Never doubt that thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.—Margaret Mead
We’ve backed up through your novel ala E.L. Doctorow’s taillights in the past few weeks, starting with the key to the best possible CLIMAX, followed by the key to the best possible DEVELOPMENT. Guess where we are now? Yep. That’s right.
How do you design a HOOK that gets your reader’s imagination in a half-nelson and simply won’t let go?
You recognize that one, don’t you? Of course you do!
Curiosity killed the cat, and it will kill your reader, too, and they will love it. That’s how good your surprise has to be: worth trading their life for. Because they actually are giving up a piece of their life to you, hours of time they could spend on something else, and they will never get that piece back again.
Make it worth their while.
What on your first page was the reader not expecting to see there? Don’t try to gross them out—surprise will be quickly superceded by repulsion, and that’ll be the end of THAT. But what have they never seen on a first page before? This is called “fresh” and “new,” and it is the Golden Egg for which all agents and acquisitions editors spend their lives hunting.
Even further, what in the whole point of your HOOK—which is the Climax you’re going to reach, approximately 1/8-1/6 of the way into your novel—shows just how dreadful of a pickle your protagonist has gotten themself into? How is it a real, head-spinning surprise? What does your reader simply not see coming? What is the anti-thesis to the expectations they’ve been building ever since that first page gave them a whirl for their money?
First page: Point.
HOOK climax: Counter-Point.
These are the two main threads running through your novel. The tension between them, which must be as powerful as humanly possible, is what keeps your reader on the edge of their seat. And the moment at which Point and Counter-Point finally collide is going to be—way, way, way down the line at the CLIMAX of your novel—the whole reason you’re writing this.
The thing about curiosity is the reader doesn’t know what the heck is going on. And they love that! Amateur peer critiquers are always telling each other, “I don’t understand what’s going on here.” OF COURSE YOU DON’T. That’s why you have to keep reading!
Ever wonder why thrillers and mysteries are the highest-selling genres out there? Because curiosity is the single greatest motivation for reading that has ever existed.
Thrillers are stories in which the reader doesn’t know what’s going on (oh, why do those people in black keep trying to kill the protagonist I adore?) but are intensely emotionally motivated to find out (fear! excitement! more fear!).
And mysteries are stories in which, well, the story itself is a mystery.
What on your first page poses a question the reader desperately wants the answer to, but can’t get without turning the page?
And what in the Climax of your HOOK is an even deeper mystery that the reader now can’t live without solving, but can’t solve without following your protagonist into the full exploration of their fictional nightmare?
The Climax of your HOOK is the moment when your protagonist first becomes aware of the existence of both threads at once, making the danger that they will collide suddenly extremely real indeed.
Which, of course, leads us straight to conflict, the essence of fiction.
Your reader isn’t reading to find out how things are always just ducky for everyone concerned. Your reader is reading to find out what to do when all hell breaks loose.
What on your first page sets up conflict? It doesn’t have to be the single, overriding conflict that’s going to fuel this novel. That comes out of your Point and Counter-Point, which aren’t fully realized in contrast to each other until the Climax of your HOOK. But it’s best in all ways if the conflict on page one can be some microcosm or symptom of that single, overriding conflict. This is part of holographic structure.
Is it the bottle of whiskey in which your protagonist’s loved one will drown themself in the end? The bare feet that will trigger the silent escape that destroys your protagonist’s plans? The cat that runs in front of the car that veers off the road and puts your protagonist in traction right when their dreams are about to be realized?
In this miniscule dew drop is reflected the whole world of your characters’ hell.
This is the final layer: you need to take up residence in your reader’s brain and never move out again. You’re not just surprising. You’re not just mysterious. You’re not even just chock-o-block full of fabulous, riveting conflict and an endless series of quite intelligent and forceful attempts to resolve those conflicts.
You’re fun to hang out with!
Push your reader away with shock, fear, anxiety, mystery. Pull them in with reassurance, strength, answers, entertainment (humor, if you can!). Be secretive—then honest. Be twisted—then straight-forward. Be subtle—then heartrendingly naked. Push-pull push-pull.
This is charm, people. This is addictive charisma.
And don’t forget this detail. You’re going to need it later.