I love to pick up a book and read the first line. Sometimes they really are a “hook,” set to reel me into the story. Writing gurus tell us we need to do that, especially when submitting to agents and publishers, because if they’re not compelled to read beyond the first line, your manuscript will find its way into the rejection file rather quickly.
Sometimes they stay with me…for weeks, months, even years. My all-time favorite is “The last camel collapsed at noon” from Ken Follett’s Key to Rebecca. Our writing group once did an exercise using that sentence as their opening line. The results were fascinating. Every story was different.
Another one I especially like is “The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” (Frederick Forsyth) That’s a line that makes you wonder, why is he laughing when he’s about to die? I want to know!
And then there is “I stopped shooting people two weeks after I won the Pulitzer Prize” from Dead Sleep, by Greg Iles. Again, makes you think.
The writing gurus also tell us we need to introduce our character, set up our story problem, give the reader an idea where the story is taking place and include conflict. (So, how many words are we allowed in one sentence?)
We get the impression that the bigger hook, the more extreme, the better. But if you have a dynamite first line and the rest of the page doesn’t live up to it, you’ve defeated your purpose. It could be misleading. I loved the opening line I came up with for my first novel: “Nettie Brady should’ve been born a boy.” But I received several critiques wondering if my character had gender-identity issues. I knew Nettie was a girl who loved riding her horse more than anything in the world, but that first sentence didn’t get the idea across as well as I’d hoped. So I scrapped it.
The February 2011 issue of Writers Digest Magazine has an excellent article by Jacob M. Appelt, “Better Starts for Better Stories.” Appelt outlines several ways to begin, including start late (don’t set up the scene, begin with the action), use minimal dialogue if any, try several different options, and revisit the beginning when you reach the end. Sometimes the story has changed so much that you’ll want an entirely different opening line.
Appelt lists his favorite opening as “My mother had me sort the eyes” from Elizabeth Graver’s short story “The Body Shop.” Now that’s a grabber!
What is your favorite hook?
A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.