Few things are as important to novelists as the opening line of their books. Few things are as frustrating. Today, we will take a look at how to write a good hook for your story.
How many books have you rejected because the first few lines failed to capture your imagination?
By “hook,” I don’t mean only the first sentence. Capturing your reader can happen with one line, of course, but sometimes it takes half a dozen. You have 30 seconds or less to hook your readers, and you must engage them every 30 seconds after that.
You have 30 seconds or less to hook your readers, and you must engage them every 30 seconds after that. #amwriting
I polled my author friends for their criteria for a good opening line, and they made these comments:
“Generally, I like first lines that surprise me and let me know I’m in for a ride. Something that hints at the vastness of the story to come.” —Lisa Gefrides
“I like openings that instantly make me ask questions, or promise some action, or offer some intrigue, or surprise me, or display a sense of humour along with action.” —Loraine Kemp
Linda shared this line from Jan Karon’s A Light in the Window, “Serious thinking and crossing the street, he once said, shouldn’t be attempted simultaneously.” (Jan Karon, A Light in the Window [New York: Penguin Book, 1995])
“I was hooked. This would be a story full of humor, and I had immediate thoughts of ‘Uh-oh. Is a car going to hit him?’ So the opening lines elicit enticing questions and give a sense of atmosphere for what to expect in the entire novel.” —Linda Sammaritan
“Something that makes me ask questions . . . those are the ones that leave me thinking, ‘Wish I’d come up with one that good.’ Another thing I like is when I feel I’m getting let in on something really deep, maybe even buried under layers, a real glimpse at the heart of the MC.” —Beth Steury
These responses are representative of most readers, and from them, we can glean these ideas:
Below, I have used the favorite quotes my readers sent me and grouped them according to the categories above. I have put them in block quotes (even the short ones) to make them easier to find. I verified them in e-book form. Enjoy.
Several readers suggested the first line of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Austen chose humor. I mean humour. We should honour Jane Austen by using British spelling randomly throughout this post. Austen wrote:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice [London: The Electric Book Company, 1998]).
The readers of her day must have laughed self-consciously; they had to know her sarcasm was aimed directly at them.
Also in this category of opening lines are quotes from Eoin Colfer, C. S. Lewis, and Rick Riordan:
How does one describe Artemis Fowl? Various psychiatrists have tried and failed.
(Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl [New York: Disney Hyperion Books, 2001])
I thought the first line of Colfer’s book was lame until I read the second line, and then I laughed aloud.
There was a boy call Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
(C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader [HarperCollins e-books, 2009])
Lewis follows his first line with more outrageous lines. One can’t help but keep reading.
Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now.
(Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief [New York: Disney, Hyperion Books, 2005])
Clearly, blissful ignorance of impending doom is better than dreadful anticipation. And why don’t you break that fourth wall right away, Mr. Riordan? But this is the setup for all that follows, and the reader is assured of a ripping good time.
Is it a fluke that the previous three openings were written for the same audience? Probably not. Be sure to study the leading books in your genre.
There was once a time when only God knew the day you’d die.
(Nadine Brandes, A Time to Die [Phoenix, Arizona: Enclave Books, 2014])
Excuse me. What did you say? Well done, Nadine.
“Mister Deck, are you my stinkin’ Daddy?” a youthful, female, furious voice said into the phone.
(Larry McMurtry, Some Can Whistle [New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1989])
Uh-oh. There’s going to be a fight. Something bad is going down.
It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
(George Orwell, 1984 [New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1949])
I could have put this quote in the category about setting the mood, but Orwell takes a regular moment and turns it into an event. Already, you know something is different in 1984 than in 1949, the year this book was published. The first line got it right; the book’s message is chilling.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
(J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012])
What’s a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole in the ground?
Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.
(E. B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000])
Why is Sam walking through a swamp? What did he see?
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
(Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games [New York: Scholastic Press], 2008)
Who is missing? Why is the other side of the bed cold?
Lady Firebird Angelo was trespassing.
(Kathy Tyers, Firebird [Phoenix, Arizone: Enclave, 2014])
Immediately, we want to know why a lady of high rank is trespassing. We must read on.
The shutters swinging in the storm winds were the only sign of her entry.
(Sarah J. Maas, Crown of Midnight [New York: Bloomsbury, 2013])
Fantastic mood setting here, and we definitely want to know what happens next. Maas’s opening is similar to Stroud’s, below:
The assassins dropped into the palace grounds at midnight, four fleet shadows dark against the wall.
(Jonathan Stroud,* Ptolemy’s Gate* [New York: Disney Hyperion >Books, 2011])
“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.”
(Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy [New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2013])
Heinlein conveys so much information in seven words: a boy is being auctioned to the highest bidder; humans are a normal commodity to be bought and sold in the story world; and a boy’s life is at stake. I consider this book to be one of Heinlein’s best.
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.
(Rick Riordan, The Last Olympian [New York: Disney Hyperion Books, 2009])
The reader can be sure that pure entertainment will follow. How can Riordan top that first sentence?
Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with some unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never before imagined, Dylan O’Conner left his motel room and crossed the highway to a brightly lighted fast food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
(Dean Koontz, By the Light of the Moon [New York: Bantam Books, 2007])
Koontz tips his hand just enough for us to glimpse the cards, but then he sets the scene and gets in a bit of characterization. He makes so many promises here, and we cannot help but wonder how the story will play out.
When I turned 17, my life changed forever.
(Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember [New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000])
Okay, this seems a bit tried and true; however, it works. How did the narrator’s life change? Why? Who am I to question an author with those sales numbers? He obviously understands his target audience.
The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
(Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls [Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2011])
I laughed. I was intrigued. The mood is set. Well done!
The moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand.
(Tony Hillerman, A Thief of Time [New York: HarperCollins e-books, 2009])
Tony Hillerman’s openings are a slow burn, but somehow, he always pulls me in with mood and setting. In this opening, he sets up the watcher and the watched in the first two sentences. Yikes.
The next three openings create suspense and expectation. What is more mysterious than an unknown stranger pounding on the door? Or more chilling than discovering a body?
The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door. Her room was closest to the entrance of the apartment.
(Tatiana De Rosna, Sarah’s Key [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007])
I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.
(David Almond, Skellig [London: Hachette Children’s, 2013])
The comet’s tail spread across the dawn, a red slash that bled above the crags of Dragonstone like a wound in the pink and purple sky.
(George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings [New York: Bantam Books, 2003])
Martin’s opening line portends a violent clash of cosmic proportions. Does he deliver on his promise? Absolutely.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the examples, but here are a couple of tips to consider:
You may have the first line and nothing else. Well, write it down and get on with your story.
Most authors, though, spend entirely too long working on the first line before they permit themselves to move on. They revisit the first line many times. To me, that seems like a waste of precious writing time.
Unless I know how I want to start, my standard operating procedure is to write, “This is the first sentence.”
Then I press on until I reach the end. Once I’ve reached the end of the story, I return to the beginning.
By the time you have reached the end, you know the theme, the mood, and the entire plot. At this point, you have an opportunity to make the most of your opening lines by completing the circle. There’s even a slim chance you can set up a giant punchline that pays off at the end.
Most of the examples above are narrative, but you may find that a line of dialogue can launch your story like nothing else.
Kat reminded me of the beginning sentence of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables [Irvine, CA: Xist Publishing, 2014]). I counted 148 words! What a difference one hundred years makes.
Even though her novel is one of my favorites, I am afraid this generation will know the story primarily through the screenplays because the beginning is so old-fashioned. What if Montgomery had started with dialogue instead of a long descriptive paragraph about a secondary character?
These days, she might have started with the line from the second chapter, where the station master says, “‘There was a passenger dropped off for you—a little girl.’” Matthew Cuthbert replies, “‘I’m not expecting a girl.’”
Even today’s Twitter reader would be hooked. Do not let me upset you; I understand the original text is sacred to some, and I wouldn’t dream of revising it. I am only trying to make a point that styles change because readers’ expectations change.
Get the idea of a formula out of your head. Seek simplicity, if possible. Induce curiosity. Promise entertainment. Take the time and make the effort to get it right because you have one shot at hooking your reader.
What elements do you look for in an opening line? What are your secrets for writing a hook? Share in the comments below.
Special thanks to those who helped me with this topic:
Sharon, Cynthia, Kat, Sherryl, Shelia, Lisa, Barbara, Linda, Beth, and Loraine. I didn’t have the space for everything you sent, but I appreciate your suggestions.
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