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, 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 first line “hook?”

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Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 9:17 pm  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My favorite is “Every year on my birthday, my grandmother tries to kill me,” from Mike Snyder’s Return Policy. I have good opening scenes, but I haven’t conquered the great opening line yet.

    Terrific post, Heidi!

    • That’s a really good one! Love it!

  2. Hello Heidi,
    Excellent blog. In a long lifetime of reading, I’ve been hooked, snagged and “sinkered” by many first lines. Staying out of the LR where hundreds are shelved,I went fishing in my bedroom, checking out many novels and memoirs. Finally, my last read novel,(ignoring the prologue) Jane Kirkpatrick’s THE DAUGHTER’S WALK, is the one I settled on: “My name is Clara Estby, and for my own good, my mother whisked me away.” I think it qualifies as a Great Hook, (even without telling us when and where she is.)

    • Yes, it does! And follows with a riveting story.

  3. This is a great topic, Heidi, and a well-written blog. Thank you!

  4. We dont guarantee that our first lines will make sense or fit your story but we do know that they will trigger ideas for writers suffering inspiration fatigue. There is a formula to opening lines and it is about creating a story within a single line – even if it is not the story that will ultimately be told…………..


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