Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hook Readers from the First Sentence

What is it about first lines?

What Keeps You Reading?
Photo: Paul Bence
First Chapter. First Page. First Paragraph. First Sentence. We know that first impressions are important. But how do you pin down that perfect first line? How do you hook without reverting to gimmicks?

Well I wanted to know too, so being the nerd that I am, I made myself a nice big spreadsheet, plugged in the first lines from 40 YA sci-fi/fantasy books I love, and tried to divide them up into categories by type. You can check out the entire spreadsheet if you want :)

This is what I came up with:

Great First Lines: a Typology

As it turned out, these authors were quite diverse in their approach to "The First Line." Here's a quick peek at my typology of first lines, by the number of books (out of 40 total) which employed the technique:

     First lines in a sample of YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy:
  • Backstory (11)
  • Reflection (9)
  • Action (7)
  • Observation (6)
  • Dialogue (3)
  • Sensation [sound, touch, taste etc] (3)
  • Description of MC (1)

That in and of itself was interesting to me. And encouraging. Because to me, it reveals this:

There's no single "right way" to write a first line. 

But there are some tricks we can use.

Notice that the all-important Action we always hear we're supposed to jump into on the first page was only used by 18% of authors right up front. While getting to the action is important, throwing readers into the fray in the very first line isn't always the way to go.

In fact, most (almost half!) of the authors relied  primarily on backstory and/or the MC's reflections to open the story. But wait! Sounds too quiet right? Wrong.

What almost all these opening lines had in common was that they included a really good Hook, and they gave a taste of the Tone and Setting of the book, and (in some cases) a strong protagonist Voice.

(Writability has a great post related to this: what your first 250 words are telling the reader. Read it!)

Keep your Readers Curious with a Hook

Okay. But what makes a good "hook"? What is a hook anyway?
Sometimes I like to think of hooks as "Facts of Interest" or "Question-Generators"

Hooks are the things that make a reader curious about your Main Character (MC) or their world; they reveal tension and get readers asking questions about the MC, their relationships with others, the obstacles they are facing; they're the setup revealing that something bad has happened (recently or in your world's history), or the premonition that something bad is about to.

We need our readers hooked. As Writing Geekery puts it, "failing to intrigue or raise curiosity" is one of the five main failings of a first chapter. Hooks keep readers curious, which is important because a curious reader reads on.

So what you need to ask yourself is:

What Are your Story's Hooks?

You probably have a lot of great hooks. You just might not know how to work them into the first chapter and first line yet.  Or maybe you aren't sure what your hooks are. That's okay. I always like to start by making a list:

Think about what makes your story (and particularly the first chapter):

  • Startling / Unusual / Intriguing / Compelling
  • Shocking / Tragic / Horrific 
  • Magical / Fantastical / Futuristic / Breathtaking / Arresting
  • Tense / Ominous / Gripping
  • Vivid / Visceral 
  • Poignant / Endearing 
If you're still feeling stuck, try to run through the above list of adjectives for each of these aspects of your story: Main Character / Setting / Past Event / Current Conflict / Imminent Problem / Future Crisis 

Building a Hook
(with examples from actual first lines)

So, how do you build a great first line out of your potential hooks?

How did other authors do it?

Below are some ideas of things you might want to incorporate into your first line and/or first paragraph. For each approach, I've included first-line examples from actual, real, live, published novels :)

  • Reveal the MAIN CHARACTER

    • Does your MC have an unusual characteristic, personality quirk, hobby, or job/role in society? If yes, try an opening line or paragraph that highlights it.
      • Example:
        "In the dim hovel, the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push and the baby slithered out into Gaia's ready hands." - BIRTHMARKED by Caragh M. O'Brien

    • Does your MC have a strong voice? Use it!
      • Example:
        "The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. Of course, Tally thought, you'd have to feed your cat only salmon-colored cat food for awhile, to get the pinks right." - UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld

  • Paint the SETTING
    • Micro scale: Is your MC physically located somewhere beautiful, fantastical, or
                           terrifying at the beginning of the story?
                           Is there a magical or unusual object or phenomenon within that setting?
      • Example:
        "Enders gave me the creeps. The doorman flashed a practiced smile as he let me into the body bank." - STARTERS by Lissa Price      
         *Note: This story could have opened anywhere, but Lissa chose
                 a dramatic place: a body bank. (Creepy!!)

    • Macro scale: What about the world/city/house/school/workplace where the story
                            takes place? What is intriguing or terrifying about it?
      • Example: "I wasn't reborn. I was five when I first realized how different that made me." - INCARNATE by Jodi Meadows *Note: In addition to the world, this also reveals something about the MC. Double duty!

  • Reflect on a dramatic PAST EVENT

    • What has led the MC to the situation they are in now? Is the history of the world tragic/dystopian? Has the MC experienced a personal loss? Have the MC reflect on that in the opener.
      • Example:
        "It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure." - DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver

  • Focus on a CURRENT CONFLICT, Anguish, or Choice

    • In the opening chapter, is your MC in a tough situation physically/emotionally/morally?
      (If not, you might want to rethink where your story begins.)
      • Example:
        "On the day of my mother's funeral, we all wore white." - STARGLASS by Phoebe North

    • Does your MC have a personal conflict with other characters in the book?
      ... if so, experiment with focusing on these conflicts in your opening paragraph/line!
      • Example:
        "Someone's attention shouldn't have physical weight, but it does." - ARCLIGHT by Josin McQuien

    • Hint at an Imminent GAME-CHANGER

      • Does your MC face a major crisis (an "inciting incident" if you will) that changes the course of her/his life? Showcase that in your opener.
        • Example:
          "Now that I've found the way to fly, which direction should I go into the night?" - MATCHED by Allie Condie
                 *Note: This is a bit vague, but it atually serves the dual purpose of hinting at a
                              major choice the MC is facing, and also gives us the sense that
                              she likes poetry (which she does).

    • Flash-forward (or foreshadow) a FUTURE CRISIS
      • Be careful with this one. It can be used effectively, but don't be too heavy-handed.
      • Also, this sort of thing is easier done in a prologue (as is in the example below ... I think Twilight did this as well??). But since agents/editors tend not to like prologues you could experiment with incorporating it into a normal chapter if it was simply heavily foreshadowed rather than an actual scene spelled out.
        • Example:
          "You don't want to kill me," I said. "Of course I don’t Clare. But I have to." If I wasn't already bleeding, with the room tilting and swaying, I would have slapped myself." - CLARITY by Kim Harrington *Note: This is a prologue to the novel that uses an exciting end-of-story moment to frame the entire book.

    In Summary

    Do focus on the shocking, the visceral, the intense, the breathtaking.
    Don't settle for the lukewarm, the commonplace, the trivial.

    Do leave the reader feeling the tension, feeling curious, and asking questions
    Don't leave them confused as to what's even happening or why they should care though

    Do feel free to use whatever aspect of your story is a great hook
          ... whether that be: the Main Character, the Setting, or a Past/Current/Future Event.
    Don't start your story with the ordinary.
              (Heard the "get your characters out of the kitchen and out of the car" mantra?
               Well, it's true. No one wants to read about the mundane or the everyday.

    Also: Don't start with the overdone.

              ** This is something you may not be aware of unless you're a Lit Agent, Editor, or Intern,
                   but here are some chapter openers that are so overused that
                   they make agents'/publishers' toes curl: 

                        - Waking up, eating breakfast, first day of school, doing housework,
                           sitting around thinking about life, observing the sky/weather,
                           a battle scene (without knowing the characters we don't care if they're dying!),
                          "My name is ...", a dream sequence, an action sequence that turns out to be a dream.

                       - Don't use those ^^^ you want your story to stand out from the rest!

    Additional Resources:

    Want to read more about how to craft the perfect first line? Here are some great webpages I've found with tips for writing fantastic first lines, first paragraphs, and first chapters!


    Great First Sentences (with examples)  || What Makes a Great First Sentence || Book Beginnings - Where to Start || Examples of First Sentences from YA Novels (my spreadsheet) || Inspired Openings - Advice from Agents ||  Writing the First Line of Your Novel || How to Write a Killer Opening || 6 Ways to Hook Your Reader from the Very First Line || First Line Contest Winner Analysis

    What Your First 250 Words are Telling the Reader (& related post) || How to Grab, Shock, or Delight Your Readers || Rock Your First Chapter, No Excuses || The First Five Frenzy (see what Agents themselves have to say about story openers!) || Grab Your Reader by the Throat ||

    15 of the Best Opening Lines in YA || 16 YA books that grab you from the very first line ||


    Openings Literary Agents Don't Like || Four ways NOT to start a Novel || Avoid Cliches and Weak Writing in your First Chapter || How NOT to Write a Fantastic Opening


    What do you think makes a great first sentence? What's your advice for writers trying to master their opening lines? What are some of your favorite first lines?


    1. Ahhh loved how you took the time to look at published examples of first lines! And can I just say, I'm so glad to see Birthmarked included. I absolutely loved the series and I think it's underrated.

    2. Brilliant post! I've been a bit stuck on how to get started on my next story so this has helped a lot, and I'll definitely be checking out some of those resources. Many thanks. :-)

    3. "Call me Ishmael..." Oops.

    4. I haven't read the book ( and I don't have any of my own first favourite first lines), but when I saw the first line,'We rode to war in a taxi-cab,' I thought it was pretty cool. It's from a book called 'The Bridge' by Jane Higgins.
      With regards to my own, I like my starting sentences as it throws you into my voice straight away, but I do worry that it's not specifically about my MC: it just sets up the scene. And now I'm worried...

    5. I love the spreadsheet! Lots of good stuff here.



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