In some ways, going to a bookstore reminds me of going to a bar hoping to meet someone. You figure you’ll indulge in something you enjoy, and will hopefully meet somebody you’d like to get to know better. Or you might rediscover an old flame. I scope out all the most attractive guys…um, covers…and approach the one I like best. Good looks aren’t everything, though. If the pickup line is lame, I’ll find somebody else with more originality. I want a book to hook me from the first sentence.
The first line of a book is its pickup line. It has been my experience that authors have little say in what’s on the front or back of their books, so that opening sentence is the first chance our own words have to impress the reader. It has to count, to intrigue the reader enough to keep reading. It should set the tone of a book, or at least make the reader want to know more about hero or heroine. Cause as a writer, I am totally hoping some nice person will want to pick me up and take me home.
Even before a book hits the shelves, the first line must catch the attention of an agent or editor. If that publishing professional got a good night’s sleep, lost a pound the day before and is having a good hair day, and thus feels up to adding yet another manuscript to an already enormous list waiting to be read, a writer has maybe five pages to convince him or her that this book should be printed or digitized. An opening sentence that is just words on a page will not induce a pro to read on. One that is poorly phrased or grammatically incorrect (unless it’s dialogue that fits a character) raises the fear that other sentences in the manuscript will be just as bad.
It’s said that J.R.R. Tolkien simply jotted down the first line of The Hobbit while grading essays: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” While the passive construction might be criticized today, it was acceptable in the 1930s. And if you read it aloud, there is an irresistible rhythm to those words, compared an active version like “A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground.” Lucky JRRT. It takes me several tries to come up with a decent opening line.
There are a lot of common mistakes writers make with opening lines. Weather reports, geography lessons, “Hi, my name is ______”, and cameo scenes are some of the errors we all make. In my case, it’s because I usually struggle to find exactly were my backstory ends and the book starts. Or which character should start the story.
In a Weather Report, the opening line is something like “It was a warm spring day in Gopher Gulch, with just enough wind to cool the brow of Bob Manlyman as he trudged along the dirt road.” This is just me, but I prefer an active opening: “A spaceship swooped down from the bright April sky and disgorged a furious alien that pointed a disintegration gun straight at Bob’s heart.” Now there’s something at stake.
The Geography Lesson is similar to the Weather Report, except it describes the surrounding area instead: “Brill Court, the estate of Lord Manlyman, nestled into the rolling landscape.” Pretty, but how does this matter to the rest of story? Does Lord M. love his estate? Does he hate it? Has he just gambled it away? “Lord Manlyman swallowed the lump in his throat as his gaze swept over his home one last time.” Aha, emotion! Now the reader wonders why Lord M. has a lump in his throat and why he’s leaving his home.
And the introductory opening, which one of the writers in my crit group refers to as the Call Me Ahab approach. I make this error a lot. “Lady Sophronia Girlygirl lifted her head at the sound of approaching footsteps.” Aside from the boring approaching footsteps, we don’t (as I have been reminded often) need to know Sophronia’s entire name and title in the first few words. There’s an entire book after the first line in which I can provide that information.
The original opening scene of my current WIP took place in the dress shop where the heroine works and she interacted with two secondary characters I was never going to use again. What was I thinking? I replaced it with “Alix fingered her reticule as she inhaled the savory aroma of fresh-baked meat pies.” The character is now on her way home to her daughter, a location and character that will play a big part in the story.
A good first line presents the hero or heroine’s immediate quandary and their response to it. It gives a sense of immediacy and action, even if the character is only thinking about a problem. It must make the reader want to read more. The hook in my first book, To be Seduced, starts with “He had picked a prodigious cold day to abduct someone.” The opening to my second proved a greater challenge, as I wanted to open it in the heroine’s perspective. Her Scottish Groom (March 2011) takes place in the late Victorian era, when upper-class females were often kept in a state of submission and ignorance. I had to keep my heroine true to her time and upbringing even as she acted against them. So I came up with this: “Tonight called for some act of rebellion, no matter how insignificant.”
Here are some of my favorite examples from different genres. I like them because they are brief and vivid:
“The small boys came early to the hanging.” — Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth (Prologue)
“Matrimony. The very word was menacing.” — Nicole Jordan, To Pleasure a Lady
“For seven days we had been tempest-tossed.” — Johann Wyss, Swiss Family Robinson
It is possible for a long sentence with involved clauses to start a book, of course. Consider one of the best hooks that ever opened a romance novel:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a good wife”. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Is there an opening line from a book that has stayed with you? What are some of your favorite first sentences?