Monday, July 26, 2010

How to Hook the Reader With a Great First Line

by Ruby Johnson

"Last night, I dreamt of Manderley again."

That line from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is one of the most famous lines in the world and is a good example of great first lines. What any great first line does is hook the reader.

Why? Precisely. It makes the reader want to know why. It raises a direct question and the reader is hooked into reading the next line, the next paragraph, the next page, the chapter.

In my early days as a writer, an author friend told me the first line is the story promise. It sets the mood or tone for change in the character’s life and draws the reader into the story. Les Edgerton author of Hooked says, "Your first sentence is the door into the house of your manuscript. Do you want it to be inviting, attractive, intriquing? Or do you want one that whimpers, The Mundanes reside here. Enter at the risk of falling asleep”

Donald Maass, literary agent and author of  Writing the Breakout Novel , as well as three other books on writing, developed a list of what hooks should contain. This is his list:

• Action or danger

• Overpowering Emotion

• A surprising situation

• An evocative description that pulls a reader into the setting

• Introduction of a unique character

• Warning or foreshadowing

• Setting a tone or theme

• Shocking or witty dialogue (internal or external)

• Raising a direct question

The following are some of my favorite first lines of novels. Can you identify which characteristics of Donald Maass’s list applies to each of them?

1. Falling in love with a catholic priest was not my smartest move. Kristen Higgins, Catch of the Day.

2. At about 0530 that very morning, Ken “Wildcard” Karmody became a terrorist. Suzanne Brockman, Out of Control.

3. He was running for his life. And it wasn’t the first time. Nora Roberts, Hot Ice.

4. The story begins where I’m making love to an ancient Chinese vase, on gangster’s orders, watched by eleven point two million viewers. Jonathan Gash, Moon-Spender.

5. When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.... When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.

6. Ever since we shot half of the Mineral County sheriff’s department, my deputy and I have been a little shorthanded. Evan McNamara, Fair Game

7. Three things occurred to me on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me. Sue Grafton, “G” Is For Gumshoe.

8. “Hey, Gil—your air freshener’s standing by the side of the road.”Gary Braumbeck, Keepers

9. Anna Reardon had done the unforgivable. She had lied through her teeth to get Karl Lindstrom to marry her. LaVyrle Spencer, The Endearment.

Remember, an editor, is the one buying your book so make those first lines, first paragraphs, first pages, first chapters compelling. Make them so good that the editor can’t wait to discover what happens next and doesn't want to go to bed and take a nap.

Recommended Reads.
Hooked, Les Edgerton, Writers Digest Books
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass, Writers Digest Books

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