First impressions are powerful! With a single glance at someone, we take a snapshot of their entire appearance, analyze their body language, and instantly form opinions about them. Making snap judgments based on first impressions is an ingrained part of human nature, and we will fiercely cling to our conclusions. Writers need to utilize this power! People are avalanched with hundreds of books. How can you get potential readers to buy your book? Read on to find out. 🙂 [I’ve included a bonus at the end to help you.]
* There are three first impressions that you must perfect to hook potential readers.
Your cover gives us the first instant impression. It must intrigue us to the point that we are eager to find out about the story. Make sure you have an expert graphic artist design a riveting cover, or people will glance at it and move on.
If you’ve snagged a potential reader by your cover, they will read the description of the story next. It’s critical to hook readers by this summary. Their first impression of the book content will either grab them solidly, or they’ll just move on. Use an excellent editor to help you write this description succinctly and powerfully.
Example: Which book would you want to read?
1) A man who is a cop and a woman who is an artist are thrown together by unforeseen and terrible circumstances. There is danger that threatens them and everyone around the world like tsunamis ready to drown them. Will they survive? Will they save the world? Will they fall in love after all they’ve been through together?
2) One horror-filled incident eclipses all the success that FBI Special Agent Jim Granite has amassed in his career. No one knows that the confident, steely man who has made a national name for himself is driven by sweat-soaked nights and secret torment he can never escape. One miscalculation permanently wrecked his life. But it will never happen again. Never. And no one will ever find out about it.
Tarina Vee savors her lavish life after a decade of agonizing work and extreme sacrifices to reach the pinnacle of success. She is sought after by high-paying clients to create elaborate and mysterious sculptures. She is regularly featured in magazines and on reality TV shows, flying all over the world in posh celebrity style. Talkative and animated, Tarina loves to speak about her work with passion, but she never reveals the meaning behind her enthralling pieces. That secret goes with her to the grave.
Boarding her private plane for a luxury flight to meet with a billionaire investor in New York, Tarina is tackled by a hijacker. He’s already killed her private pilot and flight attendant, but he says he’ll spare her for ransom money. Bound and drugged, she overhears him speaking cryptically to someone about pulling the trigger to demolish several key cities around the world. Something major is going down, but there is nothing she can do.
When a private plane ignores all warnings and crash lands in the middle of JFK airport, law enforcement swarms the area. A fully-shrouded man exits using famed artist Tarina Vee as a human shield and shouts preposterous demands to them. Before the NYPD Crisis Negotiations Team arrives, he shoots Tarina in one hand and threatens to shoot every joint and limb until his demands are met. Agent Granite gets permission to stop the madman, just as reports flood in of atrocities exploding across the globe. This is much more than a kidnapping for high ransom money. He’s got to neutralize this man immediately, save Tarina, and stop the destruction. Or get as far as he can before being killed.
* You get the idea. In your book description, create vivid characters and scenes and plant intriguing problems and questions in the reader’s mind. Pull them in to experience it like a gripping movie preview that ends in a teaser so they have to read the book. NEVER, EVER write “Will he succeed in saving the girl and stopping the crime to save countless lives?” or other silly, obvious questions. End with uncertainty to force readers to buy your book to find out what happens.
THE FIRST CHAPTER
If a reader is intrigued by your cover and your description, the next hook is extremely important. Typically the person will immediately read the first few pages of the book (it’s free on Amazon). This is your final chance. You need to snag their attention so completely that they can’t stop reading and have to buy the book!
Example of first pages:
It was a warm, balmy evening. The kind that makes you sleepy. The city traffic noises are hypnottic. Like walking in a dream. A familiar dream, of the city. Gritty. Ugly. You start sweating. You know that danger is lurking, but right now you feel drowsy from lack of sleep. And lethargic. Even though your an FBI Agent. A famous one. Granite yawned and turned the corner.
FAIL! The reader stops and moves on. You’ve lost them, possibly for good. What went wrong? Their first impression of the story is negative. You never want that to happen! The first chapter MUST be absolutely riveting. The example above failed for several reasons:
* First, it’s boring. Start every first chapter with a gripping first scene. It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing. Captivate the reader!
* Next, we have no idea who is talking, where they are, what they are doing. We can’t visualize this scene and are stuck with a bunch of vague pieces that don’t fit together. What city is this? Why is this person drowsy and feeling dreamy when danger is lurking? Whoa! It’s an FBI agent! Why isn’t he on guard? Where is he? Is he walking or driving—or sleepwalking—when he turns the corner? This is too confusing to follow.
* The typos are distracting. “Hypnotic” is spelled with one “t.” There is no comma after “dream.” And, of course, the ultimate inexcusable typo—“your” should be “you’re.”
* There are too many stops. Don’t overuse. The short. Incomplete phrases. They are jolty. When written. This. Way. They are a special effect to be used sparingly and subtly, otherwise they are as distracting as too many exclamation points!!!! Using incomplete phrases is an art form. If you don’t know how to do it effectively, don’t do it…or it will backfire on you.
* It’s much, much too repetitive. Readers are smart. I’m going to say it again: readers are smart. They get it the first time. When you repeat something over and over, it’s demeaning—and irritating. If you tell us something once, we capture it in our “first impression.” Don’t say it again ten different ways or repeat it multiple times throughout the book. In this example, we get that the person is sleepy. You don’t have to say anything more about it unless he either falls asleep or something wakes him up.
Repetition is so overused by authors that I can’t stress it enough. We GET the first impression you give us, now give us something else. I constantly read descriptions like: “Her stunning blue eyes took his breath away.” In the next scene, “He was mesmerized when her blue eyes met his.” In the next scene, “His heart stuttered when she turned her blue eyes to him.” Then “Her blue eyes pierced his very soul.” Please stop! We know he is entranced by her blue eyes. Give us new information—a new visual, a new emotion, new body language.
Important: A professional editor would point out all of these problems, so make sure you utilize the expertise of someone who can help you succeed.
* OK, let me make an attempt at a riveting first scene. Remember: you have one chance to make an effective first impression!
The roaring in his head competed with the screams—high, piercing cries. What happened? He tried to get up, but his body was paralyzed. Dead weight. Something wet ran down his face, probably blood. A sniper must have hit his spinal cord. The screaming continued in his ear, and he fought with all his might to move.
Yelling, he bolted up—in bed, soaked and shaking. His German Shepherd whined and licked his hand. He gasped heavily to catch his breath and absently patted her head. She had been licking his face and crying, her usual method of waking him from the nightmares that tormented him most nights. His heart hammered wildly. He flicked on the light. No blood, no paralysis, no sniper. Just full-blown panic that felt exactly like…that horrible day.
He got up and stumbled to the bathroom, turning on the bright lights and leaning over the sink. The panic attack would take a while to subside. How long could he continue to live like this and not go crazy? He splashed cold water on his face, then scrubbed it hard with a towel. He caught his reflection in the mirror. A haggard old man with crazed and bloodshot gray eyes met him. He turned away. Rubbed his head and felt the thick scar under his sweaty cropped hair. The scar that stretched to his soul.
It was 4:10 a.m. More sleep than he usually got. He needed to take a shower and get himself under control. Become someone else—successful and highly esteemed FBI Special Agent Jim Granite. Always put together, always confident, the tough man who put more criminals behind bars than any other in New York. Fearless. Made of granite, just like his name.
As he turned on the shower, a strobing wail pierced the air—urgent call from work. He stumbled to get it.
Much better! Why? We are yanked into another world by the very first sentence, and the tension never lets up! We get a clear first impression of the main character. We know his secret immediately, and we are eager to find out exactly what happened to cause these night terrors. However, he hides it extremely well. He’s a successful and highly esteemed FBI special agent in New York. He’s tough as granite. We already feel like we know him—we are in his POV (feeling what he feels, thinking what he does). I’ve established a gripping first impression that you will cling to through the rest of the book.
Remember, it’s critical to establish every character the moment we see them. In real life or watching a movie, we take a full snapshot of the person. You need to write this way. In this case, we know he has gray eyes, short hair, and a deep scar on his scalp. He’s solidly built and tough. As soon as I can, I’ll describe his face (if he puts on glasses, if he shaves, if he has facial hair), his height, and how others view him. In the very first scene Tarina appears, I’ll describe her as detailed as possible to give readers an accurate first impression. There’s nothing worse than imagining a character in your own way because the writer doesn’t describe them, then in the middle of the book they suddenly have blue-streaked hair, oversized glasses, and a peg leg! Tell us immediately what we would see if we were there. First impressions—even our own made-up descriptions—will stick with us through the entire story, and if you change or add things later on, we will balk at it.
Also, your plot needs to be racing forward. The reader needs to be yanked into the story and can’t get out. After we realize Granite is going to get himself together, he gets an urgent call from work. No lingering in the shower or drinking coffee or doing anything else. He has to go! Go! Go! From the very first word, keep the reader trapped on a wild roller coaster—then it stops abruptly. No more free pages. They have to buy your book to see what happens. Success! 🙂
Savvy Writer Tip:
First impressions are so strong that we cling to them tenaciously. Writers need to use this human instinct to grab the attention of potential readers so effectively that they have to buy your book. The three critical areas are: your cover, your book description, and your first chapter. If you spend time, energy, money, and everything you’ve got to get these three first impressions right, you will most likely catch plenty of readers! Of course you need to continue with quality writing and a satisfying story, but if you don’t get these first impressions right, potential readers won’t buy your book to find out.
BONUS: Here is a checklist I give to authors. These things needs to be established right away in a book to give us solid first impressions:
* Time setting:
* Place setting:
Each main characters’
* full name:
* height and build:
* color and length/style of hair (men – facial hair):
* eye color/glasses:
* unique features (mole/limp/scar/button nose/chiseled jaw):
* internal motivations (wounds/fears/dreams/goals):
* location of job:
* where live:
Put every one of those details in the first two or three scenes where the character appears. Make sure it’s exactly what we would experience if this were happening to us in real life. Once we have these details (and make sure you keep them consistent throughout the book), you can develop all kinds of intriguing plot lines, and we will be right there in the scenes with each person. 🙂