Monday, January 11, 2010

Opening Lines Should Hook the Reader

Originally, I planned to discuss the topic of showing vs. telling for this blog post, but the very day I sat down to write it, my friend and mentor Cecil Murphey began a six-part series on that very subject. I knew I couldn’t compete with his excellent training, so I decided to point you in his direction with a hearty recommendation, and write about something else instead. You can subscribe to his blog, so you won't miss a single post.

Today, let’s talk about hooks – those opening lines that grab a reader’s (and editor’s) attention and makes them want to read more.

In 90% of the novels I’ve edited, and even one I’ve written, the words on paper started before the actual story began. The author usually introduces the character or the setting as a prelude to the action of the story.

We get the action rolling in our head, and think it’s necessary to bring the reader along with us. But we’re wrong. The reader wants to plop down in her recliner and start the story, right in the middle of the action, not spend a couple of pages getting ready to read. In today’s climate of instant gratification, you’ve got to hook the reader from the beginning, and keep them hooked.

Two ways to hook your reader:

• Dialogue. Just make sure it’s not a conversation between a dozen people the reader needs to know to understand.
• Information. Make the reader ask a question. You want them asking things like “Why?”, “What happened?” or “What’s next?” Or even, “WHAT?”

I pulled some novels off my shelf of favorites, and here are their opening lines:

Show business and death don’t mix. Unfortunately, I discovered this while hosting a TV cooking show. – Tough Cookie by Diane Mott Davidson

When the mood strikes me, the moon is just right, and the ocean behind my home is calm and calling me, I obey it and come. Just like Mama taught me to, quick and with no lip – I come, body naked, soul bared, water flowing ‘round my waist – and once again I am seventeen, innocent, unashamed. Not stuck in this sixty-some-odd-year-old body that plumps and hangs whichever way it pleases. – Trouble the Water by Nicole Seitz

I’ve always said the Lord had to drag me kicking and screaming to His altar, but once I got there I pitched a tent, unrolled my sleeping bag, and made myself at home. Anyone less patient than the Almighty would have zipped up that sleeping bag, sewn the top shut, and tossed me into the Dumpster in the back parking lot. – Just As I Am by Virginia Smith

That sunny September day was full of surprises. The first came when, after my realization that the sedan was still right side up and the windshield and windows intact, I turned off the ignition and turned to look in the back seat. – Some Buried Caesar (Nero Wolfe Mysteries) by Rex Stout

Don’t these make you ask questions? Make you want to continue reading?

Now it's your turn. We’d love for you to share your opening lines with us. Just leave 50 words or less of your opening, and we’ll critique them. To make for easy reading, please format it like this:
Your first name
Genre of novel
Working Title of Novel

The first 50 words or less of your novel’s first chapter.

We’ll let you know whether it hooked us, or whether it needs some work.

Happy writing!

post signature


  1. Teri
    Inspirational Romantic Suspense
    Splitting Lanes.

    If the preacher took another step toward her, Cammie planned to deck him. His face, as gorgeous as a California sunset over the Malibu Pier, and his win-the-world-for-Christ smile didn’t matter diddly-squat. Sure, nothing about a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and polished black loafers said he was a stalker, but she recognized a man with a mission.

  2. Thanks for playing, Teri!

    That first sentence is telling, rather than showing. You could make it active a couple of different ways:

    Use dialogue - "One step closer, Preacher (or Pastor or Mister), and I'll deck you!"


    written with the same words, just as internal monologue (usually identified with italics, no quotation marks, and written in first person.)

    I'd also leave off diddly-squat and Sure - makes it bulky with unnecessary words.

    You've definitely hooked me though - it makes us wonder what his mission is, whether she actually knows him, and just the curiosity of stalker and preacher used to describe him - it definitely makes me want to know more.

    Great job!

  3. I was thinking Teri's very first line was great until Tracy said "showing." YIKES! I have so much to learn!

  4. Hi, Sandi. I've revamped this recently, so I'd appreciate your opinion:

    Magical Realism/Historical Fantasy
    Mourn Their Courage

    Liu Jie picked at the caked blood in his cuticles. His men and his family in the litter behind him awaited a respite from travel and skirmishes with bandits.

  5. And I apologize, Tracy! I forgot to look and just assumed this was Sandi's post today. ;/

  6. That's quite understandable, Victoria! :-) No apologies necessary.

    Your first sentence is great (although gross! LOL!) It instantly piques interest.

    The second sentence is lacking though - too many pronouns make it choppy and waters down the intrigue of the first sentence. It too is telling - show us their weariness, their battered bodies.

    Hope this helps.

  7. Yes, that's very helpful. Especially since I hope to submit to an interested agent this afternoon or tomorrow morning. ;D I appreciate the insight!

  8. I really struggle with beginnings, so this is a good reminder. I checked the opening line of my current WIP, and you know what? It works (the 2nd paragraph needs work, but hey). Here it is:

    historical romance
    Bridge to Love

    “They’re all dead!”

  9. That's a winner, Darlene! We definitely want to know more.

  10. Teri, this is Sandi. You have a great hook. You bring out excellent page-turning questions, such as why does she feel so strongly, who is he to her, what has he done, or what has been done by someone else. Well done!

    In light of that, I wanted to add to Tracy's advice about your submission.

    About changing the opening to dialogue, I'm wondering if it's really in Cammie's nature/personality to speak out in such a manner, despite her urge/threat to punch the guy out. I don't want you to feel forced to change Cammie's personality and make her do something she wouldn't do just to follow the "rules." I've seen a lot of writers screw up their manuscripts by doing that.

    I may be wrong, but I sense you're aiming for an inner struggle and not something so obvious. Adding italics to create a deeper point of view as Tracy suggested is one way of doing that, and it might help to bring out Cammie's voice.

    Another suggestion to help avoid telling, is to try slowing down. Play the scene out a bit more step-by-step. Add more details, throw in bits of setting, and maybe rearrange the words. Below is an example. (Note: I don't know where they're at, but notice how one word can give away part of the setting. We'll pretend they're in a church building.)

    Before: If the preacher took another step toward her, Cammie planned to deck him.

    After: The preacher advanced toward Cammie's pew. She made a fist. His face, as gorgeous as a California sunset over the Malibu Pier, and his win-the-world-for-Christ smile didn’t matter diddly-squat. One more step and she'd nail him in his aristocratic nose.

    Notice by slowing it down, rearranging the words, and adding a few more details, there's a slight build up of tension. We're feeling a little bit more for Cammie. We get a glimpse of where we are because of the word "pew." Then we wonder why she makes a fist, and we feel her trepidation as the guy gets closer. As we read his description, unconsciously readers visualize him moving toward her because of the opening line; it's a great way to create movement, but at the same time, the detail slows the pace down just enough to help us see him better. And with the cadence/rhythm, you end with a punch (no pun intended). :-)

    Thanks for being brave enough to let us dissect your work.

    And thank you Tracy for such a helpful post! This is fun!


  11. Great advice! Here's my go (it's a little longer than 50 words, hope that's ok):

    Historical Fiction
    I Will Dance

    It was the glint of yellow that first caught Rachel’s eye. The lone flower was almost hidden by the deep ruts of mud, daring to blaze in golden glory. All other plant life had long ago died, unable to live in the horror of this place. Perhaps even these creations of God shuddered at the sight of what was being done to His people, here on this desolate spot of His land.

  12. Thanks for this opportunity. My current WIP is a short story, so this is a first paragraph from it.
    short story
    The Unlocked Door

    The three stories of the old Victorian house towered above me, compelling me to come in, but mama always told me to stay away from the mansion at the foot of the hollow. Being an obedient child, I stayed away. But,I managed to linger in its shadow each day as I walked by and it held me under its spell. I was attracted to the lacelike woodwork and through my imaginative eyes the stained glass windows on the top floor looked like hard pieces of candy left out to melt in the hot afternoon sun.

  13. I'll have a go:

    Children's story
    The Cry of the Beagle

    My name is Missy, and I’m a beagle. Or at least, I was. I guess while I’m writing this I still am, though in a little while I won’t be. At least, not here. Or rather, not now.

    It’s very confusing.

  14. I'm posting this for Heidi, who couldn't get her comment to post:

    Contemporary Christian
    Hidden Secrets

    Samantha caught a reflection of her excited self in the downtown window of Annie’s Beads—would she be a star someday? Her heart fluttered at the beginning of her dream coming true. She sighed and tossed her diet Coke into the metal garbage can then turned the corner with her best friend, Tatum.

  15. Wow - all of these are great. I'll try to catch up quickly!

    @Amy - The "was" words should be eliminated if at all possible.

    The glint of yellow first caught Rachel's eye. The lone flower dared to thrive, blazing in golden glory, between the deep ruts of stiff brown (red? black?)mud.

    Then, the next two sentences lose my attention, because they are telling. Can you relate them back to Rachel somehow? Is she dead like the plants? Does she shudder at what is being done? Relate the desolation, the despair back to Rachel to make the reader care about her situation.

    @Janet - Before I make comments on your opening, would you please share with us the age of your POV character? Is the character an adult or a child?

    @Gregory - You hooked us! We want to know more about Missy.

    @Heidi - "her excited self" is telling us, rather than showing us. Expand it to show us she's excited. Could she see her eyes dancing even in the reflection? Was her hair bouncing with the excitement from inside? Could she be still long enough to see herself clearly, or did she swing her arms, bounce on her toes, etc.?

    Her heart fluttered at the beginning of her dream coming true - a bit awkward. Perhaps something like: Her heart fluttered as her thoughts raced. Would she be a star someday? Would her dream finally come true?

    To have Tatum mentioned at this point seems odd -was her reflection not seen in the window too? Seems like much is going on, yet Tatum is an afterthought. You could bring Tatum into the picture at this point by having her speak - to bring Samantha back to earth, or from bumping into someone, or ??? :-)

    All of these openers leave us with questions, wanting to know more - great job! Thanks for sharing your openings with us - please let me know if you have any questions - I'm happy to help any way I can.

  16. Carla
    Historical Romance
    Sunlight and Shadows

    "Imagine having to bear a mark like that for the rest of your life!" Eliana Van Horn thrust The Eureka Gazette into her father's face as they ambled down the boardwalk of the thriving boomtown. "The tatoo on her chin, how dreadful-and there's nothing that can be done about it."

  17. Yowza, Carla! Excellent. You've definitely hooked us.

  18. I'm sitting here squirming in delight! Carla is working on a 3-book proposal with me & Cindy Hickey, and this is just delightful! Go, Carla! With writing like that, we have a great chance of selling.

  19. Thanks, Tracy and Sandi, for your analysis. The story is written in 3rd person so I was aiming for a deep POV inner monologue written in 3rd person.

    I thought I've seen less use of italics in recent books and more of a move to deep POV. Is this not so? I'd prefer not to open with dialogue.

    Cammie is a black belt in karate and a biker so she's a tough woman and does indeed take down the pastor with a leg sweep (no punch). The setting is at a park in California near the beach after an outdoor Christian concert.

    I see how Sandi's example leads up to the inner monologue, but I was also striving for a striking opening sentence.

    I'm thinking aloud here. So the build up of the tension would be stronger than the more striking first sentence?

    Thanks so much for looking this over and helping! You ladies are awesome!

  20. Thanks, Tracy and Darlene! I'm having such a great time with this. It's funny how I had to write other chapters before I could actually come up with my first chapter. I appreciate the affirmation!

  21. Teri, for another example, start out with the action - Cammie clenched her fists. One more step in her direction, and she'd deck that preacher, polished black loafers and all.

  22. oooh, this is so cool! Here's mine from my first WIP currently undergoing it's first revision. I am completly open to being torn apart ;-)

    Sarah Elisabeth
    Contemporary Christian
    Finding Faith

    The dark room closed in on David as he held his breath, waiting. The stale air made breathing difficult. David quinted his eyes when a match was struck, and through the blackness a flickering flame appeared. It was joined by another and another, until fourteen were lined in a beautiful row. A voice in the darkness began to sing.

  23. Thank you for this post. It's very illuminating. :)

    YA fantasy

    Yuki learned of her matchmaking ability the day her mom left her dad for a man connected to her by a red thread.

  24. Tracy, this is Janet. My POV character is an adult, in the first paragraph she is talking about when she was a child. The second paragraph starts out..I was a bold adult now and my curiosity overpowered mama's warnings of long ago.

  25. Thanks for the help! The blog is awesome. (I heard about it via facebook--the power of social networking!)

  26. Sandy Shin, I'm not one of the editors, I'm just a reader here, but that first line made me want to read that story!

  27. Wow - more great openers!

    @Sarah Elisabeth - since it appears we're in David's POV, you'll want to strengthen this so the reader can feel what he's feeling.

    David held his breath, waiting, as the dark room closed in around him.

    The rest of the opening is telling, so you'll want to make it showing instead, and watch for putting the action (David squinted) before the event that caused it (the match being struck.) Watch for the "was" words too - that's a flag for passive writing. It's not ALWAYS wrong to use "was" - but if the sentence can be strengthened in another way, eliminate it.

    Someone lit a match, and he squinted at the brightness from the first flame, and then fourteen more.

    You can expand it here - let the reader feel some of the emotion David is feeling. Did the flames make him happy, sad, fearful? Show us.

    My first instinct on your last sentence was to change it, preferring a more active verb. But it works here, so I'd leave it as is. I smiled at the suspenseful build-up - so you've intrigued me and I want to know more.

    @Sandy - All of the pronouns make it confusing, so we have to re-read it several times to make sense of it.

    Yuki learned of her matchmaking ability the day mom left dad for a man connected to her (her who? Yuki? Or the mom?) by a red thread.

    It's definitely intriguing and makes us want to know more.

    @Janet - Thanks for clarifying the details for us. The paragraph is intriguing, but the lengthy descriptions bog us down a bit. We need to see that she's reminiscing.

    Would something like this work?

    The three stories of the old Victorian house towered above me, compelling me to come in. The lacelike woodwork and stained glass windows captivated me as a young girl. I walked by each day, lingering in its shadow, my imagination running rampant under its spell. But Mama always told me to stay away from that mansion at the foot of the hollow, and I’d always obeyed her. Until today.

    Great job, everyone!

    I think that gets me caught up for now. If I missed any, just let me know.

    I'm enjoying this - so keep them coming!

  28. Teri,

    Tracy and I had a discussion about your submission off line. As you may know, I like to break the rules, and I was suggesting that you could get away with telling here. But her concern was the appeal it would have on editors. Is breaking the rules in the first line a wise choice—especially for a new author? So, that made me doubt the wisdom of recommending such a thing.

    The line is a good one, despite the fact that it's "telling." If you want to keep the line, then keep it. But strengthen it. Right now, what makes it weak is the word "planned." Turn that into something more specific. Something like:

    If the preacher took another step toward her, Cammie would pop him in his high-class nose.

    Now, this may not be how you would write it or how Cammie would "think" it, but this hopefully will give you an idea of what's needed. We need something fresh. "Clenched fists," while good, is a little cliché. But coming up with a fresh way to say "clenched fists" or how Cammie would let him have it is up to you. We can't do that for you.

    As for italics, Tracy and I disgusted that issue as well. I don't like encouraging writers to use italics because most beginning authors overuse them. The italicized thoughts could work and make it stronger. Like I said, it's a chance to bring out Cammie's voice. But I fear it might be just as risky as "telling." Here's an example of how that can be handled (the words between stars should be italicized):

    *One more step. Just one more step Preacher Man and say hello to my fist.*

    In the end, it's your choice. This is your story, and you should go with your gut.

    I want to thank Tracy for taking the time in her week to "edit" these submissions. It takes a lot of time to be so generous. Thank you, Tracy!

  29. Great advice! I hope I'm not too late to participate. Here's mine (50 words exactly, LOL):

    Historical fantasy
    Lady of the Snow

    I floated along the wind, blending in with the whirling snow as I stalked my prey. Two men in straw coats and wide-brimmed bamboo hats stumbled along the narrow mountain pass, piles of wood strapped to their backs. Watching them struggle made me laugh.

    They would not survive the night.

  30. @Dara - I'm definitely intrigued. The last two sentences seem such a contrast, we have to know more! I really love the "floated along the wind," - great visual.

    Good job!

  31. @Tracy - thanks so much for your thoughtful and in depth critique! Really helped me step back from the story and I'll think the bits I learned will help me even more as I continue my rewrite.

    Thanks again!!!

  32. What a great idea! Hopefully it's not too late.

    The Other Prince

    Prince Charming watched the goblet fall from King Aleric's hand. It hit the table with a muffled clang. Red wine splattered the white tablecloth like drops of blood.

    The smile faded from the king's face. His cheeks turned ashen. King Aleric teetered on his feet, turning his gaze on Charming's father, King Henry.

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  34. Joan
    YA Fantasy
    Lost Princess

    A figure emerged from the forest just as the eastern sky was starting to brighten. He hoped that the dark woollen cape, protecting him from the icy air, would also allow him to complete his mission without being seen.

  35. @Janet: Tracy asked Sandi and me to pinch hit for her for the remainder of the weekend. I hope you find this helpful.

    I love the title and the idea of a “fractured fairy tale.”

    Your opening raises a lot of interesting questions. Why did the goblet fall? Has King Aleric been poisoned? Is he in shock? What is the nature of the conflict between Aleric and Henry? And how will it all fit into the standard telling of the Cinderella fairy tale?

    However, in spite of that, something is lacking. I think it may be that while the opening is told from Prince Charming’s POV, I have no sense of his emotions or reason to care about him. He’s acting as an impartial reporter. You could start “The goblet fell from King Aleric’s hand and hit the table with a muffled clang” and it would be stronger ... but we wouldn’t know about Prince Charming’s existence.

    How to fix it? Can’t tell without knowing more of the story.

  36. @Joan: This opening paragraph introduces a mysterious stranger in a hostile environment on a dangerous mission. Promising!
    A few pointers: Avoid using “just” except in dialogue. Ordinarily two passive verbs (was, being) in a paragraph wouldn’t bother me, but in the first paragraph—keep it active if possible. Woollen should be spelled “woolen.” A question: If he wants to remain unseen, why did he wait until daybreak?
    I might reword the second sentence this way: “He hoped that the dark woolen cape which protected him from the icy air would also cloak him with invisibility.”

  37. Darlene, thanks for your comments! Gives me food for thought so I can make it better.

  38. Thanks for the great points Darlene. A bit intimidating to think I'll have to go through my entire manuscript, paragraph by paragraph and do this kind of "polishing"!

  39. It can be, can't it? I write my first draft without worrying too much about the "rules" of writing. Otherwise I'd be paralyzed. The down side is that revisions take a lot of time! But it's definitely worth it in the end.

  40. Wow, I came back just out of interest and saw that you wonderful ladies had continued to discuss my opening! Isn't it amazing how much discussion a single sentence can generate?

    I also came to the conclusion that "planned" did not work there and took it out. I will continue to work with it. I liked the idea of moving the polished loafers to the first sentence.

    Thanks so much for such a wonderful discussion! I'll be checking back here regularly for future posts and will post something about it on my facebook and twitter.

  41. This was very helpful to me and at just the right time. I'm doing revisions and really trying to tighten up my story. Loved the article.