Novel Openings: Are You Hooked?

How long does it take for a novel to grab your interest or turn you off? It might be a few pages, or even a few paragraphs, but somewhere in those opening lines you usually get a sense if a book will sustain your interest–or not. In writing circles, editors and agents talk about the first few sentences giving an indication of the quality of the entire book–either it hooks them at that point, or they move on.

Yet there’s no formula for what makes a compelling hook. Some novels open with setting, others with character, still others with pithy phrases or hints at a forthcoming mystery. Each can work in its own way, but there’s something to be gleaned from studying the openings of books that have made it to print. I’ve shared the openings of a few fantasy novels from my shelf, each one distinct. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these samples. Do any capture your interest? Would you keep reading if you picked up one of these books from a store shelf? Why (or why not)?

“Auralia lay still as death, like a discarded doll, in a burgundy tangle of rushes and spineweed on the back of a bend in the River Throanscall, when she was discovered by an old man who did not know her name.

She bore no scars, no broken bones, just the stain of inkblack soil. Contentedly, she cooed, whispered, and babbled, learning the river’s language, and focused her gaze on the stormy dance of the evening sky—roiling purple clouds edged with blood red. The old man surmised she was waiting and listening for whoever, or whatever, had forsaken her there.

Those fevered moments of his discovery burnt into the old man’s memory. In the years that followed, he would hold and turn them in his mind the way an explorer ponders relics he has found in the midst of ruin. But the mystery remained stubbornly opaque.”

– Jeffery Overstreet, Auralia’s Colors

“I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass.

I’ve run across folks claim they know everything about their birthday–where it happened, who they was with, what day it was. But if you really press them on it, turns out they don’t remember no more about it than I do. They only know what somebody told them.

I don’t care who you are–when it comes to knowing where you come from, you got to task somebody else’s word for it. That’s where things has always got ticklish for me. I only know one man who might be able to tell me where I come from, and that man is a liar and a fraud.”

– Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

“Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.

He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.

Sitna Manor sat on the North side of the Sideros River. A brownstone curtain wall, four levels high, enclosed the stronghold. A second wall sectioned off the outer bailey from the inner bailey, temple, and keep. Achan wasn’t allowed to enter the inner bailey but occasionally snuck inside when he felt compelled to leave an offering at Cetheria’s temple.”

– Jill Williamson, By Darkness Hid

“The Queen is dying.

The knowledge sat in Linden’s belly like a cold stone as she hunched over the tub of greasy water, scrubbing her thirty-ninth plate. She’d promised Mallow, the Chief Cook, that she’d wash all the Oakenfolk’s dishes in exchange for a second piece of honey cake at dinner, and at the time it seemed a reasonable bargain. But now that she knew what was happening at the top of the Spiral Stair—that the faery Queen was lying pale and weak upon her bed and might never rise from it again—she wanted to heave up all the cake she’d eaten and throw the last few dishes straight back in the Chief Cook’s face.

How could Mallow look smug, after bringing them such terrible news? The moment she’d spoken those words the whole kitchen had gone silent, Gatherers and cooks and scullions all staring in horrified disbelief.”

– RJ Anderson, Wayfarer

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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4 Responses to Novel Openings: Are You Hooked?

  1. C.J. says:

    Well for me, the main reason I read a book is when someone recommends it to me. If I do just pick a random book in a bookstore, I usually have to read at least several pages to have an idea if I’ll like it or not.

    That all being said, with these blurbs, I was interested in all but the first one based on the first couple paragraphs. In the first one, I could not feel like I knew what was going on and nothing caught my interest yet. For the rest, I was curious what would happen next.

  2. Anna says:

    I’m stubborn, and I read fast, so I generally persevere to the end of a book whether I love it or not. That being said, I usually have a good feel for whether I will love and savor a book or just hurry through it for the sake of something to read by the first few paragraphs. At most the first pages.
    As far as those specific beginnings, I’m with C.J.–The second two grabbed me and the first one left me too confused. Having read all three books though, I have a slight bias. I didn’t enjoy Auralia’s colors for the precise reason I didn’t enjoy the beginning paragraph: it kept me guessing for too long. I never really felt like I had a full grasp of what was going on. I found that my feelings at the beginning of each book held relatively true to the end, so this was an interesting post. I agree that the first page really sets the tone to either hook you, or turn you away.

  3. Emily says:

    I would have to agree with Anna and C.J.- the first book didn’t peak my interest very much, but the second two caught my attention. I also agree that a good portion of the reason I pick a book of a shelf is because someone recommended it to me. However, if it truly doesn’t interest me by the first few pages, or I just can’t seem to “get into” it, I usually just put it down. If I’m only slightly uninterested I most often keep reading. By the way, interesting post, Sarah! 🙂

  4. Sarah Sawyer says:

    Thanks for the feedback everyone! I see we all agree that it doesn’t take long to discern if you’ll enjoy a book or not–and that the first few pages usually indicate the tenor of the rest of the book.

    I’m surprised that the same samples stood out to all of you–but I suppose that’s the sign of a good, strong opening! For me, the opening of Auralia’s Colors was compelling, if only for the mastery demonstrated in the prose. The language itself tempted me to keep reading. I might be in the minority there, though.

    Emily and CJ–in general, it seems like people read books based on the recommendations of friends with shared tastes. It’s not foolproof, but at least you have a greater chance of enjoying the book. 🙂

    Anna–I used to plow through books even if I wasn’t enjoying them, but I’ve become much more swift to put down a book that doesn’t interest me. And regarding Auralia’s Colors, you might want to give the series another chance. I was disappointed with the way the first one ended, but as I’ve liked each successive book better. I think my perspective on the series shifted when I viewed it as on enormous story spread over four books, instead of each book as a single entity. It does keep you guessing though, and whether I can recommend the series as a whole or not will depend on how good of a job the author does wrapping up all those mysterious threads. The last book just came out, so I’ll know soon!

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