Sunday, February 14, 2010

Marketing: A Killer First Chapter

Today I am ‘stealing a newsletter post’ (the author told me I could) and making it available for my readers. I will also link to the original post and you can sign up for Randy' eZine.

Some of my author friends loathe and despise the word "marketing." It's common for them to say, "The best marketing is good writing."

I agree with them, sort of. I'm not certain that good writing is the VERY BEST marketing a writer can do, but I'm confident that good writing is PRETTY GOOD marketing.

In the weird world of marketing, "pretty good" can be good enough, because nobody knows what the heck they're doing in marketing anyway. Many of the "great"
marketers seem to be people who were successful once on one project for reasons they don't understand, and keep doing that ever after on other projects.

This month I'd like to talk about one aspect of good writing that certainly is good marketing -- writing a killer first chapter.

Some readers will reject a book by its cover, and there's not a thing you can do about that. The cover is your publisher's job. If they create a bad cover, you're at a major disadvantage.

But not all readers are like that. If they like the title, or if they hear good things about your book, many readers will ignore even a dreadful cover and take a look at the first chapter.

That's YOUR responsibility. You can blame the publisher for the cover, but it's lame to blame them for your first chapter.

A good first chapter does four things well:

* It makes a contract with the reader
* It sets a hook in the first sentence
* It sets a second hook near the end of the first page
* It sets a third hook at the end of the chapter
Let's talk about each of those in turn, because they're all critical.

First of all, what's a "contract with the reader?"

That's simple. Your book is going to have a certain tone, pacing, style, and genre. Your first chapter should make clear to your reader what that tone, pacing, style, and genre is going to be. Your first chapter is a promise: The rest of the book will be like this one.

Imagine you read the first chapter of a book that has one long, adrenaline-laced car chase that ends with the bad guys driving off a cliff, falling 300 feet, and exploding in flames while the good guy drives off in his Maserati with his arm around a beautiful woman.

If you buy the book hoping for more fast cars and faster women, wouldn't you be outraged to find that the rest of the book is a slow small-town romance set in Milford?

Yes, you would, because Milford and Maseratis don't mix.

Your first chapter is a contract with your reader that says, "If you like this chapter, you'll like the rest of the book, because it's going to be similar."

Once you write the contract and your reader signs it, don't violate it.

Of course your first chapter should NOT telegraph the rest of the story. Your reader doesn't want you to give away the ending in chapter one. Your reader wants a promise of a certain tone, pacing, style, and genre.

On to the next thing. What's a hook, and why do you need three of them?A hook is something that makes your reader say, "What's going on? What happens next? I've got to read a bit more." That's all a hook has to do.

The reason you need hooks is because your reader always has the option to close the book RIGHT NOW. Early in your book, your reader hasn't yet committed to your story. Early in your book, you need to make the reader commit -- at least to read a bit more.

The reason you need three hooks is because readers have three increasing levels of commitment:

* If your reader likes the first sentence, she'll commit to reading the first page.

* If your reader likes the first page, she'll commit to reading the first chapter.

* If your reader likes the first chapter, she'll commit to the rest of the book. If she's in a bookstore, that's the point at which she buys the book. If she's in the library, it's the point where she puts the book on her checkout list. If she's at a friend's house, it's the point where she asks to borrow the book (or steals it if the friend turns uncooperative).

A hook is generally a sentence or two that DEMANDS the next level of commitment.

Now let's look at two examples of books with strong first chapters and see how well they spell out the contract with the reader and set those three hooks.
Note that hooks are tactical, while the contract with the reader is strategic, so I'll discuss the hooks first and then the contract.

Example: THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins.

THE HUNGER GAMES is a young-adult futuristic adventure novel with overtones of romance told in first-person point of view by a teen female protagonist. It's one of the best books I've read in a very long time and I'll definitely read it again.

Hook #1: The first sentence reads like this:
"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."

Analysis: That's a good, solid hook. Obviously, our protagonist is sharing her bed with someone. But who?
And why?

The answers come fairly quickly on the first page. Our heroine shares a bed with her little sister Primrose, a fresh-faced innocent kid whom everybody loves. Prim owns the world's ugliest cat, Buttercup, which our heroine once tried to drown.

Hook #2: At the end of the last paragraph on the first page, we find these two sentences:
"Sometimes when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me."

Analysis: Yikes, our heroine cleans kills? Why? It sounds like our protagonist is not nearly as sweet and lovable as Prim, but she definitely sounds interesting.
What is she killing?

Again, some answers come quickly as the chapter progresses. Our heroine lives in a poor coal-mining town in a poor district of what used to be the USA. Her father is dead, but he left her a bow and she's quite a skilled hunter. It's illegal to hunt outside the town, but she does anyway in order to feed her family. One of her few friends is a boy named Gale whom she often hunts with, splitting the proceeds.

We eventually learn that our heroine has a name, Katniss Everdeen. We learn that Kat isn't romantically interested in Gale, but it's not hard to guess that this might change. Kat is 16 and Gale is 18 and they're friends.

As the chapter progresses, Kat and Gale fish and hunt, then return home for the main event of the day -- the Reaping. One boy and one girl are to be drawn at random from the inhabitants of District 12 to play in the Hunger Games -- a battle to the death between 12 boys and 12 girls from across the nation. The Hunger Games end when only one survivor remains.

Participation in the Reaping is mandatory. Kat shows up, along with Gale and all the other teens in their town. There's a ceremony before the drawing. Speeches.
Stupid talk about "honor." Then the drawing . . .

Hook #3: The final sentence of the chapter tells the name of the girl drawn to represent District 12 in the Hunger Games:
"It's Primrose Everdeen."

Analysis: We're prepared for Kat to be chosen. We even expect it. But she isn't. Her innocent, defenseless, weak little sister is chosen instead.

That's the end of the chapter. That's a brilliant hook.
If you've read that far and you can close the book, then you have no soul. It's that simple. You HAVE to read on to find out what happens next, even though you know from reading the back cover copy that Kat is somehow going to take her sister's place in a brutal set of modern gladiatorial games that will be televised to the nation.

Contract with the reader: The first chapter is written in first person from the point of view of a fairly cynical but hopeful young woman who is clearly a fighter. Katniss is trapped in a bleak, unfair, dangerous world, but she'll do everything she possibly can to survive and to make sure her family survives.
The pacing is quick and every sentence is well-crafted.
The genre is clearly young-adult adventure.

If you are the sort of person who wants either a very slow pace or an adrenaline rocket, then this book isn't for you. If you want all romance and no violence, then skip this book. If you want all fluff and no grit, then you'll be disappointed. The first chapter sets the stage for what's to follow, and if you like the first chapter, you'll love the book.

All of which reminds me that I really want to read this book again.

Example: THE KITE RUNNER, by Khaled Hosseini.

THE KITE RUNNER is a literary novel set in the years between 1975 and the present, told in first-person by a young man who was born in Afghanistan and later came to the US.

Hook #1: The first sentence reads like this, in a chapter datelined December 2001:
"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975."

Analysis: This is clearly going to be a retrospective novel, working through some coming-of-age issues. The immediate questions any reader would ask are these:
What are you today? What happened in 1975? Why don't you sound happy about it?

It's a good solid hook. As the page progresses, we quickly learn that the answers aren't going to come quickly. There's a mystery to be unraveled here. But we also learn that the protagonist is going to face his past, because it's coming back at him now, 26 years later.

In the final paragraph of the first page, the protagonist gets a phone call from Rahim Khan, an old friend in Pakistan, asking him to come visit. Our hero doesn't say yes and he doesn't say no. He goes for a walk in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. There he sees some kites, and that reminds him of an old, jagged

Hook #2: The paragraph ends with the rather cryptic
"And suddenly Hassan's voice whispered in my head: For you, a thousand times over. Hassan the harelipped kite runner."

Analysis: This raises a LOT of questions. Who's Hassan?
What would he do a thousand times over? What's a kite runner? And what's this got to do with 1975?

The rest of the chapter is just one more paragraph. We get another snippet of the phone conversation earlier, Rahim Khan's final comment before he hung up: There is a way to be good again.

That's intriguing. The chapter is short and it ends with the final hook:

Hook #3: The chapter ends with two sentences that set the stage for the rest of the book:
"I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of
1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today."

Analysis: This raises again the questions that were first raised in the first hook. What is our hero today?
What changed in 1975? Why isn't he happy? Will he find a way to be good again?

Contract with the reader: The first chapter is extremely short, just three long paragraphs told in narrative summary. Clearly this is a literary novel about redemption (or lack of it). The pace is going to be measured, the language will be thought-provoking, and the style elegant.

You learn several things in the first chapter: If your idea of a good book is measured in body count, decibels, or steamy scenes, then the first chapter tells you to look elsewhere, because this is not the droid you're looking for. If you insist on getting a happy ending, you know in advance that none is guaranteed here, although one is possible. If you want authentic Afghanistan, then you can tell right away that you'll get it here.

Now what about the first chapter of your novel? What's the hook in the first sentence? What's the hook at the bottom of the first page? What's the hook at the end of the first chapter? What contract do you offer to your reader?

Can you improve your hooks? Can you clarify your contract?

Don't get hung up on perfection here. The question is whether you can improve what you've got right now. If you can, then do so.

If you can't, set these questions aside for another day. You'll be a better writer next month and next year. Like Scarlett O'Hara, you can think about it later.

Credits for the author: I have learned many valuable tips on writing from this site. Check out his other article titled: Creating---The Path of Least Resistance. It is about his theory that every good model of fiction writing has to pass the "Star Wars test.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 19,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

I am now going to check out the hooks, in my first chapter, and see where I placed them. How are the ‘three hooks of your first chapter?


  1. Excellent post. That first sentence has to draw the reader in, but if it drags after that, s/he won't stick around. I read Les Edgerton's, Hooked. He also had great examples (when he wasn't using his own), which made me rethink my first chapters for several manuscripts.

    You might like this link:

  2. Thank you Theresa

    I followed your link and found it very telling. Surprising, the number of books from this list that I read and more surprising is the number one listing, quoted from Moby Dick. This was the first true Literary Fiction novel I tackled. Reading the novel first enabled me to appreciate the movie. Thank you for the link.