Hiding the Ball: How to Hook Your Reader from Page One

Jessica BrodyAt Figment, we’re always looking for solutions to our writing problems. And we’re always thrilled when published authors will share some helpful advice. For instance, how do you write an opening chapter that makes a book unputdownable? Jessica Brody, author of Unrememberedhas a few ideas to solve that problem. And we think you should listen to her. After all, she’s a bestselling author and she regularly teaches writing workshops.

Need one more reason? Check out Jessica’s post below and then enter the writing challenge for a chance to see your entry featured on the Figment homepage!

No matter what you’re writing, one of the most important scenes for you to nail is the opening scene. More important, that first page. It’s your fishing line. It’s what is going to reel in your reader and make them bite into your story. But you can’t catch fish without really good bait.

Jessica Brody at her deskWhen I write opening scenes, I like to insert the reader right into the story. I like to drop them in the middle of what’s happening, with little or no background information, and let them figure it out on their own. This immediately makes the reader part of the action. As opposed to simply reading about the action from the sidelines. It keeps them guessing. It’s engaging. And the more you can engage the reader on page one, the more likely it is they’ll turn to page two.

Because to be honest, sometimes one page is all you get. A reader or an agent may not have time for you to “get to the action” on page 30. They may put your story down on page 10. Or page five. Or page one!

It your job, as the brilliant, savvy writer that I know you are, to make sure that doesn’t happen.

So how do you grab someone when you only have one page to do it?

First, you start in the action. Not before it. Not after it. But in it. You toss your reader into the action-packed choppy seas of your story head first . . . without a life jacket.

And then…you hide the ball.

I know you’re probably thinking, ball? What ball? Suddenly there’s a ball?

To which I reply, “Oh yes, there’s always a ball.”

The ball is the essence of the opening scene. It’s what you’re trying to get across. It’s the situation your hero is in, the problem your hero is having, the predicament your hero is trying to get out of. Don’t tell us what it is. Let us figure it out on our own. Engage the reader by giving them bits of carefully-selected information at a time.

Unremembered (the first installment in a new sci-fi suspense trilogy), my main character wakes up floating in rough, choppy water. She’s surrounded by pieces of debris and, creepily enough . . . dead bodies. She has no memory of anything that happened prior to this moment and so she has to take in her surroundings and figure out where she is and what happened. As does the reader.

It isn’t until a few pages later that you discover she’s the sole survivor of a plane crash. But you have to keep turning the pages to get there. I don’t give it away for free!

This technique doesn’t only work for sci-fi thrillers and mysteries, though. It works for every genre.

In My Life Undecided, (one of my contemporary YA comedies), I opened the story with an arrest scene. Brooklyn, my adorable, innocent (ish) 15-year-old teen character is getting put into the back seat of a cop car in the middle of the night while nosy neighbors watch from the curb. Why is she getting arrested? Well, that’s my ball. And I hid it. I focused on the action of the scene. The details of the arrest itself, and what the character is thinking and feeling as it’s happening. But I don’t show you the ball until chapter two, a few pages later. I want you to be asking the question. Because if you’re asking a question, it means you’re engaged. It means you’ll keep turning the pages until you find out.

So there you have it. Drop ‘em in, keep ‘em guessing. That’s the kind of action that keeps readers hooked. Regardless of genre or medium, you can infuse mystery, suspense and action into any story.

So go forth, get writing, and keep us turning those pages until the end.

 

Writing Challenge:

Unremembered by Jessica BrodyFollowing Jessica’s advice, write an opening scene for a novel. Your scene should begin in the middle of the action—and there should be an unanswered question. Why is your character being chased; crying hysterically; hiding in the bathroom? It’s up to you what the “ball” is—just make sure to hide it!

Tag your story BallChallenge. The challenge runs until Monday, March 25 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Figment editors will read all the entries. Four winners will be featured on the Figment homepage. 

Entries should be no more than 500 words.

Contest Entries

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    The Fringe

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    Dunadir: The Dragon Slayers of Cinderan

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    Here's a sneak peek of what's to come in my novel-in-progress "Awakening" -------> Please feel free to read the published part of it h…

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    This is my entry for the 'Hiding the Ball' contest. I am considering expanding it, so please give me feedback!

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Show all entries »

50 thoughts on “Hiding the Ball: How to Hook Your Reader from Page One

  1. So should we include the “ball” in our chapter, at say the end? Or should we hide it completely and not follow it up? Just have the mysterious action?

    • This is what the prompt says:

      Following Jessica’s advice, write an opening scene for a novel. Your scene should begin in the middle of the action—and there should be an unanswered question. Why is your character being chased; crying hysterically; hiding in the bathroom? It’s up to you what the “ball” is—just make sure to hide it!

      So, no. You are not to add the “ball” at the end. The whole entry is, in itself, the “ball”; you want to keep this hidden.

  2. Can we use strong language? Say, maybe like THE “f” word? you know what i’m saying? Or a limit to how many we can have?

    :s

  3. Hi, it’s been a while, and I’ve noticed that a lot of other contests that have started after this one ,and had more entries, finished. However this contest never got the results. So I was wondering if it was either cancelled, or that it was just taking more time than usual.

  4. You guys have been saying that the winners would be announced for a very long time now. I would love to start continuing my entry, but I can’t because the results are not in. If this takes any longer, I will remove myself from this contest. Not like it matters, I never win anything, but I guess I’ll wait and see…and wait some more…

  5. Can Figment please tell us if this is cancelled or if it’s just taking way too long because I’m sure lots of people would love to know the results

    • Hey! The winners announcement went up this morning, and the winning stories are featured on the homepage, today, 6/17.

  6. It’s a shame I just found this website and missed these contests that have been going on, I love writing and this sums up my challenging first chapter of my work-in-progress to the letter. It’s really tough to hook, keep the reader guessing YET not confused by being too vague, moving the plot along YET not giving away too much… For these reasons and the complexity that is creating a story, I love my “volunteer” readers (family and unsuspecting friends) to death. I guess readers from the target audience have some of the best opinions you can get as long as they are honest!

  7. Bwhahahaha-haha I must be on the right track. instead of my critique circle looking for gramme and spelling mistake they are now, asking a million questions of who, why, how, and such.

    You call it the ball, I call it dangling the worm, make them want it right? 😉 This such fun making these chapters answering one question and creating several others. :3 I think writers have to love to tease.

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