This came up while talking to one of our Patreon Bears, Leslie.
Here is a 6-year-old blog post I wrote on the subject.
You have to give the reader the three main story components: Hero, Villain, Conflict.
The readers must know who to root for, who to hate, and what’s at stake. If they don’t, they’ll get confused and put your book down.
You have to give this to the reader as soon as possible. In the first chapter. Better yet, on the first page. Better yet, in the first paragraph. And EVEN better (Stephen King likes to do this) in the first sentence.
Here are a few great examples from the books I’ve read recently:
A Game of Thrones: “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.” (The hook here is “wildlings” and “dead”—who are they, and why are they dead, and who killed them? Gared is one of the Heroes? Then whoever killed the wildlings is a Villain? Why do they want them dead?)
Wonder: “I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.” (The hook here is, what’s the not-ordinary thing about the Hero? Why do kids run away from him screaming? Is our Hero the Villain, or are all those kids Villains and this kid the Hero?)
World War Z: “It goes by many names: “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.” (The hook here is, what war is it? Who is fighting whom? And for what? And then we get told it’s humans against zombies, and we get hooked even more.)
What you’ll see is, the older the book is, the more winded the opening. The most recent books shorten the openings to action right away. But something that was written by Jack London is expanded to a much longer opening. And if you dig deeper into time, you’ll see even LONGER openings. For example:
White Fang: “Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway.” (The hook here is “frowned”—how can a forest frown? Is it alive? Then the author continues describing the nature as if it’s a living being, ending with the Wild that is savage and frozen-hearted. And we don’t get to the Hero and the Villain and the Conflict until much later.)
Narnia: This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began. (The hook here is “something”–what is it?—and Narnia—what land is it? Again, we don’t get to the Hero and the Villain and the Conflict until much later.)
What are your favorite openings?