Hooking your reader with your first line

I hold them gently and whisper a soft apology before I slit their throats.

Photo credit: L. Marie

When I put that on my facebook page, one follow-up response said that it would make a great first line to a murder mystery. In reality, my comment wasn’t that exciting, I was actually talking about our roosters and it described the routine I perform before we harvest them. With background knowledge, the line turns from being macabre to well, one that is sort of sad. It loses all of its power.

But the fact is, it would have made a GREAT first line to a book because without that background knowledge, it allows one’s imagination to create all kinds of scenarios (of which harvesting a rooster probably doesn’t even make it into the top ten.)

It got me thinking about how incredibly important that first line of a book is.

In my role as a reporter, I am trained to put who, what, when, where, and how right up front. Just the facts mam. People are in a hurry and they want to know what it’s all about. Now.

More Granite Staters continued to find jobs last month, according to the most recent figures released by the state on Monday.

No surprises here, the reader knows exactly what to expect. Trouble is, if you start a book off that way, people will close the cover sooner than you can say – Edward R Murrow award. There’s no magic, no suspense, no slitting of the throat, and certainly no reason to make anyone turn the page.

When I’m writing features, I’m given a little more leeway. I’m allowed to start with a lede or a hook, something that will pique my audience’s interest, as long as I don’t break the rule that all the missing information bits will come later (but not too much later) in the story.

Enjoy having things that go bump in the night with your dinner? If so, then you might want to check out the Common Man Restaurant in Merrimack long known for its stories of haunted and unexplainable happenings.

Although there is still information in that beginning (the understanding is that you will read something about ghosts and a restaurant) the article hints at a longer story that will be told. Feature articles are the bridge between reported articles and full fledged book stories.

When you begin writing a book, you have the absolute freedom to not supply any background information. Instead, you need to dramatically hook your reader in whatever way you can in order to make them turn that all important first page. Do this by using all your tools – you can be vague, you can shock, heck, you can even give human emotions to the brush that is sitting on the counter. You just need to catch someone’s eye.

That is the only goal of a story’s hook. It is not to introduce a character, or to plant a clue to the murder, its sole reason, like the tantrum of a 3 year old in the grocery store is simply to get someone’s attention. It is only after the hook is introduced that you can then, sentence by sentence, begin to let your story unfold.

Most people begin their memoirs with a life changing event, a traffic accident, a debilitating disease, or an obstacle that needed to be overcome. Mine begins with a warning from my husband before I left the house that Saturday morning.

Don’t bring home any more chickens.”

With the beginning of a book, unlike an article, there is no promise that you’ll know everything right away (indeed the best books are the ones where on the final page, you end up smacking yourself on the forehead and saying “NOW, it all makes sense!”) Memorable books begin with a vague promise that although you might not understand everything immediately, if you stick with the author, eventually all will be made clear.

You just need to give your readers enough reason at the beginning to make them stay until the end.

So go ahead, give it a shot, go all out and create your best first opening sentence for a story in the comments below and let’s just see how many would be able to hook us into the literary nets of your story with just that one line.

 ***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).

“This is my favorite book in the world, though I have never read it.”

38 thoughts on “Hooking your reader with your first line

  1. “The world ran cold and and a little girl’s breath sharpened in the darkness fading around her, and as her eyes rolled into the back of her head, she realized in horror that the world would never miss her.”

    How’s that for intrigue? Great article!

  2. “She ran as fast as she could through the thick trees, all the while looking back; her heart beat fast, the fear threatened to swallow her whole and paralyse her!”

    Great article!! 🙂

      • Thanks! I’m originally from Sri Lanka. But I was living in Malawi, Africa since I was nine! Now I’m twenty-one and back in Sri Lanka! I studied British English!

  3. Great article opening! That little story was really interesting. I think people like little stories people tell about themselves; that’s how God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens started.

    The trick is holding the audience.

    But speaking of opening lines, I recently used one that I was quite proud of; “He had bones in his backyard.”

    • I live to tell stories (think that’s one of the reasons I had so many kids!)

      The trick, as you so well put, is holding onto that audience with your teeth if you have to.

      Bones are good.

      Wendy

    • Sounds like a best seller to me.

      I still work as a freelance reporter/journalist for local NH newspapers and magazines. Although I do other kinds of writing (marketing and novel) there’s just nothing like hitting that old reporter’s deadline.

      Wendy

  4. @Stevenwwatkins – no fair, you can’t beat inspired writing! 😉

    Here’s mine, considerably less: “This guy grabs my arm and pulls me to one side, making room for a customer who places a stack of books on a tiny counter space, and I find myself staring at a bulging forearm covered in ink.” from Summer of My Summer Jobs

    • I’m a sucker for ink. I have a few tattoos myself and I have yet to see a tattoo that does not hold a story. You’ve started off with several threads that could go in many directions here. Nice job.

      Wendy

  5. I’m working on 2 projects; peotry, and a life experience I had in AZ. I can see how your advice would work very well for the life experience. Do you have any suggestions for the poetry, or would you know someone who might be able to give me some ideas on how to set that hook?

  6. I have a “first line” due to a publisher tomorrow. It’s a little different, though–it’s the back cover copy for an author’s book. And I gotta say that If there’s any opener that’s hard to write, it’s that enticing first line of sales copy–the one that will make readers open and buy that sweet book written by that brilliant author. (Editors usually write these, but sometimes they freelance them out to copywriters like me.) Anyway, my blank screen has been staring me in the face for two weeks. There’s so much I can say about this book, but where to begin?! Yikes! So, thanks for the timely diversion. I needed it today!

  7. That first line was great! It reminded me of when I read “Misery” for the first time. I was hooked on the first sentence.

    Here’s mine:

    “She cautiously opened the door and crept into the darkness.”

  8. Here is a first line from my book Alien.

    On the star ship bridge there is great hope
    as the starship Orion headed into the dark void
    mysteriously before them ominously beckoning
    them into the nothing.

  9. Insightful article. I’ve always had a hard time finishing books that give it away in the first page.
    A book should be like an exotic dancer: well presented, dramatically drawn out and leaving you wanting more.

    Here’s an opener. “Why is it always the rain?” Harker poses the question in silence as he watches the droplets wash away what life remains in her emerald eyes.

  10. This is a wonderful article, Wendy. Thanks for the examples and details.
    I once sold a story that began–“She kept needles hidden all over her house…just in case.”–The editor wasn’t all that taken by it, but he really liked the old woman who did mending for a living until an abused young woman showed up at her door with a gaping knife wound,
    I have just one question from your article, and please excuse me for being dense, but what is a “lede”?
    Thanks.

    • I’m going to post a new piece around 7 or 8 p.m. CST tonight — a great lesson I learned on how to assemble a great book. Interestingly, the lesson comes from the Book of Ezekiel. Take God’s Word, not mine, since I’m still unpublished in the book world … but it is working for me!

  11. Wendy, I agree about how important that first sentence of the book is.

    I’ve also read that every scene opening should have a hook and every scene closing should propel the reader along. Tough work but when you read a book where an author does it, wow, it makes a huge huge difference.

  12. Pingback: Hooking Your Reading with Your Fist Line | Book Covers

  13. Pingback: Hooking Your Reading with Your Fist Line | Book Covers

  14. Pingback: Hooking Your Reader with Your Fist Line | Book Covers

  15. I really like either the question as first line or the everyday-sounding but confusing command type sentence,like the one your husband said about no more chickens. Just dump the reader right into the middle of the muddle, is what I say!

  16. Great post! Helpful! I like to start with a Name and a Verb and follow it up with a seemingly unrelated object that ends up playing an important role.

    Though my biggest problem is getting past that point, in fact, I recently gathered an entire page of hooks. These are phrases I usually wake up with, as the beginning of some elaborate story. But sadly, by the time I’m fully awake the story is gone and I’m left feeling like a fisher who lost his bait.

  17. Hey Wendy
    Great post I have learned so much from this blog site.
    Here is the first sentence in a children’s storybook I’m currently working on
    “Day after day, the teapot sat on the stove, every day she wished she had a friend”
    Thanks for this post Wendy I have learned quite a bit.

  18. I just thought this one up, check it out: “He drew his blade, and turned to face her…” Or: “Red tears fell from the face reflected in the pool of blood.” =)

  19. Brilliant article, made me change the slightly lack lustre opening to my book, its not easy writing, but articles like this certainly help to smooth it along, here is my new opening.

    ‘Everything is wrong, the meanings, the interpretations, life itself. How can I tell them? Even with the proof, is it right?
    A year ago I would have said yes, today i am not so sure.
    Rick closed the Bible and placed it carefully on the desk.
    He picked up his phone and dialled the number he hoped he would never have to.’

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