This week’s video simplifies the trick of hooking a reader at the beginning of your opening chapter by showing how Elizabeth Gaskell piqued curiosity in “Lizzie Leigh.”
Creating an opening that hooks readers into being unable to put your story down (and, as a result, hopefully plunking down their hard-earned money to purchase it) is the trick you have to master in every one of your stories. But once you know the secret of a good opener, it’s really not so tricky at all. The single most important element in convincing a reader to continue reading past your first page is an unanswered question.
This question might be explicit: perhaps you open with the character wondering something, which will hopefully make readers wonder the same thing. But, more often, the question is implicit, as it was, for example, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “Lizzie Leigh,” which opens with a dying man’s last words to his wife. All he says is, “I forgive her, Anne! May God forgive me.” Readers have no idea whom the man is forgiving, or why he might need to beg God’s forgiveness in turn. The very fact that we don’t know what he’s talking about makes us want to read on to find the answers.
The important thing to remember about presenting this opening question is that it cannot be vague. Readers have to understand enough about the situation to mentally form a specific question. What the heck is going on here? does not qualify as a good opening question. It’s not absolutely necessary that the question remain unanswered for the entire story. It’s perfectly all right to answer the question in the very next paragraph, so long as you introduce another question, and another and another, to give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages in search of answers.