“I want to hook my readers from the first sentence.”

That’s something I hear A LOT, especially from new writers. It makes sense: readers want something to draw them into the story, and you want to deliver.

But let me ask you this…what is the first line of the book you’re currently reading? Ah. No cheating, ya gotta tell me from memory.

Don’t know? Me either. At the time of this writing, I’m 52% into a Nick Cutter horror. I couldn’t tell you what the first line was after 4%, either.

The beginning of the book should hook your reader, yes, but it’s also an introduction to your characters. This is where the characters make a meaningful connection to the reader.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is when the protagonist is thrust into a meaningless action scene within the first few pages. While this may work for some genres, especially in James Bond movies, it doesn’t work for most others.

Let me tell you why.

Readers won’t care who is doing what to whom if they don’t know the characters. The action may be exciting and edge-of-your-seat, but if there are no stakes for the character, the reader has no one to root for. They may know the protagonist’s name, but not what he stands for or why this battle is important. If he loses, it’s no big deal.

This is okay for movies and those few stories that are all about the action. Those are fun to write and fun to read, but typically don’t stick in the audience’s mind for very long.

Writing is about human connection, and to do that, you must create a normal world. Even if a story is set in space, if your characters experience something similar to what readers have experienced, the chances are good they’ll connect and empathize with that character.

Set characters in their regular environment. If your characters work in cubicles, start there. Let them go about their daily lives. Show them interacting with others and, unless there’s a good reason not to, give them names.

Now is the time to introduce their goals. These goals will be something they strive for throughout the book, yet probably won’t ever achieve. It may sound harsh, but the trials they’ll go through are going to change them and they will outgrow those goals. If they do achieve them, the outcome won’t be anything like they pictured.

Let’s go back to our cubicle example. There are many goals these characters could have: climbing the corporate ladder, starting their own business to get out of the hustle, or even just to get on flights to see their families for the holidays.

Once you have a goal in mind, put a few obstacles in their way. Remember, this is still just the beginning of the story. The main event that provokes them to act hasn’t happened yet. These obstacles can be a tyrannical boss, a chatty co-worker, a delayed flight, etc. It needs to be something that throws the characters off-kilter slightly.

This conflict can be resolved within this normal world and doesn’t have to drag on through the entire story if it doesn’t need to. The important thing is how the protagonists handle the stress and deal with the obstacle. This is going to be part of their character arc for later in the story.

The hardest part to get right in this beginning part is introducing the overarching conflict of the story. This must be hinted at before the inciting incident. Say cubicle guy is in a sci-fi about aliens invading Earth. There must be something that lets readers in on it, without them even knowing. This could be as simple as a passing statement to co-workers discussing the possibility of life on other planets. Maybe cubicle guy believes, maybe he doesn’t. His statement will give readers hints to his personality.

The best example I’ve seen of the beginning of a story is from the movie Onward. A teen and his brother set out to bring their father back to life using magic. The boys, by the way, are elves, so when I say “normal world,” it means normal for the characters. Introducing a fantasy world’s normal is doubly important so readers get a sense of the setting, time period, types of characters, and everything else that comes along with fantasy.

The movie starts on Ian Lightfoot’s sixteenth birthday. All he wants (scene goal) is to have a quiet breakfast and get on with his day. However, things get off-kilter when his big brother Barley comes in. Toast gets burned, jelly gets dropped, light-hearted arguments happen. These conflicts prevent Ian from reaching his goal.

When Ian finally gets out of the house, he gets to have his quiet breakfast while sitting on a bench outside his school. We still don’t know what the overarching conflict is. What we do get is a hint at what it may be. As he’s sitting, he reflects on his late father, wishing him there.

After that, he heads to school where he experiences another short conflict that most of us can identify with. This is the part that connects us to the character. He tries to talk to a girl he has a crush on. Just as he’s about to ask her out, Barley comes hauling into the parking lot, honking his van horn and embarrassing Ian. Even if you haven’t had this exact experience, I’m certain you’ve had one like it: someone has embarrassed you in front of someone you’d much rather look cool in front of. It evokes empathy for Ian. It also introduces his story goal: he wants to have confidence.

This normal world hits all the marks: it introduces characters, hints at the overarching conflict, shows setting, and introduces a goal for the protagonist. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the movie, consider checking it out, even if just for the beginning.

Remember, you don’t need to throw your characters into a perilous situation before we get their names. Show who they are by putting them in their normal world and lob a few obstacles their way, so readers see how they deal with conflict. Your audience will connect with your characters, the conflicts will weigh heavier, and the story will stick with them.

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