Saturday, July 12, 2014

HOOKS FOR BOOKS-The Opening Line

"It was a dark and stormy night…" 
No, no, never begin a story with the weather. The reader will skip ahead and look for action or characters, or heaven forbid, close the book.

Okay, let's see. "I was falling, falling…and then I woke up." 
Nope, I remember, now, NEVER open a book with a dream--or an alarm clock or phone ringing.

What about something really funny? For example, "Nearing the counter with a full tray, her foot slipped on spilled…." Uh, oh. That's on the list of no-no's, too.

Such a lists exist, in fact. The admonitions may vary slightly, but editors are programmed to stop reading a submission after the first sentence or first paragraph if she/he sees these red flags. The nineteenth-century Gothic novels opened with long brooding descriptions of the weather, or a monologue recounting the entire genealogy of the family in the story, enough to make one's eyes glaze over.

In today's world, the reader wants and deserves action, the inciting incident, the reason for the story, and he wants it right away. In some manner, the opening sentence or first paragraph or first chapter must give the reader what he wants--"What is this novel about?"

Grabbing the attention of an editor you'd like to impress or a reader you'd like to keep is an art form all its own. Books galore sit on shelves or can be found on-line that help the budding author or the experienced one who wants a refresher course learn a bit more about a good beginning.

Here are the beginning lines from six different novels.

1. The truth had long been settling on Jonathan Gray, sneaking into his resisting corners, but it had finally resounded in the deepest part of him. (The Fulfillment: LaVyrle Spencer)

2.  He'd known all day something was about to go down, something life-changing and entirely new. ( Montana Creeds: Dylan: Linda Lael Miller)

3.  Sister Bernadette Ignatius and Tom Kelly sat in the back seat of a black cab, driving from Dublin's airport through the city. (What Matters Most: Luanne Rice)

4. It was well known around Russellville, Alabama, that Tommy Lee Gentry drove like a rebellious teenager, drank like a parolee fresh out, and whored like a lumberjack at the first spring thaw. (The Hellion: LaVyrle Spencer)

5.When Ella Brown woke up that morning, she didn't expect it to be a momentous day. (Rainwater: Sandra Brown)

6. A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods and out over the sage. (Riders of the Purple Sage: Zane Grey) 

These opening lines come from Best-Selling authors. Do we need to pay closer attention to the novels we read? Go to a bookstore, find a shelf of best-sellers in romance, and open several to study the first page. Just read the first line.

Make a list of the kind of hooks that interest you in a book. Your list may be the same as mine.
1. Attention-getting
2. Exciting
3.Pulls me into the story
4. Straight forward
5. Brief and punchy
6. Rouses curiosity
7. Emotionally charged
8. A declarative sentence

A beginning sentence need not be earth-shattering and memorable--such as "It was the best of times, etc."--but it should be strong enough to elicit some response from the reader.

The worst openings are paragraphs and pages of descriptions, telling the reader what she/he will read. This is a common mistake with new authors--trust me, I know--I was one. I had to adjust my style and stop trying to describe the people, the surroundings, the landscape, get the picture. 

Hooking your reader is not easy, but with a little self-study, you can improve your chances with editors and nail that contract. With your next or current WIP, try writing five opening sentences and ask fellow authors or your critique partners help you select one.

If you self-publish, try out your opening line with a few readers and learn their reaction. 

Thanks for visiting my blog.


  1. Celia, a wonderful post, as always--you always make me think. So many "first lines" come to mind when you think about that topic, don't they? Gone With the Wind starts with a description -- of Scarlett O'Hara. The exception to the rule, for sure--I try never to start a book or story with the description of a character, or anything else, for that matter. Usually, when I write, I start with dialogue--which is a big "no-no" for some editors, too--I once had an editor that told me she hated books that started with dialogue, and that was how she "weeded out" the ones she wasn't going to look at. GULP.

    You've give a lot of great examples of what not to do and wonderful first lines. I just started reading a book called Dark Rider by Iris Johansen. Here's the first line: "You demon from Hades! Come back here!" LOVE IT. We don't know who is calling that line out, or who it is directed toward, but we want to find out and READ MORE!

    A good first line is so important. If you don't have a good hook people are not going to read on to the "really good part in Chapter 2".

    Really enjoyed this post, Celia.

  2. Great post, Celia. I like the idea of writing five different openings, and seeing which one my critique partners like best. Must try that! Thanks!

  3. I've definitely had to make some changes in the way I approach opening lines--but hearing it from another author is good reinforcement! Enjoyed!

  4. Cheryl--I don't mind first lines as dialogue. Some of my best selling books began with dialogue--such as Addie and the Gunslinger--my BIG seller. It begins with:
    "Git up, boy." Haha.

    I like to write these blogs because it's always a refresher course for me--and hopefully others.
    Les Edgerton's little book titled Hooked is about beginnings--but he goes from the first line, to the first paragraph, to the first chapter.
    In truth, I think the first paragraph is very important. I can't tell you how many free books I've downloaded--and delete--because the first page is so trivial and mostly filled with description.
    Thank you!

  5. Paula--good idea! I may to that, too. My recent WIP begins with,
    "One room upstairs, please." Uhhhh, maybe I should rethink that.

  6. Judy--I think listening to each other really is a good teaching tool. Sometimes I think one way on something, but see others doing it a different way...and it makes me think I should try it, too.
    Thanks for visiting!