You’ve got about 25 words to hook a reader on page 1 of your story.
Not 25 paragraphs or 25 pages. Words, folks. It equals out to an average-length sentence.
Ergo, the first sentence of your story should grab a reader’s attention strongly enough that the reader finishes reading all of page 1 and turns to page 2.
What kind of hook you use is up to you and your story instincts. Some hooks are crude and some are sublime.
You want to be startling, intriguing, dramatic, vivid, and bold.
You don’t want to open with a long-winded passage of description. Please resist the urge to begin with pages of story background or an explanation of how your planet Mithar developed its unique mythology.
“But readers need to know all that in order to understand the action that’s to come!” wailed a student of mine when I told him to cut the first 50 pages of his fantasy manuscript.
Not a chance, kid.
Readers want to know a few simple things when they start a story:
1) Whose viewpoint are they in.
2) Where is the story located.
3) What’s happening now.
Why do we need viewpoint so fast? It helps orient readers to your imaginary world. It gives readers someone to connect with, maybe even like enough to keep reading. Think of viewpoint as a conduit into your story.
As for where it’s taking place, that simply means day or night, raining or dry, city street or the hay loft. Establishing the setting doesn’t mean including a green Michelin Travel Guide.
Get into the story action fast. If you’re stalling, you either haven’t any confidence in your plot, you don’t know your protagonist, or you’re scared. Probably you’re scared because you don’t know your lead character and you haven’t worked out your plot to any useful degree. Iron out those problems and then begin the story in action.
Whatever action your protagonist is engaged in, make it current to the story situation. Not past history, not background. Keep readers guessing a little. Keep them intrigued. Keep enticing them with hints of explanation to come … later.
If you’re fly-fishing in Montana, you don’t stand in the stream and explain to the trout that you’re going to fillet him and fry him up in cornmeal for that night’s supper before you cast your lure.
Chances are all that talking will scare the fish away.
Here are two samples of opening lines from published novels. Consider whether the hook answers the three questions I mentioned above and whether you would at least read the next paragraph.
I know which one I like best. How about you?
1) As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park. (from Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas)
2) “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White)