What qualities should a writer build into the opening sentence or sentences (the Hook) of a pageturner novel?
Perhaps a good way to answer this question is to explore the qualities one writer (J.K. Rowling) built into the opening sentence of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first Harry Potter book – and one of the most successful pageturners ever.
Rowling’s first sentence is: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” This accomplishes the goal of hooking the reader, and does so with added layers of value for the reader: a unique narrative voice, characterization, and humor and wit all packed into one short sentence. What reader wouldn’t want to read on and keep turning the pages?
– Wit and humor – Note that Rowling speaks with a delightfully variegated tone in her opening line. She doesn’t just bluntly state: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley had something to hide.” In and of itself, that isn’t a bad hook, by the way. But what J.K. wrote is better. Her line both duplicates the smug self-satisfaction that typifies the Dursleys (as the reader will come to find out). At the same time, Rowling’s word choices in that first sentence skewer the Dursleys’ narcissistic and closed-minded outlook.
– Careful language choice – In Rowling’s opening sentence, the Dursleys don’t just see themselves as “normal.” They see themselves as perfectly normal. And the narrator adds the snarky, “thank you very much,” a verbal fillip that the Dursleys would undoubtedly offer to anyone audacious enough to question their status as they perceive it.
The choice of Privet Drive as their address serves two purposes: a privet hedge is a barrier homeowners erect between themselves and the public; it’s something that provides privacy, that can cloak the goings on in a given home or yard. In addition, the word “privet” sounds like the word “private.” Privet Drive for the Dursley’s address is an inspired language choice.
Note also that the Dursleys are “proud to say.” In British English, “I’m proud to say” is a common expression. It means you are about to share what you consider a bit of good news about yourself. But Rowling here uses the word to signal something more to us. The Dursleys aren’t just being conversational in using that phrase. They really are proud – and it’s the kind of pride that teeters into arrogance and edginess – which Rowling underscores with the addition of the snippy “thank you very much.”
– Hint of conflict/mystery– Rowling’s opening sentence lets the reader know that the Dursleys are edgy about the issue of normality. Why? the reader wonders. Why is it such a big deal to them? What might they be hiding?
– Enticement for the reader to read further – With the Dursleys putting such an emphasis on being “perfectly normal,” and combining that emphasis with edgy language designed to stop an inquirer from asking any further questions, Rowling has signaled they are hiding something. The reader wants to read to find out what that something is.
So there you have it. In the hands of a masterful writer, the Hook is packed with enticements to read on; it assures the reader he is in good hands, that he can safely entrust his precious time to this work, and – by doing so – will be rewarded with more moments of absorption, excitement, insight and delight.
And note how Rowling’s Hook achieves all this with very few words, and with a light deft touch.