Saturday, February 24, 2007

The First Line: Part II

Last time we looked at some examples of narrative hooks and why it's so important to have a good opening line. Now let's take a closer look at exactly how to accomplish it.

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says, "A novel is like a car—it won't go anywhere until you turn on the engine. The "engine" of both fiction and nonfiction is the point at which the reader makes the decision not to put the book down. The engine should start in the first three pages, the closer to the top of page one the better."

Here are a few ways to achieve that opening hook:

1) Surprise - if the reader lifts his or her eyebrows the instant he/she reads your opening line, they'll keep reading. A surprising opening from the examples I referred to in the first post could be the sentence about the character wanting to strangle his mother, but knowing he'd have to touch her to do it.

2) Action - we're taught that you should always start a novel/short story in the midst of action because today's readers just don't have time to wander through a lot of backstory. The first line is the perfect place to do that.

A good example of a line that starts with action: One minute before the explosion, the square at Sainte-Cecile was at peace. (Ken Follett - Jackdaws)

But be careful not to let your opening hook be so unique that the rest of the paragraph that follows falls completely short of your promise. Noah Lukeman looks at this problem in his book, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

"The most common problem is a hook that stands on its own, in the worse sense. In this case, the text that follows seems to be of a whole different work, and in retrospect the hook seems more of a one-liner, a gimmick to catch attention. The reason this is so is because the hook really is not part of the text. The solution therefore is to bridge the gap, to make the hook and text integral to each other." (pg. 155).

Perhaps the best way to really understand the power of an opening line is to take a look at the books in your library. Read the first sentence or paragraph. What makes it work? What makes you want to keep reading? Does it work at all?

Thanks to everyone who posted examples of their opening hooks. I loved reading them.

I hope this mini workshop has been helpful! Have a great weekend!


  1. I picked up a book once with an awesome first sentence...and a solid first paragraph. Everything else after that fell flat. I don't even remember the title.

  2. I struggle with beginnings. I never quite know if I'm starting in just the right place.

    Along those lines, I also debate with myself over the first paragraph. Part of me wants to heed the advice of starting right in the action. But then another side feels that might be deceptive. You see, my novel is character-driven more than anything else. There's a plot, of course (and I hope it's a good one), but more than anything it's about my main character. So this other side feels like I should start with something more in her voice--something interesting about her.

    Decisions, decisions. Fun stuff, though. Thanks for the workshop, I really enjoyed it!

  3. Thanks for this Melissa. I'm almost ready to resume my writing and it's good to have a reminder about how important the first pages are.

    Sue :-)


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