Fundamentals

How to Hook a Reader on the First Page

Why These Four Elements Are Fundamental to Getting an Agent or Editor’s Attention

Holly Lyn Walrath
Jun 18, 2020 · 9 min read

A first chapter is a promise between a book and the reader. — Eric Smith, agent, P.S. Literary

So how do you stand out from the crowd as a writer?

Artwork by Edward Carey

1. Character

Chapter One: A Universal Bath Plug

Beginning the narrative of Clod Iremonger, Forlichingham Park, London

How It Started

It all really began, all the terrible business that followed, on the day my Aunt Rosamud’s door handle went missing. It was my aunt’s particular door handle, a brass one. It did not help that she had been all over the mansion the day before with it, looking for things to complain about as was her habit. She had stalked through every floor, she had been up and down staircases, opening doors at every opportunity, finding fault. And during all her thorough investigations, she insisted that her door handle was about her, only now it was not. Someone, she screamed, had taken it.

(from Heap House by Edward Carey)

Once in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons. Delain was a very old kingdom and it had had hundreds of Kings, perhaps even thousands; when time goes on long enough, not even historians can remember everything. Roland the Good was neither the best nor the worst King to ever rule the land. He tried very hard not to do anyone great evil and mostly succeeded. He also tried very hard to do great works, but unfortunately, he didn’t suceed so well at that. The result was a very mediocre King; he doubted if he would be remembered long after he was dead. And his death might come at any time now, because he had grown old, and his heart was failing. He had perhaps one year left, perhaps three. Everyone who knew him, and everyone who observed his gray face and shaking hands when he held court, agreed that in five years at the very most a new King would be crowned in the great plaza at the foot of the Needle . . . and it would only be five years with God’s grace. So everyone in the Kingdom, from the richest baron and the most foppishly dressed courtier to the poorest serf and his ragged wife, thought and talked about the King in waiting, Roland’s elder son, Peter.

And one man thought and planned and brooded on something else: how to make sure that Roland’s younger son, Thomas, should be crowned King instead. This man was Flagg, the King’s magician.

(from The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King)

Image from Never Let Me Go (2010 film)

2. Genre

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I’m not trying to boast. But then I do nkow for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them ahve been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation.

(from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)

Catalan cover art for Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

3. Stakes

My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died. He had such a strong heart, yet he died. Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop? It’s true that nothing could take him from his work, his art. He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop. So what was it that killed him? To this day I can’t be sure. I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.

(From Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor)

From The Handmaid’s Tale (2017 TV series)

4. One Burning Question

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

(From The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)

Write Wild

On Writing, Books, Reading, and All Things Literary

Sign up for Write Wild

By Write Wild

Top articles from Write Wild on writing, submitting, and promotion  Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Holly Lyn Walrath

Written by

I'm a writer, editor, and poet. Find me online at www.hlwalrath.com.

Write Wild

On Writing, Books, Reading, and All Things Literary

Holly Lyn Walrath

Written by

I'm a writer, editor, and poet. Find me online at www.hlwalrath.com.

Write Wild

On Writing, Books, Reading, and All Things Literary

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store