Thursday, February 24, 2011

The First Line Hook

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?

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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.




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26 comments :

  1. Great post and I loved the examples you gave. One of my favorite opening lines is from the classic, A Tale of Two Cities. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was...

    Probably more convoluted than what works in contemporary fiction, but it does convey the contrasts of society and relationships that the story is about.

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  2. I love first sentences, too. Those are great examples. What a fun writing exercise to take a great line and go with it!

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  3. The first line has to hook. The last line in the first chapter has to hook. The book as a whole has to hook. And people think writing is easy!

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  4. My favorite first line has always been "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" from Pride and Prejudice. It not only captures what the book is about, but it also has that lightly mocking tone that makes me love Austen.

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  5. My current favorite is from "Room" by Emma Donoghue:

    Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"

    She gives us our narrator/protagonist and hints at the world he lives in.

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  6. Absolutely love this! Yes, those zingers are good, but like you said, if we don't follow through, we're only shooting ourselves in the foot.

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  7. Such great points, thanks. I'm still reworking my first line!

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  8. Oh the agony, the clenched teeth, the tears and sweat of a first line. Now I must invent some more.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

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  9. Of course every writer wants an excellent first line, but if it's not followed by excellent paragraphs and pages then you're in trouble!

    I try to write an opening paragraph that slides my readers quickly into the plot but doesn't toss them into the shocking cold water of the deep end. That sort of beginnings works for thrillers - which I don't write.

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  10. Awesome post. After reading Les Edgerton's Hooked I realized how important it really is. I labor over the first lines. The really hard part tho, is making the entire first chapter live up to it.

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  11. I agree with Helen that it's not easy. As a fledgling novelist, I get so excited when I feel I'm following the advice of the gurus! I point at an article on this blog or in Writers Digest and go "I'm already doing that!" and am so proud. It's a real boost to my creative ego.

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  12. How about this one from my friend Jonathan Maberry's YA zombie tale, ROT & RUIN, which has one oodles of awards this past year:
    "Benny Imura couldn't hold a job, so he took to killing."

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  13. Great! Love your faves.

    And yes, the hard work! Who was it who said, "Writing is easy, all you do is open a vein."

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  14. Great post about something I hadn't given much thought to. Enjoyed reading these amazing first lines.

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  15. That first line is the toughest!

    Morgan Mandel

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  16. Great post, Heidi! I'm a big fan of firsts--first line, first page.

    Fave first line from one of my fave books is short and sweet: "Jude was dead."

    It's from Bernice McFadden's Sugar. The first page that accompanies that line just SINGS.

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  17. Fascinating post! My fave first line is from Du Maurier's The House on the Strand. It's too long to quote here but it has an air of magic about it that grabbed me and drew me in without realising it, although it's much longer and more complex than modern examples.

    I know what you mean about failing to live up to first lines. I have one short story that starts with a man jumping naked out of a birthday cake. How do you follow that? *grin*

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  18. Great article, Heidi. Thanks. One of my favorite first lines is from Craig Childs's nonfiction book: Sould of Nowhere: "I am the man sitting naked in the desert." And of course he follows it up with a terrific first page, first chapter and whole book.

    Julie

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  19. Whooops, should have been Soul of Nowhere. That's what happens when I'm trying to get out to the ski mountain!

    Julie

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  20. My very favorite first line? From "Rebecca" by Daphne DuMaurier, "Last night I dreamed of Manderley..." I may have missed a bit -- is there an "again" in there? I don't know. My favorite LAST line is from "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson, which ends with "...and we who walk here, walk along." Quite possibly the creepiest line in a very creepy book!

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  21. Irene Bennett BrownFebruary 25, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    More than one, please? "She had fallen twice now and her breath was coming in hot, ragged gasps." From Charlotte Hinger's novel, Come Spring. "Folks around here say the Beaty boys were just plain wild and no good,and that made us all look bad here in McDade." From Lily, by Cindy Bonner. "Abby Reynolds braked her truck on the icy highway, startled by what she imagined she saw off to the side of the road." From The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard.

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  22. Irene Bennett BrownFebruary 25, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    More than one, please? "She had fallen twice now and her breath was coming in hot, ragged gasps." From Charlotte Hinger's novel, Come Spring. "Folks around here say the Beaty boys were just plain wild and no good,and that made us all look bad here in McDade." From Lily, by Cindy Bonner. "Abby Reynolds braked her truck on the icy highway, startled by what she imagined she saw off to the side of the road." From The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard.

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  23. Irene Bennett BrownFebruary 25, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    Darn, didn't intend to leave my comment twice!! Sorry.

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  24. That's OK, Irene--you asked permission :)

    Thanks to you all--I love all the examples. This has been fun.

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  25. Something about these first two sentences in "Sunny, Ward of the State" by Sonja Heinze Coryat really grab me. I always woke up when the coughing started in the cellar. These were my mother's lungs announcing the dawn of a new day. I use these same sentences in my latest blog about beginning your memoirs with the "Now" in your life.

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  26. Here's two favorites. From William Gibson's NEUROMANCER: "The sky over the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." And from Jim Butcher's BLOOD RITES: "The building was on fire and it wasn't my fault."

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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