but ‘hook’ is a pretty big, generic word when applied to writing.
So what elements are there in hooking a reader?
I’m using 100-word (give or take) excerpts from three YA novels as examples – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, and Looking for Alaska by John Green. Two of these are considered YA classics; Suma’s book just came out this year but her first few paragraphs are so well done, I'm including her.
As you read, watch for subtle manipulations of your psyche. The writer will go straight for your heart with his/her hook. They’ll appeal to your emotions – either through your feelings for your family, your friends or your pity. They want you to fall in love with their MC and these 100 (or so) words are their first of a barrage of manipulation arrows aimed at making you react in certain ways.
1. Identification. Look for the MC to be in a situation that you’ve been in or can picture yourself in.
2. Emotions. The MC will react to the situation in an understandable way, a way that illuminates their character and makes you like or pity them in a good way. You need to root for the MC.
3. Situation foreshadowing. There are clouds on the MC’s horizon. She/he may not know what they are yet but they know change is coming.
Ruby said I’d never drown – not in deep ocean, not by shipwreck, not even by falling drunk into someone’s bottomless backyard pool. She said she’d seen me hold my breath underwater for minutes at a time but to hear her tell it you’d think she meant days. Long enough to live down there if needed, to skim the seafloor collecting shells and shiny soda caps, looking up every so often for the rescue lights, even if they took forever to come.
It sounded impossible, something no one would believe if anyone other than Ruby were the one to tell it. But Ruby was right: the body found that night wouldn’t be, couldn’t be mine.
1. We all know a Ruby – a charismatic character so confident, life itself seems to bend to their will. We’re naturally intrigued by such characters.
2. We want to have such a character on our side. If this person said something, it often became true. People like Ruby open doors in life and being under her wing means safety.
3. There is water everywhere in this scene, and now the assurance (the over assurance?) that no drowning would occur. Or at least, not to the narrator. Then why mention rescue lights so early?
Looking for Alaska
The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically. Although I was more or less forced to invite all my ‘school friends,’ i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity a secret from her all these years.
1. Those who've attended a public high school know exactly what Miles means here. The rigid clique system hasn’t changed much in fifty years. The small group of ‘popular kids’ is far outnumbered by kids like Miles. Chances are, the reader is like Miles.
2. We’ve all felt the terror of throwing a party where nobody shows up. Or imagined the humiliation. Miles’ stoic acceptance of this – his lack of whining or hatred – move him out of pity territory and into admiration. We’re on his side.
3. Miles’ life is about to change. He’s going to boarding school in another state very soon. Also, that count down tells us there’s an ‘after’ and it probably isn’t good.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself on one elbow. There’s enough light to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once. Or so they tell me.
1. Katniss and her sister share a bed, which suggests poverty. Katniss wakes alone because her sister has abandoned her in favor of a parent, who offers more safety. ‘Or so they tell me’ suggests a rift between Katniss and her mother because Katniss has to be told of her mother’s beauty by others. She can’t see it herself. There is something wrong there.
2. Katniss wakes alone and observes them as one apart. Her mother is ‘worn but not so beaten down’ which, again, suggests poverty and a hard life. The picture of the mother/child cuddled together cements their vulnerability as well as Katniss’s apartness.
3. The word ‘reaping’ here could mean crops but the fact Prim has nightmares the night before suggests something more sinister.
Most importantly, notice what the writer does NOT include in these excerpts. They TELL us nothing. Suma doesn't say that Ruby is dangerous. Green doesn't say that Miles's loner status is about to change. Collins doesn't say that Katniss loves Prim or has issues with her mother. They give us just enough to figure this out, and now we want more.
So, what else should a writer accomplish in the first 100 words? What have I missed? What examples can you recommend?