The opening lines of your novel are of critical importance.
In fact, it’s by reading them that readers decide whether to give your novel a shot or go instead looking for something else.
Of course, a book shouldn’t be judged solely by its first few lines—and the same can be said about the cover, the title, and so on.
But these days considering the amount of books that readers can choose from, and the hectic times in which we live, it’s normal for people to come up with shortcuts to try and find the brightest diamonds among the deluge–even if this means that sometimes they’re going to miss out on some of such diamonds, especially the most unconventional ones.
Writing hooks: definition
Simply put, a hook is a sentence or a group of sentences that appears at the beginning of your story and, ideally, it should entice perspective readers to keep reading.
In Hooked, his books about beginnings, Les Edgerton says: “Spend an awful lot of time on this sentence. In fact, more effort should be expended on your story’s first sentence than on any other line in your entire story. No kidding. The first sentence is the first thing the readers will see when they open the door of your manuscript or story. Make sure it’s a good ‘un! One that will create a strong impression.”
The first lines of a novel: types of hooks
Writing hooks come in many flavors. Some might seem more spectacular or attention grabbing than others, but given that in a novel the personal universe of a writer comes in contact with the reader’s universe, and it is from this interplay that the story really emerges, most of all, hooks have to be true to the story, as I detailed in a previous post about how to write beginnings from a more general perspective.
Another distinctive feature of extremely well crafted first lines is that they often work on several levels at the same time. Let’s see some examples.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Here we have strong foreshadowing accompanied by subtle suggestions of setting mixed with melancholic memories of a long time ago.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Irony and romantic intrigue are apparent here. Readers can therefore decide immediately if what they are reading suits their taste.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. –Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita.
Idealistic love and carnal passion go hand in hand here. Though to better understand what kind of passions we’re about to read in Nabokov’s masterpiece we have to keep reading a bit more.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.
This acute observation on human nature makes readers curious to know what kind of unhappiness the writer is hinting at. Besides, it is also immediately apparent that while Lolita was a sort of intimate confession here we have a more dispassionate analysis.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer.
A bleak atmosphere immediately sets the tone.
I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground.
The first lines don’t have to appeal to everybody, quite the contrary. They have to be so well defined that only those readers who are interested in the subject are likely to keep reading.
Here, for example, a sick and spiteful man directly addressing the reader isn’t in the least a pleasant character trying to appeal to everyone. But for those who are intrigued by such a character the reward is certain.
The moment one learns English, complications set in. —Felipe Alfau, Chromos
Here the challenges of being an immigrant are treated with a robust dose of irony. Not bad at all for eight words.
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. —Anita Brookner, The Debut.
Here we have introspection and irony, and a keen sense of the passing of time.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex.
The journalistic clarity of the writing contrasts with the ambiguity of the statements. And considering the title of the book, it’s quite difficult not to be curious about what the heck it is all about.
It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.
Evocative opening, but quite vague. However, by the end of the following paragraph you discover it’s all about burning books. Books like the one you’re holding in your hands…
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. —W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge.
The author addressing directly the reader can be a huge no-no. But, again, there are readers who like this approach. I myself am one of them. Besides, the misgivings the writer is talking about must be of some import to convince him to intrude into the story so bluntly. And so our appetite is whetted.
“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” — William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own.
Opening in the middle of a dialogue is an example of a beginning in medias res, that’s to say “in the middle of things.” This approach can be a bit puzzling at times, but it is also an effective way to draw readers into the story almost at once. It’s a bit like overhearing someone in a bar. If the bit of conversation is interesting we can’t but to strain our ears…
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks.
This beginning is bleak, poetic and full of drama and foreboding at the same time. It makes it clear that the reading will not be a pleasant ride full of niceties, quite the contrary.
Beyond the first lines
Writing a great hook, having great opening lines, is just the first step. In fact, even though having no sales to speak of can suck majestically, it’s way worse if your sales turn into acid reviews all coming from readers who feel cheated out of their money.
Because the opening hook wasn’t pertinent to the story. Because the first lines led your readers to make wrong assumptions about the nature of the book… You get the idea.
So, in the end, though the first lines of your novel are extremely important, you have to remember that all the other words making up your story need to deliver the promise you made on the first page.