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The Opening Hook of a Book: Is It Important or Not?



By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Last week I shared about my dyslexic daughter squealing over a new book she recently got in the mail (in this post). But I also mentioned just how hard it was to keep her attention with books.

Sadly, once she started reading the new squeal-worthy book, it fell into the book graveyard like so many of her books do. It had a gorgeous, captivating cover. A catchy title. An interesting blurb. And it promised to be a fun, light read.

So why did it die and get buried?

After she read the first chapter, I asked her how she liked it. She sprawled out next to me on the couch and said, "It's boring."

"Oh no." My heart sank because I knew just how difficult it was to find books that she really enjoyed reading. "Why's it boring?"

"All she does in the first chapter is talk on the phone."

Sure enough, as I paged through the book, the phone conversation was the scope of most of the first chapter.

Now I know there are plenty of readers out there who will persevere past the first chapter and perhaps find the story appealing. My other teen daughter did and ended up liking the book.

But how far will most readers go before giving up? A page or two? A chapter? The middle of the book? Does some of it depend on whether the reader paid for the book, feeling the need to persevere and get her money's worth? Is it easier to toss the book aside if it's a library book, loan, or freebie for the Kindle? I know it is for me.

On the one hand, I think a book needs to have something that hooks us into reading it right from the start. But on the other hand, even if a book has an exciting hook it can still fail to deliver the rest of the story.

So where does that leave opening hooks? Is the beginning really all that important or not?

Over the years, I've come to realize that while I like a heart-stopping opening, something that grabs me and dumps me into the middle of the story and conflict, I'm also able to overlook a slightly slow beginning if the story itself grips me.

One book that kept my daughter's attention was Wish You Were Here by my friend Beth Vogt. As a runaway-bride story, the opening AND the story premise are both captivating. While the book doesn't begin with a huge bang and while it's not super fast-paced, Beth dangled enough enticement in front of my daughter to keep her reading. The opening delighted my daughter, and then the story swept her along. She finished the book and LOVED it enough to pass it along to many of her friends.

I personally think a book should attempt to do both those things, entice me at the beginning AND then sweep me along with the story, as Beth's book did. After all, some people (like my daughter) won't read on if an author doesn't do BOTH.

But if I had to choose a fantastic beginning or a sweeping story, I'd pick the sweeping story. I can overlook a slow start, but I can't overlook a slow book. I might be able to wallow through the first few arduous pages, but if the story doesn't grip me, then I usually can't persevere.

Dear readers, what's more important to you? Do you NEED a captivating opening hook to keep reading? Or do you persevere past a slow opening if the story is promising enough?

29 comments:

  1. In choosing a book, I usually read the first page or two. If it grabs me or the storyline is of interest, it is a keeper. So, I totally agree with you. I have read books that start too slow but I know the story will be a great one so I march on especially if it is in a book series and the author is droning on about the backstory. But, I've been known to get frustrated like your daughter and just chuck a book. Readers are a fickle bunch, huh?! :)

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    1. LOL! I guess that just means we authors really should try to do BOTH have an opening hook and great story! That way we give readers no excuse for tossing a book! :-)

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  2. Jody, Maybe it's because of what I write (medical suspense), but if there's not something that grabs my attention in the first page or two, I may put down the book. That's how I write them, that's how I pick the ones I read.
    Of course, the book also has to be good to keep me reading past the first couple of pages. So, I guess the answer is "both."
    Thanks for a great post.

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  3. Opening hook is important, good exciting story is SO important, but what I read a book (and I generally read romance whether it is contemporary, historical, suspense, etc) what is most important to me is the hero/heroine interaction. After all, that is why we read romance isn't it? But too many times I've picked up a romance novel and found that the hero and heroine don't even meet until the middle of the book! This frustrates me. I could just give up after the first few chapters but I'm one of those people who feel since I've invested the TIME I need to stick it out and finish the book. But I don't know, I'm starting to get pickier with what I read.

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    1. I agree with you Shelly. I wouldn't continue to read a book if the hero and heroine didn't meet within the first 3 chapters and I think that's being very patient. :) But setting is also very important to me. I'm a regency mystery/suspense fan and that's what I currently write. I like to read and write books that explore a subject I'm interested in too. Love secrets and legends and lunatic asylums and historical medicine. That's what grabs me.

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    2. Great point, Shelly! A romance story has even MORE pressure to keep the true genre reader into the book! A romance has to juggle more than one ball. And if it drops the romance ball, then it's likely to lose its reader for sure!

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  4. I've read a lot of books lately that had amazing starts, and the rest of the book paled in comparison - so much so that I wonder what happened to the author who wrote the beginning.

    Both are important and the quality of the book should remain the same throughout!

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  5. I persevere. I noticed that even slow openings tend to have something that is interesting - maybe it's the voice or place. Not all do this but if they do I keep going.

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  6. Now that I write myself, I have become more aware of books that start with what I call a phony action scene--a hook. One started with two separate car accidents and an ambulance trip to the emergency ward. But this had nothing really to do with the rest of the story and I felt like I was being 'hooked'.

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    1. Oh, great point, Cynthia! I think many authors hear that they need to have a "hook" at the beginning of their books, so they add something exciting just to have it. But you're right, it needs to fit in with the plot in someway, even if to foreshadow something.

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  7. This is a great topic. There's really no telling how much time readers will give a new book before they stick it on a shelf forever. I've had people tell me 50 pages. I've had people tell me two paragraphs. I, myself, can't even tell you how much time I would give a book. So as an author, we have our work cut out for us. The first chapter of BABY GRAND is only six pages and ends on a cliffhanger. I've had editors tell me those six pages were boring. I've had readers tell me those six pages were riveting. Who knows? I guess all we can do is write the best book we can. :)

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  8. I think the reader should become involved in the story right from the first page. I understand your daughter's boredom. She's actually very astute.

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  9. I definitely need to get "hooked" to keep reading a book from start to finish. Sometimes I will put a book down that doesn't grab me and try it again another time. Sometimes it just isn't the right "moment" for me to get something from the story, but when I come back to it, the story seems to fall into place for me and I enjoy it much more

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  10. Sadly, I've recently discovered that some books really aren't worth my time to finish. And the ones I've relegated to the DNF shelf were actually for a variety of reasons: excessive prose, choppy writing, lack of action, even gross misrepresentation of historic facts. I often wonder if I might have overlooked some of these story faults when I was "just" a reader. But now that I'm also writing and studying the craft of writing, my eye has grown much more critical. And my TBR list has also grown exponentially, too! Between research and comps, I no longer have the time to persevere through a book that I don't find intriguing from the get-go. Now, "get-go" might be a few pages, or a few chapters, depending on the story, but something still has to be there. A complex character, an intriguing premise, a real-life locale... something has to grab me pretty quickly these days to keep me going, because my time is too valuable now!

    The great new is, I have NEVER been able to put down a Jody Hedlund book... :-)

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    1. I second that! I love all of Jody's books - they do grab you right from the start, but keep you interested in the characters through the whole story

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    2. Aw, thank you Amy and Kim! You're both so sweet for saying so! I appreciate the vote of confidence! :-)

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  11. As a reader, I don't put that many books down. I might set it aside for a bit and come back to it like another person mentioned. There are a few I have not finished reading, but I usually give it several chapters at least before deciding not to finish it.
    I do agree with you that with the invention of the e-reader and so many free downloads, that it makes it easier to not finish a book and not feel to bad about it!

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  12. The opening pages are really important. You need to catch the readers attention, but the book also needs to hold that attention with a good story.

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  13. For me, I think that it's both. If I'm walking through the library looking at books that I've never read or heard of, the first couple of pages probably need to be good or I won't read any more. But with books that I have previously heard about and like the storyline of, It probably won't matter so much.

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    1. Good point, Bethany. I am usually more willing to slog through a slow opening for authors I already know and trust, versus new authors.

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  14. To me, everything counts. But what matters most to me is its message and its benefits I can obtained from the book at the end of the day. Its opening pages do play an important of holding my attention with a good story.

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  15. Hi Jody. I've been reading your blog for a little while now and I think this is the first time I've commented on it. Really enjoy what you talk about here.

    I'm pretty persevering, I tend to pick out books that I think I'll enjoy and read them for quite a while before I give up if I do. It's pretty rare that I give up on books, but it does happen. There are two books that I got into and then gave up on later on, both of them famous, Fahrenheit 451 and The Count of Monte Cristo.

    The first, I got about 80 pages in and just couldn't get into it at all so I put it down and never finished. The second is a really long one, and I got almost half way through before I got so bogged down with mundane and boring details that I just gave up. So, different reasons for both, the "beginning" was what did it for me with Fahreinheit 451, and the middle was what did it with the Count of Monte Cristo.

    Incidentally, this is a pretty rare problem for me, I frequently read library books, and am almost always able to tell whether or not I will like it from the description on the jacket.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Evan! I think perhaps we're less apt to put down books IF we're more particular about the books we pick up sticking to genres and authors we like already. I rarely put a book down by one of my favorite authors. I usually persevere through a slower spot because I trust their story-telling ability and know it will all work out. But if it's a newer author or classic or book that I'm not as familiar with, I'm MUCH less forgiving.

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  16. I have to have a hook that captures my interest, but it doesn't need to be an action scene. It may be description that transports me into an interesting location, a fascinating character that draws me into their story, or a situation that arouses my curiosity. There are too many good books for me to persevere more than fifty pages if I'm not hooked, so I don't feel guilty any more if I discard a boring book unfinished.

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    1. I hear you, Carol. It's hard for me to persevere too far, especially on free books. I'm wondering if that's a down-side to all the kindle freebies? They're so easy to get and store and read that we have really no work involved in them. Whereas even a "free" library book we have to drive somewhere, pick it out, carry it home, etc. Perhaps we're more apt to persevere in reading a book that we have more investment in? Not sure! But it's something weighing on me these days!

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  17. Sadly few read the classics these days, mainly for the slow beginnings.But how much they are missing by not continuing with, say, a Dickens or Hardy novel.

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    1. Agree! I have the audible book of Jane Eyre that I'm reading right now. In my opinion the first third of the book is very slow and depressing. But now that I'm getting into the heart of the book, I've realized how much I'm enjoying the story.

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  18. I have to be hooked. However, I will persevere to give the story a chance to capture my attention. But by the middle of chapter two, if I am not hooked and don't care, I'll toss the book aside. I guess that is why I am so picky when it comes to purchasing a book. I have found lots of new authors in the freebie sections of Amazon and Smashwords and will then purchase the rest of that author's books. But I'm wary, sometimes. If I haven't heard about it, am I going to get sucked in?
    I wish your daughter luck in finding some good books. I'd be willing to offer up my sister in law's book, "The Peasant Queen" for her to borrow if you have an eReader. Drop me an email: paridzule dot keep at gmail dot com

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