Wednesday, November 30, 2011

HOOK: The First Line

There's no denying the lure of a great first line. Most people pick up a book based on the cover and/or title. After that they read the jacket info and the first line or two to see if the book draws them in. A judge, agent, or editor is likewise drawn to your story--or not!--by the first line.

So it's crucial to have a beginning with a hook.

How do we as writers obtain a hook? Since I'm a fan of lists (they're so tidy and handy), here are ways to be "hooky" with a first line or opening. Try one or all, as suits you.

1. Give a few tidbits to pique interest and mystery--but don't answer all questions.
2. Start with a mood or tone that accurately reflects the genre and style of your story.
3. Starting with dialogue is difficult to do well, as readers are thrown into the conversation without knowing who the characters are. First tell us why we should care.
4. Starting in mid-action can also be disconcerting, before readers know the characters.
5. The starting scene is the day everything changes for your main character. Back up a bit from the "inciting incident" or pivotal moment to ground the reader first.
6. Avoid cliché openings: characters waking up, having a dream, being chased, etc.
7. Don't sweat it! Often you must write the entire novel to write the first line properly.
8. Try not to start off with long lyrical (purple) prose or descriptions. You'll lose readers.
9. Keep the first line relatively short. Read it aloud; you shouldn't run out of breath.
10. The rest of the story should flow naturally and logically from the first line.
11. A first line may intro the main character, but it's not necessary to say the entire first and last name; it often creates a closer/intimate feeling by using only a first name.
12. Don't be gimmicky and throw out a false hook or promise. Readers won't be pleased.
13. Try not to start your first line intriguingly, then fall into dull backstory or musings.
14. Run your opening by your critique partners and see if they are hooked--or confused.
15. Beware of using passive voice or verbs (is/was) unless you're doing it consciously.
16. Only begin your story from a future vantage point looking back if you want the reader to know the main character has survived his/her ordeal.
19. Some agents--like mine--hate stories that start with character stats: "Hi, I'm Brian, and I'm 10 years and 35 days old with brown hair and green eyes."
20. The best first lines are iconic and give an encapsulation of the thrust of the novel.

I always felt the first line of my novel SHAPERS was a bit yawners and didn't encapsulate a sci-fi feel. This is what I had-- which is now the 2nd sentence:
I pull the weight bar down to my chest, sending a fuzzy burn through my biceps.

So Agent Kelly and I came up with this (mostly her idea). It seems more iconic/hooky:
Five more reps, and I should be done with this body for good.

FIRST LINES of books I've recently read.
CHIME by Franny Billingsley: I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.
ROTTERS by Daniel Kraus: This is the day my mother dies.
DARK EDEN by Patrick Carman: Why are you hiding in this room all alone?
OPEN MINDS by Susan Kaye Quinn: A zero like me shouldn't take public transportation.
THE DOCTOR'S LADY by Jody Hedlund: "Indians!" (dialogue that works fine)

What is your favorite first line from a published novel?
Have you ever started a novel with your character waking up?
What is the first line from YOUR novel or piece of writing?
Do you have any other suggestions about creating hooky first lines?


  1. 'There was a naked man in her kitchen.' or something like that in one of Judi Fennell's books that I loved.

    Opening for my current WIP Dream-Walker Awaken is: 'Ares dumped the third body on the sidewalk.'

  2. That first line is the hardest, but to me the first paragraph is the most difficult. I can't tell you how often I've rewritten the first paragraph of my MS. I'm hoping it has the proper feel to it. I've seen it done so many ways...people dumping tons of backstory, starting with dialogue, just one brief paragraph then jumping into action and dialogue. And let's not forget the whole prologue deal. I hate to bore someone with backstory...and I don't want to confuse anyone either. Ah the tricky writing craft. :)

  3. "Don't sweat it! Often you must write the entire novel to write the first line properly."

    I usually go back after the book is written and rewrite my first line! Otherwise, I'd spend waaaay too much time trying to come up with one and never get the rest written.

    Excellent tips!

  4. This is a great post, Carol. The first line is always the hardest.

    You gave a list of awesome tips.

  5. First lines are so important and so difficult to write sometimes. I change mine a zillion times before I'm done, and even then I'm not entirely happy with them. Thanks for the tips.

  6. My first line DOES start with dialogue-- it's one word, "Please!" The opening being a sex-turned-murder scene, I've been told that it works. :)

    I must say that I disagree your readers need to know the characters before you can throw them into action. Rarely does that ever prove to be the case-- in a lot of the books I read, the action starts where the book starts. And it can be argued that the action is what gives us the reason to want to learn about the characters in the first place. Its the experiences that make these characters interesting in the first place.

    I personally write with a balance of action and exposition-- I don't slow down my story, but I pepper it with information so that my readers can learn about my characters and world without having to take a break from the story itself.

    Overall you've got some great examples. Thanks for posting them! :)

  7. These are such great examples! And I love your new first line. Lots of voice. My favorite first line is still from Pride and Prejudice.

    I love it when a first line falls into place. #bliss

  8. I just read "When it is all said and done, killing my mother came easily,' by Alice Sebold of The Almost Moon. She's a strange writer but that line caught me.
    Great ideas. I will rewrite mine now!

  9. Hey Carol,

    Not sure where you got that email address from-- it's so old I can't remember the last time I used it! You can email me in the future at

    I appreciate your response, and I agree with you. I was just offering a different approach. :)


  10. Hey Jasmine--your diff approach is great! Discussion and other viewpoints welcome. Everyone, check out her first comment and make up your own minds about how you like to write openings. :)

    And double check the email address ya'll have listed on your Blogger profile!

  11. Excellent list.

    From the book I just finished: "Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day." (Daughter of Smoke and Bone)

    From my WIP: "I remember falling."

  12. First lines are trouble that's for sure. I once read a lists of first lines on someone's blog who asked which ones were best sellers. Two of them were single words. I had no idea.
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

  13. What a great post. Very thorough list. First lines are so hard to get right. I've been thinking of doing a post on first lines. If I do, I'll sure link to this one. It covers everything.

    I think the greatest first lines are the ones that state the theme, but it's awfully hard to pull of a "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." or "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" without sounding pretentious.

    The first line of A Christmas Carol might be my favorite of all time "Marley was dead, to begin with."

  14. First lines are very tricky, but when done well, they do hook. The first line from CHIME is a great example and yanked me into that story.

    You've developed an excellent list!

  15. aagh! I just read my first line of my current WIP, and I don't like it one bit: "Leander’s stomach growled as he considered his options in the doorway of his room." Of course, it is the rough draft - I have to remember that.
    Your list is awesome!
    I kind of like this beginning line from SAPPHIQUE by Catherine Fisher: "The alleyway was so narrow that Attia could lean against one wall and kick the other."
    Of course, I'm not sure that's technically the opening line since it is preced by a part of a legend that starts like this, "Sapphique, they say, was not he same after his Fall."

  16. As you know I've written my first line a gazillion times. And I plan on writing it yet again. It's actually on my schedule for today funnily enough. Great timing :)

  17. The Tale of Two Cities first line is iconic - however, at this time of year another first line by Charles Dickens comes to mind from A Christmas Carol, "Marley was dead, to begin with." Your first line is awesome, Carol!

  18. Thank you, Carol, for this excellent post. I've given lots of thought to first lines, and have completely different approaches in my first novel, Believing In Horses, and my WIP, Believing In Horses, Too. Here's the first (already published):
    "Sadie believed that everything happens for a reason."
    While I love that sentence for many reasons, I'm thinking of a more dramatic approach in the sequel:
    "“ daughter..I love her..Doc,” Lieutenant Commander Navarro choked out through short bursts of labored breath."
    I write YA, like you, and would greatly appreciate your thoughts. This is my first visit to your blog, and I'm about to join the group.

  19. Great tips for first lines. I love your first line for Shapers. Very hooky.

  20. haha.. I do have a WIP that starts with the MC falling out of bed (ie waking up) but several people who've read it think it works. ikes!
    first lines are sooo hard!

  21. Carol, Thanks for that exhaustive list of things to ponder for first lines. Here's the first line of the book I'm reading now, and loving:

    *I was seven and living in Los Angeles when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and my first vivid memories are of how happy and excited everyone was.*

    This is from *The Apothecary*. I was totally sucked in from the first paragraph. This line doesn't have the kind of punch some of the ones mentioned above do, but here's why I think it works:

    1) It sets the time period.
    2) It really establishes the character's voice, which is crystal clear.
    3) And I think it also hints that the "happiness" everyone is feeling might be ephemeral.

    It's much more subtle than something like Sebold's line about killing her mother, but it shows an author who is very sure of herself. No gimmicks.

    Carol, your revised first line is wonderful. It's great to see how a small tweak like that can pull everything together. Your new version suggests both plot and theme. I love it when a single line can do so much heavy lifting. : )

  22. haha the waking up opening - for years I couldn't start a novel without it!

  23. Favorite first line: "Where's daddy going with that ax?" From Charlotte's Web :)

    I've had my character waking up before - but I may have changed that. Yes, I've had to write the entire novel to come up with a good first line - first chapter actually.


  24. Great post as usual! Love your new first line.

  25. Great points, especially # 12. I've seen that done before and it always fails. No point annoying the reader before he makes it to the second paragraph.

  26. GREAT list! And I love your new first line. That definitely hooks me. The first line of my current WIP is: The first explosion rocks the room, sending my books flying off the desk. But now I'm wondering if I should shorten it - ending with "room"...

  27. Those are great first lines from your recent reads. I don't recall my favorite first lines, but I appreciate a first line that pulls me into the story. And thanks for your list.

  28. Great list, Carol! And I love the new first line for SHAPERS! That's really does grab the reader's attention and encapsulate the mood!

    I think I was quite guilty of #13 in SEER. But, well, it's still pretty rough, so I can fix it. And, yeah, have a character waking up at the beginning of DEMON (or whatever I end up calling it), but it's not typical. Or so I tell myself to justify my choice. :)

  29. Fabulous advice Carol! I've re-written my first line so many times - I'm thinking I may ditch the first chapter itself? Sometimes your first chapter is actually your second chapter - if that makes sense.

    Hope you're enjoying your weekend! ;)

  30. Great tips! Have you ever read 'Hooked' by Egerton? I must admit I'm not a fan of books starting with the MC waking up. Or, even worse, dreaming.

  31. I do tend to obsess over first lines cuz they're so important. A first line on an old story that will never be submitted: "Death stood behind her, disguised as a well-dressed man."
    I kinda like it.
    I really like your first line--it def sets the tone for the story!! Great advice, Carol!

  32. I don't like books that start out like #19 either. Then again, I don't really like any book written in first person. (Ironically that means I dislike a look of books in my own genre.)

  33. Like Diane, I hat number 19. I don;t have that great opening first line, but I jump right into action. To engage me, something has to happen right away. Not necessarily the first line. But certainly in the first page or two.

  34. Funny thing is I like a first paragraph hook instead of a first line hook. I always read past the first line, no matter what. I'm weird that way. :)

  35. I love that line from Chime by Franny Billingsley. :)

    The first line from my novel would be my NaNoWriMo project (which I'm still working to finish):
    “I have seen many students,” the Headmaster said, “but never have I come across a pupil so out of place at this school as you.”

  36. I like your new first line!

    One of my fav first lines is still from my middle school days when I read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle: “Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.” It basically summarized the entire story and yet it sucked me into her story.

  37. Fantastic post Carol and a topic I've thought about many times before. You gotta pull them in from the moment they crack the cover!

  38. Agree completely on the importance of first lines! That handful of words is so dang important.

    From my current WIP: "Being the good daughter isn’t easy."

  39. the lead is everything. when i was jamming out daily newspaper stories, it was a joy to nail a lead. they say that a story flows after a good lead, and i have found that to be true. lots of folks, including myself and perhaps you, often have to 'clear our throats' before writing the lead, and so we bury the lead in our draft. it's there, it's just the second or third sentence and trimming is all that needs to be done. for me, if i'm open to editing and don't mind working late nights, i will eventually find that lead.

    my favorite leads are newspaper stories. from memory, here is one from mike royko in the early 1970s.

    something like: "'a short man with a thick neck just handed me an envelope and said, 'dis is fom meester sinatra.'"

  40. Great list. Thanks for the tips. First lines are hard but I think trying to come up with a good one can be fun, though I've changed mine too many times to count. LOL. Thanks for sharing yours with us. I like what you ended up with.

  41. First pages are tough. I spend the most time with them ... probably.

  42. First line of the YA manuscript that is currently with 5 editors: "Don't ever trust your parents."

  43. First lines, first lines. By the time I'm done with a manuscript, my first line has probably been rewritten 110 times (Okay, I'm exaggerating, but a LOT).
    My favorite first line is: "Things break all the time." (Handle with care by Jodi Picoult)

  44. This was such a helpful post! I've always had trouble with them, and it's been distracting me from the bulk of my novel!

    After reading your post, I came up with this for my WiP: I had always known I was a monster, but this was the first time it had ever truly sunken in.

    I think I'm going to stick with that for now. :) The one I had before violated more than one of the rules you listed above. :P Thanks so much!


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