on opening lines and hooking the reader

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[originally posted at kalayna.com]

Some would argue that the only line in a book more important than the first is the very last line. I’m not sure I would go that far, but as a reader, I know I’ve been sold by an opening line in the past.

When I’m in a bookstore, browsing, the very first thing that draws me to a book is the cover. They always say not to judge a book by its cover, but marketers aren’t stupid so different genres tend to have their own ‘look’. By designing covers which look ‘the same but different’ within a genre, the marketing people have conditioned readers to gravitate to books that display certain visual elements. Once the cover has done its job and urged me to pick up the book, I flip it over and scan the back blurb. Now, you must understand I don’t actually read the blurb. I just scan the first couple lines of the blurb. As a whole, I’ve grown to dislike blurbs because they seem to come in a only a couple flavors: revealing too much about the story, or telling the potential reader absolutely nothing about the story. So, a quick cursory scan of the back–which won’t sell me unless it is extremely attention grabbing–then I flip the book open to the first chapter.

Now this, the first line, first paragraph, first page, is where I’m looking for the magic to happen. I don’t think I’ve ever read a first line and immediately closed the book and put it back on the shelf, but I have decided to buy a book after reading the first line. While a stunning first line isn’t necessary and I’ve read many a fantastic book which had a rather blah first line, if all other considerations are equal and I can only afford to buy one book, I’m going to buy the one with a good first line. So, with that in mind, let me share some first lines that enticed me recently:

“The fact I had killed a man was really putting a crimp in my love life.” —Doppelganster by Laura Resnick

 
 
 

“Two rules I live by: Never admit to being a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date with a human. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill.” —Deadtown by Nancy Holzner

 
 

“All I can see through the night-vison goggles are the eyes of the vampire I’m pressed against; the rest of his face is kind of obscured by the large-caliber handgun I have jammed up his nose.” — Death Blows by D D Barant

 

 

What do all of these examples have in common? Voice. And a lot of it. Now, it might not be a voice that appeals to everyone, but for me, each of these opening lines were deal-sealers. I needed to read more after those lines.

The first example, the line by Laura Resnick, is actually a book near the top of my TBR, so I have not yet read it. But when I found it in the store, the title and that first line sold me. Beside establishing voice, what is accomplished in this first line? Well, we know the view point character killed someone, and we know they don’t sound all that remorseful about it as they are worried about their love life. A deceptively simple line, it is comical and establishes character. I can’t wait to read this book.

The second example, which is actually the first two lines from Nancy Holzner’s debut novel (but I couldn’t resit including both) are much more complicated than the first example, but they immediately establish so much. If I hadn’t seen the cover for this book, and I hadn’t read the back, I would automatically know from these lines that I was reading fantasy, and most likely urban fantasy from the modern tones (and I would be completely correct). We also learn a lot about the character, and glean a hint of an idea of what kind of trouble is in store for her. That’s a lot to do with two lines, and it is well done and comical.

The final example is actually a sequel, and as I enjoyed the first book, I was pretty much guaranteed to read the second, but how can you not love that line? There is a hint of coming action, dark humor, and an extremely interesting situation. There is also a stunning reversal, as I started the sentence expecting a situation totally different from what the end of the sentence revealed.

A great first line can certainly convince me to impulse buy a book. What opening lines have wowed you recently? What elements do you find really work for you as a reader? Is it the voice? The immediate sense of character? Setting? Action? Any all time favorite openings that have stuck with you?

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18 comments to on opening lines and hooking the reader

  • Megan B.

    As soon as you mentioned voice I scrolled back up to your examples to check, and sure enough they are all in first person. I find that interesting. Do you have any favorite opening lines that are written in third person?

    I am trying to think of examples of my own favorites, but I am drawing a blank. I can’t think of any opening lines that have really stuck with me. In fact I just started reading Game of Thrones last night, and can’t recall the opening line. (Not a dig at all; I am totally enjoying the book so far).

  • Megan raises a really interesting point. I find that voice comes more easily when I’m writing in 1st person, and I certainly agree that first lines are easier when I’m able to infuse them with voice. Hell, “Call me Ishmael.” is first person.

    Those are all great first lines, Kalayna. I don’t think I’m particularly good at first lines, though I’m getting better. The first lines of my epic fantasies are nothing special. I think the Thieftaker openers are better, and my contemporary fantasies have probably my best opening lines. Of course neither of them is under contract yet, so maybe first lines are best if they’re followed up by good second lines. And thirds….

  • KR1L3Y

    Darkness Under the Sun by Dean Koontz has a great first line – “I was Death, harvesting lives.”

    I’m also quite partial (though undoubtedly biased) to the first line of my own WIP – “The voices were back, but they were different this time; they were getting closer.” It’s not quite as dramatic as Koontz’, but I think it will draw a reader in.

  • I write mostly in third person, and read it as well. I spend massive amounts of time on the first line, trying to get it to a point where it would grab me if I had picked it up in a store.

    A couple of my favorite first lines in third person out there are:

    (This one’s 2 lines, but really sets up what you’re about to get right there) The asteroid hurtled in from Capricorn, nosed around a G-type sun, swerved off toward the fifth planet. Such a trajectory is somewhat atypical for asteroids. – The Warlock in Spite of Himself – Christopher Stasheff

    He was born in fire, not knowing who or what he was. – Wrath of Ashar, First book of The Kingdoms – Angus Wells

    It is the color of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. – Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock

    Of all the rash and midnight promises made in the name of love, none, Boone now knew, was more certain to be broken than “I’ll never leave you.” – Cabal – Clive Barker

    Last, one of my favorites from my own works (though it is still raw):
    It streaked through the night sky like a blazing lance loosed from the hand of the Elder Gods themselves, leaving an afterimage that looked like some dark tear in the fabric of the cosmos. – On Starfire Wings

  • Hepseba ALHH

    This is an interesting discussion. I think I find first lines to be both very important and often unnoticeable. I can’t think of any opening lines that I’ve really loved (except for the uber-famous one from Pride&Prejudice, which is uber-awesome), but I also don’t remember quotes much anyway, so…

    However, I know that with my own writing, I almost always can’t start a new chapter until I’ve got the opening lines worked out. I feel like several of my chapter openings are pretty darned good, but, I also have a tendency to start with the weather, which I know turns some people off. (I’m pretty tactile-ly oriented, so starting with something like the weather helps settle me into a scene.)

  • sagablessed

    ‘As the amber liquid scorched its way down her throat she understood one truth: by the time someone thought she had had enough, even a member of the secretarial pool, it was too late. While she wiped away the tears from her eyes, the blurred golden stars on the table resolved into badges and key cards of the US Marshal’s service.’ -Guess who

    ‘This is the worst story I know of hocuses. And its true.’ Melusine Sara Monette

    ‘The three quarter moon, hanging low in the night sky,turned even the tamed and placid farmland into a mysterious landscape of silver light and shadows.’ Blood Trail Tanya Huff

    I am hooked by a first line. If by the third I am not grabbed, I ususally do not continue. There are exceptions, some made me glad for it, some not so much.

  • I’m with Kalayna about blurbs. We all know the formula, we’ve all been taught to write the formula and so now they’ve become largely worthless for establishing if I’ll like a book or not. I often don’t bother with them anymore because they make every book sound cheesy and formulaic to me.

    I notice too that the three lines you gave all involve violence. I’m not against that – they sound fascinating to me too. But I think they reflect an important trend in what’s selling these days; strong voice and immediate action or threat of physical conflict. It’s not coming at the expense of character, but it is a very specific kind of opening. We’re a long way from “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

  • So much pressure to get it right! I’m thinking it would be a good idea to revisit your first line after you have written your book to ensure it grabs?

  • Razziecat

    Frankly, I think the first line of The Hobbit is pretty iconic! But yes, I’ve noticed the trend to jump right into the action. Here are some that caught me when I read them:

    “The hayrick exploded in a swirl of straw and dust and squawking chickens.” That’s the first line of Chapter One of Kathleen Bryan’s (aka Judith Tarr’s) [I]The Serpent and the Rose[/I]. There is actually a short prologue but I think the start of Chapter One has more force to it.

    Then there’s Carol Berg’s [I]Flesh and Spirit[/I]: “On my seventh birthday, my father swore, for the first of many times, that I would die face down in a cesspool.” Tells you a lot about the main character’s family relations, and something about his personality.

    And my favorite of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasies, [I]The Hallowed Hunt[/I] (and here I’m giving the first 2 lines because you really need both: “The prince was dead. Since the king was not, no unseemly rejoicing dared show in the faces of the men atop the castle gate.” This makes an immediate impression as to the prince’s character, doesn’t it?

  • Razziecat

    ooops, I see my attempt at italics didn’t take. Sorry!

  • First person, but A.J.’s Act of Will and Will Power both had very fun first lines. 😀 And he can post those if he likes. I loved ’em both though.

    One of the issues I’ve been having with much of Urban Fantasy lately is they are all beginning to sound the same to me. Which is why I’m very selective in the UF market.

  • Shadowspawn, A Thieves World Novel by Andrew J. Offutt had a nice one too, but it was more that the first sentence pulled me to the second, and then the third, and the fourth, and each seemed to build on the other. Which I guess is the idea. It’s sort of the prologue, a first hand account of the main character, but it was enough. And the novel is in third person, which is interesting too.

    The first thing I noticed about him, just that first impression you understand, was that he couldn’t be a poor man. (Why?) Or boy, or youth, or whatever he is. (?) Not with all those weapons on him. (orly? Tell me more.) 😉

  • Ken

    “The building was on fire and it wasn’t my fault.” Jim Butcher. That has to be one of my all time favorites. The blurb on the back of Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the wind” was an instant hook for me. I bought the book on the strength of that blurb alone and I am SO glad I did.

    I like (naturally) the first line from my current book: “I stepped out into the afternoon sun and I didn’t burst into flames.”

    It’s a rare 3rd person POV that really catches my attention on the first line. Usually, I’ve got to get through a couple of pages before I get into it.

  • I think for me it is a case that the good lines I don’t notice but bad ones put me off. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with one first line from a book I fell in love with but have failed. On the other hand I know several books were immediately turned down due to awkward, boring or sloppy first sentences (though I can’t remember them either).
    Just to add to the pool of WIP first liners:
    Free at last.

  • Possibly the best first line in a science-fiction novel, from John Varley’s Steel Beach:

    “In five years, the penis will be obsolete”, said the salesman.

  • Benny Imura couldn’t find a job, so he took to killing.

    I just loved this first line, of Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin. It’s spare and intense, just like the world of the story.

  • JJerome

    I wonder if the whole hook-the-reader-by-the-first-line-or-get-off-the-pot will trend down. Could it be just a fad? A watery hook does not necessarly mean a weak story, but since there are more and more books on the market, writer’s are competing against each other, and the arena is on page one, paragraph one. I guess I just answered my own question.

  • Wolf, that line is fantastic. I want to read that story just because I want to know about a salesman evangelising the loss of the penis.