How to Hook Readers with your First Sentence

“It was a bright spring day when Calla Emery kneed the man her mother sent to woo her, deep in the crotch.”

With this first sentence, indie author Katrina N. Lewis immediately “hooked” me on her debut Epic Fantasy novel, Heavy is the Head: Love and War.


First sentences—the bane or boon of every writer—are often the only chance we get to capture and captivate not only readers, but agents as well.


This is especially important in the age of ebooks, where, according to Slate, only 38% of readers reading electronically quit reading after the first sentence*. The Nielsen Norman Group** also shows that while 79% of their web readers skimmed the first page, only 16% actually read the entire page.


In writer-speak, that means on 16% of people move on to read your entire opening page.


*Cue Writer Heart-Attack*


Wait! Don’t run away or hang up your writer hat yet!


While writing a strong opening hook is daunting and infuriating at times, it is definitely possible.


When looking at your first sentence, it helps to look at it from a reader’s POV. We’re talking about the first sentence of chapter 1, mind you, as many readers may skip prologues, depending on the genre.


So what are the key things a reader is looking for?


1. Who am I following into the story?


If this is a third-person point-of-view story told by a narrator, ideally the character’s name or nickname should show up in the first sentence. If you’re planning on sharing their full name (given name and middle/surname), it will most likely be shared in sentence one.


This tells us outright who we should focus on and try to relate to in the tale.


2. What feeling does this scene/story have?


What tone/emotions are you wanting your reader to walk into this book with? Is that a feeling that they associate with their expectations for the genre?


For example, does the opening of your horror-thriller leave a feeling of foreboding and darkness? Or does it accidentally (or purposefully, for misdirection’s sake) leave your readers like a pretty princess having a tea party under a willow tree in the sun?


You want your book to ‘click’ right away—to make your reader say “Oooh! Yes, this is my kind of book!”


3. What questions do we have at the end of sentence 1 that makes us “need” to keep reading?


Whether the questions we walk away with are broad, story-level questions, or scene-specific “I need to know more” questions, use sentence 1 to make the reader think that they can’t just click away/set a book down without resolving one more question.


I know it’s a lot! But let’s take a look at Lewis’s first sentence again, and you’ll see the pattern of all three.


1. (Who) “It was a bright spring day when Calla Emery kneed the man her mother sent to woo her, deep in the crotch.”


Calla Emery is our main character. We know we’re following Calla into the story, and we immediately put ourselves in her shoes. What’s interesting about the subconscious implication of this, though, is our emotional investment in the story because of our knowledge of who the main character is.


When Calla Emery knees the would-be wooer, do you notice that you immediately assume she must be justified, though we have no story information to justify it? We immediately take her side and perhaps even cheer her on. Our empathy is activated, and we care about her character. Since we’re more likely to read about a character we care about, I call this utilization of character introduction here a win.


2. (Tone) “It was a bright spring day when Calla Emery kneed the man her mother sent to woo her, deep in the crotch.”


There is an amazing duality in this opening sentence from Katrina that sets the tone as a ‘This should have been a beautiful, warm day’ combined with ‘mother is forcing guys on Calla {who is otherwise happy}, to the point she’s having to physically fend them off’.


The former beautiful weather is a hint at the life before the inciting incident of the story, and the latter reaction to what comes across as typical behavior of her mother sets up the tone for both Calla’s personality and a relatable struggle (I want to choose my own lot in life) in the story.


3. (Conflict) “It was a bright spring day when Calla Emery kneed the man her mother sent to woo her, deep in the crotch.”


For one short sentence, Lewis definitely packs some punches with the ‘hooks’ here. On a broad level, we have ‘who is Calla?’ ‘Why is Calla’s mom trying to set her up with guys so pushy she has to physically fend them off?’ ‘Why does Calla not want to be wooed, or is it just her mom’s kind-of guys she dislikes?’


On a scene-specific level, we have to know ‘What happens next after she knees him?’ ‘Who is this guy?’ ‘What did this guy do, exactly?’


As a result of these questions which are both broad and scene-specific, we walk away with a reason to read the immediate scene, and then bigger-picture questions to invest in emotionally for the overall story.


A final piece of advice I have found helpful as an author, myself, is this: your opening sentence should be the last thing you “write” (ie – revise). Consider your first draft’s first sentence to be a placeholder.


Flesh out the feelings and questions you want readers to have as you write the rest of the story. Decide who your main character is (because yes, sometimes that changes). And then come back and wrap those up with a beautiful “hook” to dangle in front of potential readers.


Happy writing!


* https://slate.com/technology/2013/06/how-people-read-online-why-you-wont-finish-this-article.html

** https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/

***The first sentence of Heavy is the Head: Love and War by Katrina N. Lewis was used in this blog with the author’s written permission. Heavy is the Head can be purchased on Amazon (or read free with Kindle Unlimited) here: https://www.amazon.com/Heavy-Head-Katrina-N-Lewis-ebook/dp/B091G95WT3/ ***


Meet Katherine D. Graham

Katherine D. Graham is an author/Developmental Editor/Reedsy Reviewer from Tennessee in the United States. Her debut fantasy novel, The Vow That Twisted Fate (July 2021) is an Amazon bestselling New Adult/College Fantasy novel.


When Katherine isn’t writing, she enjoys grilling out, reading, traveling, playing video games, and hanging out with her husband, two sons, and three cats.


Connect with Katherine on Instagram @katherine_d_graham, Facebook @katdgraham and Twitter @KatDGraham as well as on Bookbub, Goodreads and Amazon. You can also visit her website: https://www.katherinedgraham.com/

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