Usually you can tell if you’re going to like a book or not by the first line of the story. The first line is called the “hook” and–if done correctly–will draw the reader in to read more. A good hook creates intrigue and causes the reader to think. For example:
“Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.” — Cornelia Funke, Inkheart
“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
What happened that night? What’s a Hobbit? Who is this boy? In the very first line, you are already curious of what’s about to happen next. A good writer will draw you into the plot with a hint of what’s yet to come.
The hook should be related to the plotline, and–more specifically–the plot of the chapter. It doesn’t have to be short, though it needn’t be several lines long, either. Many popular books have entire paragraphs as their hooks, while some have only a few words. The hook in Moby-Dick is only three words long.
In the high fantasy I’m writing, I went for a line that placed a descriptive picture in the reader’s head–a picture that isn’t pleasant–to allude to the misery ahead. I found it appropriate for a story that edges towards dark fantasy elements and rarely sees a speck of light. “The room itself was frightening, filled with half-melted candles and eerie shadows that stretched along cracked walls.” My line echoes the grim atmosphere of not just the room, but another unknown source. The following paragraph goes on to talk about a dying man who has left two children behind.
Sometimes people keep reading even if the hook didn’t grab their attention, because the summary on the back cover was so enticing. Yet not everyone works that way. I often put down books whose opening lines didn’t compel me. Is that fair? Probably not, but sometimes I only have a few seconds to spare while browsing and will only remember the books whose opening lines drew me in.
So how can you tell if your story has a great hook? I have a few suggestions.
- Leave out complex names, dates, places, or obscure references. I find books that start with “Mordecai van Oldenburg was scheduled for an appointment in Caledonia on the twenty-first of September” to be giving too much information in a hook. Not everyone will think so, but I find most people like keeping it simple. Having several names thrown at you in a sentence is usually not a good thing.
- Don’t be too vague. This should be obvious, but write a hook relating to the story. If you go for intrigue, don’t go so far no one will understand what you’re talking about.
- Ask people to read the opening line. This is perhaps the best way to truly know if your opening line is good.
- Being blunt can often be effective. Like the line from Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” Blunt, though effective. The character is introducing himself in a pretty casual way.
Practice writing hooks and don’t be afraid to experiment with what to write. Often writers are held back by the strange fear of writing something “wrong” or “stupid”. We’ve all been there. Maybe you aren’t happy with the hook you’ve written, or you think it’s already great. Even if it is, it’s good to keep challenging yourself with other ideas and to show your work to others for critique. Just remember that the first page of a book is what sells the story for those who browse quickly, and having an enticing hook will stick with readers even years later.
Leave your opening lines in the comments if you’d like to share! 🙂