Opening Sentences: Central Conflict as the Narrative Hook

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The Very, Very Beginning

Deep down, or maybe not so deep down, writers know the value of a good opening sentence. Because writers are readers and have read a multitude of first sentences that draw them straight into the story. Even if you don’t know how, you know why: the hook. That magical gimmick that entices readers to keep reading, to buy the book, to read to the end, to tell their friends.

So I’m sure you know why you need The Hook. But how to create it? Structure it? Incorporate it into your story?

Novels vs. Everything Shorter

Novel Hooks

As novels have more word count room to maneuver, the hook for a novel has traditionally appeared on the first page rather than in the first sentence. Most of the time. Can you imagine having to turn to page two in search of the reason to care about this story? I can think of many a book like this. Books I put back on the shelves, unpurchased. The novel may have a dearth of words on hand for getting around to the point, but I do not have a dearth of time to wait. So the latest you might expect a novel hook is on the first page.

Everything Shorter Hooks

Novellas down to flash fiction just do not have the wiggle room of 120K word novels. Often these drop the hook in the first paragraph at the latest. As someone in a constant all-fire hurry, I would say even this first paragraph hook comes too late. I, Mr. Average Reader, will think I’ve learned all I need to know about your story in the first sentence. Whether or not you’re promising me an interesting tale falls to how fast and how well you executed that Hook.

The Hook

Ah, but what of The Hook itself? What is it? There are two things readers want to know about your book, far and away above tone, genre, moral point, et cetera:

What is this person’s problem and why should I care?

The Hook answers those two questions. Almost like a thesis statement in academia. Through answering those two questions, The Hook generates the need to know more, like what happens to this person I now care about and how does their problem get solved?

So often the first sentence contains set-up. That’s fine, because readers could use an anchoring point to let them know what kind of story to expect. For example, the below sentence:

The southern tribes believed that the goddess of day and birth would drop a bead of her spirit from the heavens once every three hundred years.

But such a sentence leaves you asking, so what? And maybe not in the good way that makes you read more, but in the bad way that makes you put down the story. That sentence could contain more punch to jumpstart your reader’s interest with an immediate hook before you launch into continued description of the situation. Example, the below sentence:

The southern tribes believed that the goddess of day and birth would drop a bead of her spirit from the heavens once every three hundred years; Bead, named for this day 92 years ago, meant to be the one to catch it before her entire family line died out.

See how the second part of the sentence relates the main character to the described situation? How it creates need for that character, their personal conflict, and what’s happening because of that conflict? This character has almost a destiny to receive the goddess’s blessing and a very good reason for seeking it, but will she succeed? Now your reader has incentive to keep on reading.

Conclusion

If you can squeak The Hook, the central conflict and reason to care about it, into your opening line (and you can), then you stand a much better chance of convincing your readers to get through your set-up. Doing so in the first sentence leaves them almost zero chance to escape before you’ve got their interest. I suggest reading first sentences of your favorite books and short-stories to see how those writers did it. Then overhaul your first sentences using this method. See the difference.

Got any questions about adding the hook into your first sentence to get your reader’s attention? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for hooking readers in your opening sentences, I want to hear them!


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