Three Ways the Opening of Graceling Draws the Reader In

I recently attended Kristin Cashore's reading of Fire at the Harvard Bookstore. Afterwards, I bought a copy of Graceling and started reading it as I waited in the signing line.  By the time my turn arrived, I was hooked.  Cashore does a great job of engaging the reader right away. Here's why I think it effectively drew me in:

1.  The story starts with movement.

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.  One that had so far proven correct, as Oll's maps tended to do.  Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went...

The opening paragraph puts us in the middle of something interesting --  a heroine running through a dungeon.  A few paragraphs later, she single handedly defeats 5 dungeon guards.   Intriguing.  I wanted to know more.

2.  The opening establishes the main character as worth rooting for.

...Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Council, had wanted her to kill [the dungeon guards].  But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time. . . . 
She wouldn't kill, not if she didn't have to.  A killing couldn't be undone, and she'd killed enough....

For a reader to invest several hours in a character, he has to be convinced that the character is worth rooting for.  Given that our first impression of Katsa is fairly violent, it's not clear immediately whether she is likeable or sympathetic.  Therefore,  it was helpful for Cashore to establish early on that Katsa, though deadly, has principles and sticks to them.

3.  There is a Sexy Mysterious Guy on page 12 -- ahem, I mean --  It ends with a mystery.

...She caught the fall of every leaf in the garden, the rustle of every branch.  And so she was astonished when a man stepped out of the darkness and grabbed her from behind.  He wrapped his arm around her chest and held a knife to her throat.  He started to speak, but in an instant she had deadened his arm, wrenched the knife from his hand, and thrown the blade to the ground.  She flung him forward, over her shoulder.
He landed on his feet.

We spent the first few pages watching Katsa beating multiple armed men senseless with her bare hands. Now someone manages to sneak up on superhuman Katsa without her knowing, and when she throws him, he lands on his feet? Who is this guy? The scene ends without revealing the mystery man's identity, an I keep reading to find out more.

In your story openings, do you give thought to drawing the reader in?  What are your strategies?


  1. I just recently read Fire. I haven't read Graceling, but want to very soon. You are right. Cashore does an amazing job of pulling the reader immediately into the story with characters you care about.

  2. I try to place a hook in the first sentence. If I can't do that, I'd better get one into the first paragraph. In media res, baby.

    All these wonderful reviews of YA books make me want to cheat on my 20th century literary giants. Just a little bit, mind. I'm sure they won't care (being dead, and all)...

  3. Careful -- read too much YA and your attention span will be ruined for anything slower paced.

  4. I also try to put a hook in the first sentence - something to draw the reader in. It'll take some work until I do it this well however :)

  5. Hi there! It's @miss_rosie from Twitter here.

    This is interesting for me because I think you pretty much nailed all the reasons I was so hooked by Graceling's opening. At the time I was oblivious to the technical side of the writing because I was so caught up in the action.

    I was talking to a writer friend on Twitter following us both reading your post, and he found that Graceling was much more of a slow burner - the opening scenes/chapters didn't immediately grab him and he almost didn't get through them. It's interesting that what works for some people doesn't push the right buttons for others. My friend liked Graceling overall, but the book caught him up a few chapters in.

    I may have to go back and re-read it following your thoughts on it and the discussion I had on Twitter. It's definitely worthwhile to start looking at novels from a more analytical/writerly perspective, and it's very interesting too!

    I'm looking forward to your future posts on Graceling. :)

  6. driftingastray -- Hmm, I wonder if there's a gender difference here. Sexy Mysterious Man may not have the same pull on guys.

  7. Haha, that's a very good point! XD Yes, from a female perspective I can't quite imagine that scene having the same kind of punch WITHOUT Sexy Mysterious Man's entrance at the end. These three different ways are interpreted differently by male and female readers.

  8. I love writing tips and text analysis. Nice job and makes me want to read the book.

  9. Ohh, I'm so jealous you got to hear Cashore read. I really enjoyed Graceling and agree with your assessment of the book's opening. Also, the fact that Katsa is such an interesting female character drew me in, and now I kinda want to take self-defense lessons to be more like her. :)

  10. I love when I open the cover of a book and read and am pulled in. You know, I have no choice because the words are grabbing me and I must read. Love it! Oh and the opposite? I am yawning and my attention is drawn to the to do list on the fridge.

  11. Haha, agreed on how reading too much YA is bad for patience. I enjoyed Graceling and your analysis of the intro.

    You should do a follow-up on the story's resolution. I was less satisfied with the mostly glib storyline wrap-up, but would be interested to see your take :)

  12. Wallis, Both Fire and Graceling have an unconventional plot format, where the big climax comes about 3/4 of the way through and the rest kind of the book slowly resolves the emotional and character arcs. I liked it in Graceling, but not as much in Fire. I think this is because I liked the characters in Graceling more, so I was willing to hang out with them for longer. And I also didn't really like Leck's role in Fire, so I think that might have something to do with it. Hmm, perhaps I will post about this, I'll see...

  13. I haven't read Graceling or Fire and the only one available at my local library is Fire. Do I have to read Graceling b4 Fire or does it not really matter? btw, luv your 'book review'

  14. Anonymous -- Fire is pretty much a standalone book. You find out a little bit about Leck, who plays a big role in Graceling, but it won't ruin too much if you read it first.

  15. @ Anonymous - they're both stand alone stories so you don't have to read one before the other however, I recommend reading GRACELING before FIRE.

    Though well-deserving of all the praise that it received, the sheer depth and skilled character weaving of FIRE makes it glaringly apparent that GRACELING is a first novel by a new author and I found it disappointed my expectations when read second.