Ya gotta grab ’em. That’s what everybody says. Hook that reader right away. Make her care what happens. But how?
If you want a good example, go check out the opening of His Majesty’s Dragon. Novik was generous enough to include much of the first chapter as an excerpt on her site — I’m going to go ahead and give her credit for knowing it’s because she frickin’ nailed the hook.
Firstly, dragons in the Napoleonic Wars? Did the author write this for me? Enter my dreamspace and say “you know what Alex wants? This.” So maybe I’m a little partial already.
Secondly, by the time I reached “The end came abruptly”, I was fully invested. I wanted things for the characters and was nervous for what would happen at the end of that paragraph. All that by word number 4,500. Awesome. If I can get that reaction by word number 45,000, I’ll be happy.
Now, part of the success here comes from using a world that we already know about. The reader is familiar in general at least with concepts of duty and honor in the western military tradition, and certainly with the archetype of the noble British seacaptain. And we know what dragons are. So, we’re not thrown into watching a Atreides child face the Bene Gesserit gom jabbar (for example). We’ve got some footing already.
But still. How the hell did she make me care about this plot in under 5,000 words?
She presented good, capable people, and then added something which would change someone’s life irreparably. Instant stakes. These are fine folks who act admirably, the sort of people one respects if not outright aspires towards being like. And someone’s going to have all their life’s plans thrown out the window.
Or maybe a dragon’s gonna eat somebody. Something like that.