Starting Your Book With a Bang: Ways to Catch Readers’ Attention
One may think that a short attention span is novel to the social media age. But I’d like to propose that if someone’s attention is caught, time is an irrelevant factor. With that being said, let’s not waste too much time jump straight into the crux of the matter: How does a writer catch a reader’s attention?
The Art of Writing a Hook
What you’re looking to do here, when you begin a story, is to spark intrigue. A reader should read your text and be compelled to unravel what happens next. Once you catch the reader’s attention, you have all the time in the world for exposition and establishing other elements of a story.
There are many ways to get your reader hooked.
#1: Open with something unexpected.
Absurdity is a great way to catch someone’s attention. Begin your story with something that makes people pause and go, ‘Hang on, wait, what?’. Take a look at this sentence, which the opening sentence of Franz Kafka’s seminal text The Metamorphosis:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
On reading this, your reader instantly realizes that they are moving into the uncharted territory of the unexpected, and are keen to deconstruct what this sentence implies. Is it literal or some kind of metaphor? Where exactly is Kafka leading with this? These are all questions you may have, on reading this sentence.
#2: Start with an action.
Action is a great way to introduce a dramatic effect. Narration is relatively pedestrian in this regard because an unexplained action creates suspense. A reader often wants to know why something is happening, and it’s far more satisfying to unravel it over a course of a few paragraphs or pages that it is to be directly told about it.
As examples, you may open with a fight, or the discovery of a dead body, or a group of people being stranded in a jungle. You’re looking for a pivotal moment in a larger situation. This device of starting a story with an action that has no explanation is called ‘in medias res’, which literally means ‘in the midst of things’. This evokes fascination in a reader, making them wonder how things got here in the first place.
#3: Draw them in with sensory imagery.
Sensory details are a great way to get a reader involved/immersed in a story.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.
The above passage was from George Orwell’s 1984. By describing the sensations of Orwell’s fictional world, a reader is drawn in to the universe because they visualize or simulate the experience of what’s being written.
#4: Introduce a memorable character or narrator.
An intriguing figure instantly catches a reader’s attention. Focus on how you can make them appear interesting and mysterious as soon as your reader encounters them. For this, you can focus on their quirks, eccentricities, anything that could spark a conversation around it.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
That was the opening paragraph of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, a novel that is often considered a fine example of teenage angst and alienation. Two things are happening here: one is that Holden Caulfield is established as a relatable character, and two, he is directly beckoning us to his world as we begin to see a glimpse of his worldview.
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