First Lines to Hook Your Reader
It is said that you have twenty seconds to hook your reader – the time it will take then to open the book and read the first paragraph. I think that is optimistic. In my experience it is the first line that will determine the fate of your book.
I do not mean that the reader will inevitably put your book down never to return to it again if your first line does not draw them in but, at the same time, a hooked reader is willing to give you a lot more leeway than a bored one. With other words, the first line sets a tone which either makes your reader settle in or sit up ready to read or criticise. The attitude with which your reader goes on matters – they are less likely to take umbrage at every little thing if they are hooked and want to read on.
So, let’s look at some famous first lines. Fortunately, it is among the staples of good newspapers to compile a list of the 10/100 or even 1000 best opening sentences of novels whenever a slow news day requires some fillers. Over the last two years the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, Huffington Post and even the Daily Mail have obliged us with material not to speak of the individual blogs of publishing houses which also regularly provide summaries of the kind. Whilst none of them agree which are the best lines, the main perpetrators remain the same.
A favourite in the top ten is always Jane Austen’s most well known sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice 1819). Everyone knows this line – even those who have never read the book can name it. Why? What does make I such an evocative first line? And almost as importantly what does give it such everlasting appeal? It makes a statement you want to, in some way, know more about and which affects you emotionally. It grabs your interest. It makes you want to read on. That is the first quality each good opening must have, it must be interesting, it must engage the reader’s interest. But the way good first lines do so can, broadly be split into four main groups: controversy, tragedy, shock and curiosity.
Jane Austen’s example above falls into the fist group, that of controversy. No truth is every universally acknowledged and any claim of the kind makes the majority of readers want to disprove it out of sheer principle. Another, less glaring example perhaps, is “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” (Woodhouse 1935 The Luck of the Bodkins). It assumes its readers to be predominantly to be English and makes use of their shameful outrage (and common acceptance of the silently accepted “fact” that the English cannot learn languages). It makes us feel a little combative and we want to see how it goes on. We are hooked.
Tragedy or comedy, or the promise of thereof, is another common way to raise interest and hook the reader. “It was the day my grandmother exploded” writes Iain Banks in The Crow Road. You can take that as either tragedy or comedy but what it definitely does is hook you in. Other examples are: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis) or “I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood.” (Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins). Something tragic has happened and we want to know how it goes on. Our interest is engaged.
A very similar way of starting your novel is with a short, sharp shock to your reader. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle (1948)). What? Why is she sitting in the kitchen sink? When you opened the book you really did not expect this sentence. It shocks you into wanting to read more and before you know it you are engaged in the book. An other example: “Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” (A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Whitcomb). Why are you dead? How do you know someone is looking at you even though you are dead? Your interest is engaged, you are hooked, you will read on. And taking about shocking beginnings, the best well known one might be: )“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” (Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers (1980)). There is so much in that sentence to make you sit up. (And if you want to look at it in detail then come back in three days when the next blog on “Shocking First Lines – Hit or Miss? will be published here).
But the possibly most common way to start a novel is with a curious sentence – one that makes your reader want to find out more merely because they are nosy. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier). What is Manderley? Why are you dreaming of it? Immediately we want to know more without either being shocked or mildly offended by the sentence. We are just curious as to what happened there. Other examples are: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” (Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler) or “From the years 1894 to 1901 inclusive, Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a very busy man.’ (The Great Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle)
… and the bad
All of these sentences draw the reader into the book, elicit interest through shock, curiosity, controversy or tragedy. But many other first sentences try to do exactly the same and fail spectacularly. Can you have a bad first sentence trying to achieve the above? Yes, you can. You can even win a price[ https://www.bulwer-lytton.com] for it. It is called the Bulqwer-Lytton price after its first incumbent who wrote: “Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?” said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb”. (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii)
The author clearly tries to make us curious as to what will happen at the dinner and who Glaucus might be. Though it is notable that as a reader one has to think about which of the above categories this sentence would fit in purely because the level of curiosity elicited is so mild that it might as well not be part of that group. What else does this sentence do?
It is tedious. It is boring to a level normally reserved for lectures on how to measure Iambic pentameters. It’s wordy, full of adjectives and bad grammar. It is an incredibly good example of how not to write. It is annoying. But many of these criticisms could be levelled, to some degree, against the fist lines of Pride and Prejudice as well.
“IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” It is also wordy, full of adjectives and seems to be concerned with a boring topic: a male visitor to a rural village. What makes it different? The grammar is infinitely better but that is not it. No, it manages to make you feel curious rather than just trying to do so. That is the secret.
Show not tell. How often has your editor, your teacher, your friend told you that? How often have you gotten angry and defensive thinking: “but that is what I am doing?”. How often have you despaired thinking:”I will never learn this?”. Hint: we all have. But that is what it comes down to. You need to engage the emotions of your reader to keep their interest, to keep them reading, to make them forgive you all the mistakes we all make and still stay with your story.
1. Engage your reader’s interest to make them want more
2. There are four most common ways to do so:
a) write something they want to disagree with
b) write something to shock them
c) write something to make them curious
d) give them a tragedy they want to know more about
3. Show it to them, don’t just tell them. If you cannot engage their emotions they will not stay with you. (Next week I will talk about show not tell in practical terms – how to actually write it)
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