Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hooks: The First Line

What is a hook?

In it’s simplest description, a hook is a piece of information you give your reader to keep them reading. As a writer, there are 3 key places you want to use hooks:
- the first line
- the first page
- the last para of every chapter

For this post, I will concentrate on the first line of your story.

The first line should send a jolt of awareness through your reader, whether it’s your critique partner or an editor. You want them to tremble with the knowledge they’re about to sink into a unique story which will pull them in and keep their attention. Something worthy of their precious time. There are 3 ways I can think of at this time to effectively begin your story: description, action and dialogue.


If you’re starting with description, there’d better be something uniquely interesting about whatever you’re describing. If not, find somewhere else to put it. For an example of a description gone wrong, here’s the first line of When you Least Expect It, Prairie Junction Book 2:

A chocolate covered caramel walked toward him.

The next line goes on to describe Hannah’s appearance: brunette hair, toffee colored short sleeve top and brown pants. However, when I submitted this ms to the Southern Magic’s Linda Howard Award of Excellence Contest, it received a thumbs down from both judges. Why? The first judge said the woman was being diminished by referring to her as candy and the second judge said it was ‘amateurish’. Still, the judges scored me high enough that I was a finalist in the Inspiration category. When the final round was judged, though, this ms came 5th out of the 5 submitted to the final judge who was a editor. How much more of an impact would I have made it I’d had a better opening? I don’t know, but you can be sure I’m changing it before I submit it again.

This first line from Charley’s Saint, Prairie Junction Book 3, is much better:

On Valentine’s Day, Charlene Cameron stepped out onto her verandah, shivering in the cold February air and rubbed her belly as if trying to feel the miniscule body forming inside.

I’ve entered this in half a dozen contests and most often, the judges annotated ‘Great opening!’ because of the questions it raised in their minds. I’m not about to change this line.


Action scenes are exciting if they’re done well. You just have to be careful you don’t drop your reader in the middle of a scene where everything is happening but nothing makes sense. Here’s the first line from my eharlequin Writer’s Challenge* entry, The Passage:

An arrow whistled past Dori’s ear.

From this short sentence I managed to convey the story as a historical piece as well as showing the heroine to be in some type of danger.

But action doesn’t have to equate to physical movement. This first line is from my entry in Rachelle Gardner’s June 08 Prompt Contest:

Daria heard screaming.

The scene goes on to explain what Daria heard. I’ve been told I should have written, ‘Someone screamed’ instead because it would make this sentence less passive. However, I was very limited in my word count and I needed to ensure the reader knew it was Daria, specifically who heard the screaming because the truth of it was, no one screamed at all. As Rachelle said, ‘Anita Mae used humor and a nice suspenseful action sequence to show us a girl on the edge.’


I love starting with dialogue. When I submitted Marry Me, Ma’am? to The Wild Rose Press, the editor who read my partial sent it back with suggestions asking me to make the changes and re-submit. I like that she didn’t suggest changes to the first line:

“Excuse me, but would you marry me, Ma’am?

This line is short, but it’s a paradox, is it not? He’s proposing marriage to a stranger, as signified by the use of the word ma’am and the reader wants to know why someone would take such a drastic measure. So, they’ll read on.

Dialogue can also be used instead of internalizing which I’ve been told is also frowned upon in an opening line. In this eharlequin Writer’s Challenge* piece called The Shepherd, I needed everyone to know Sarah’s desperation, yet she was alone, entombed in the snow. So, I wrote it as dialogue:

“Maybe I won’t feel a thing,” Sarah whispered.

It might be ‘bending the rules’, but it gets the job done.

Have you got a great first line you’d like to share? Do you have a not-so-great first line you’d like help with? I’ve mentioned 3 ways to start a story – are there others? As you can tell, this is all my own observations. Am I missing anything other writers should know?

* If you'd like to check out the current eharlequin challenge, go here.


Rie said...

Great post. I'm having a heck of a time with my first line. Nothing quite fits, so hopefully after percolating this information I'll come up with something brilliant.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Rie, brilliant is good, but so is thought provoking. It's that element of the unknown when all sorts of possibilities float through the readers mind and their curious nature takes over. That's what you're aiming for.

Thanks for the visit, Rie.

Karyn Good said...

Great post today, Anita. Writing that first line can be a hair pulling experience but you give lots of great pointers.

I'm going to offer an example from something I started a couple of years ago and is nesting at the back of my head. It needs help.

Kane Drake scooped up a palmful of pink water then let it slip through his fingers as he stared out over the Lake of Sighs.

Words I need to change for sure -let', 'slip' and 'stared'.

Maybe you need some more information. Kane Drake (for want of a better name) is a contemporary warrior and guardian of way of life involving powerful witches and against evil warlocks. The red surface of the lake is a dark omen of things to come.

Feel free to offer suggestions everyone!

Vince said...

What would you do if you fell in love with two sisters who were on trial for trying to kill each other?

Hi Anita:

I’d like to read an old fashion, First person, POV story in which the author speaks directly to the reader. Does anyone think they can write the above story as a compelling romance? I’d love to read it.


Erika said...

Vince, I love your idea. If someone writes it, I too would love to read it.

Anita, great post. First lines can be very important, but I won't put a book down if it doesn't grab me. Some very good books don't have great first lines. I will say though, one of my favorite books of all time is The Horse Whisperer. Here is the first line: "There was death at its beginning as there would be death again at its end"

Anita Mae Draper said...

Kane Drake scooped up a palmful of pink water then let it slip through his fingers as he stared out over the Lake of Sighs

When I first read this, I thought the pink water was from a dead body close by and the blood was diluted in the water. Of course that raised the question of who died and what does Kane have to do with it.

I'm not sure why you want to change 'stared'. There's not a lot you can do with the word at this point and I think it works. I know he's thinking if he's just standing there staring although we don't know his frame of mind or his emotional state.

Okay, from the top of my head, how's this:
Kane Drake stared as pink water from the Lake of Sighs dripped off his fingertips.

It changes it slightly and gives the impression that he's staring at the water in his hand instead of across the Lake, but does that matter? Is there something on or across the lake that he sees? Plus, like your line, it doesn't tell what emotion is running through him as he stares. Or did you want the reader to know?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Vince, I read all those story suggestions from your site and you have quite the imagination. There's always a twist in their somewhere. Reminds me of a chess game where you always know the 3rd step whereas I can't think past the second. :)

As for your idea above - I don't write First Person POV so that lets me off the hook. Very intriguing, though.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn - gee whiz, you got me all excited and I got right into your line without even acknowledging you. LOL

It sounds like an intriguing story. I take it this isn't your current wip that you were talking about yesterday?

Hopefully we'll get more ideas for you before this day is done.

Thanks Karyn.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Erika, that's a fantastic albeit fatalistic openting. I could 'hear' the narrator speaking as I read it because I've seen that movie several times.

And yes, I've also read many books where the first line didn't grab me. However, when you're trying to get the attention of a contest judge, agent or editor, why fool around? It's like my caramel line - it's good enough but when the time comes to revise that ms, that line and first para will be up for improvement.

Thanks, Erika.

Karyn Good said...

Hey Anita, let's give a shout out to Donna Alward for mentioning Prairie Chicks Write Romance in her United We Blog article in this month's Romance Writers Report. She also mentioned you!

Thanks so much Donna!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Really good post and something I always need to work on. It's not often I come up with a killer first line.

The opening line of my current WIP is kind of lame at the moment. An angel wakes my hero as he sleeps in the nursing home. She says:
"Wake up Mr. Brennen. Time to rise and shine."

I would like this line to be more of a clue as to what is to come. She is going to take him back in time for a second chance at love. So I was thinking maybe something like:

"Would you like to be young again, Mr. Brennen?"

I'm hoping something like this piques readers curiousity and raise story questions for them. All suggestions considered!

Well, back to work now (I'm at the office).


Erika said...

Anita, you're missing out if you've only seen the movie and not read the book. The book is a gazillion times better than the movie. IMHO.

Karyn Good said...

Great job Anita. Thanks!

Kane Drake stared as pink water from the Lake of Sighs dripped off his fingertips.

I like your suggestion much better. It's a great place to start. This is an older idea but one I'm very attached.

Susanne Dietze said...

Great post. I needed this, as I'm revising my first three chapters. Thanks!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn - it's out? I didn't get my mail yet. Donna said it had been accepted for publication but wasn't sure what parts might be cut or when it would be published as this was back in Feb.

I appreciate you telling me.

Hmmm... I wonder if that warrants a trip to town... but then again, it might take an extra day to get to me. *sigh* I love rural living - usually. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Wow, Jana. I like your story already. So many possibilities here ... let me think a bit ...

...anyone else picking up the challenge on this one...

Anita Mae Draper said...

You know Erika, you're probably right. In fact, I know you're right. But I got discouraged and confused years ago by trying to do both. When I tried to remember the story, the 2 versions would clash and I couldn't divide the two. So, I make it a point of one or the other.

Like I said, one or 2 chess moves at a time is about my limit, too. LOL

Anita Mae Draper said...

You're welcome, Karyn. So I'm getting the feeling the paranormal genre might be your first love, after all, eh. Interesting. I'm looking forward to reading your books. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey thanks, Susanne, welcome to the prairies. I'm very happy to see you here and looking forward to hearing more about your wip.

I appreciate you stopping in for a visit. :)

Jeanne Ryan said...

Maybe you can help me with this.

the original opening line was
"Janie woke up covered in sweat, her bed feeling like a swamp where not only was walking fraught with dangerous alligators and snakes, but the very water was toxic."

Someone said I should short it.

"Janie woke up covered in sweat, her bed feeling like a swamp where the very water was toxic."

What do you think?

The rest of the paragraph is
"They say if you die in your dreams, you won't wake up again, but this death wasn't hers. Was it?"

Vince said...

Hi Karyn:

I like your concept.

Scanning the horizon for evil, Kane Drake slowly scooped up a palmful of dry pink water knowing full well that when the Lake of Sighs finally turned red, unimaginable horrors would blaspheme the land.

Is this too dark?


Vince said...

Hi Jana:

“Mr. Brennen, I’m the Angle of Death, and you’re a big problem ‘cause your good and bad balanced out -- so I’m here to take you back to do life all over again. You can think of it as a kind of celestial tie-breaker.”

How’s that set-up?
This is fun, BTW.


Karyn Good said...

You rock, Vince. Excellent suggestion and one I'll mull over. Kane's a pretty dark guy so it could work.

Hi Jeanne, couldn't resist a shot at yours.

Janie clutched at the swampy, sweat soaked sheets, the toxic air ripe with images of death.

Jana, I'm thinking about it...and this could be way out in left field but here it is.

"Wake up Mr. Brennen. I find it best to eat a good breakfast before embarking on long trips."

Jana Richards said...

Hey Vince and Karyn,
Love your ideas! Thanks for the suggestions. Whatever I finally go with I want it to give the reader a little jolt, and I think both of these suggestions do that.

Thanks again,

Suse said...

Hi Anita, you've got a great discussion going here.

Karyn, how about:

Pink water sluiced through Kane Drake's hand as he contemplated the secrets buried in the Lake of Sighs.

Jana, how about:

Believe it or not, Mr. Brennen, you can go back, so rise and shine. 1920 is waiting for you.

Jeanne, how about:

Janie awoke swamped in sweat, her nightgown and bedding soaked and toxic.

Anita, although you didn't ask for it, but how about:

Yum, (your hero's name) liked chocolate covered caramels. Could the woman walking towards him be his own chocolate fantasy?

You're right, Vince, this is fun. You have some great suggestions. I like the story idea you threw out. It would taking some thinking to make the heroine(s) heroic.

Silver James said...

Anita, can I hire you to write my first lines? LOL The current MS are all in pretty good shape but I'll stick the "raw" first line from the new project here:

She wiped uncharacteristically sweaty palms on her blood-splattered apron.

Yay? Nay? I'll tell you a little about the scene later. :P

Now, I'll take a terrible stab at messing up everyone else's first lines. ;)

Karyn: Like pink sand, water from the Lake of Sighs dribbled from Kane Drake's cupped palm as he stared into the future.

Jana: "Rise and shine, Mr. Brennan," she whispered into his ear. "Time to start over." (Okay, that was two sentences. See? I fail at this. lol)

Jeanne: I'd rearranged your paragraph and start with: They say if you die in your dreams, you won't wake up again, but this death wasn't hers. Was it? Covered in sweat, Janie's bed felt like a swamp where not only was walking fraught with dangerous alligators and snakes, but the very water was toxic.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Jana's line: "Wake up Mr. Brennen. Time to rise and shine."

How about something like this:

'Let’s go, Mr. Brennen, the past is waiting.'

Karyn Good said...

Thanks Suse and Silver for the great suggestions. I'm keeping track of them and adding all of them to my Brotherhood of the Arrow binder for when I'm ready to get to work on it. I feel I need some more experience to do this project justice.

BTW - Silver, you've hooked me!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse, thanks for joining in.

You said, 'Yum, (your hero's name) liked chocolate covered caramels. Could the woman walking towards him be his own chocolate fantasy?

I really like it but I think it still falls into the category of the Hero seeing the heroine as something to eat. Actually, when I submitted it to the eharl snippet board last year, all the Blaze and more sensual authors gave it rave reviews. Go figure. LOL

Jana Richards said...

Silver, I love your opening! It's got me intrigued.

Suse and Anita, great ideas. Thanks a bunch.


Captain Hook said...

I'm glad you offered the example of starting with dialogue. A few of my WIPs start that way and I'm always getting yelled at for it.

These were two that I tried changing to suit my critters, but have since changed back to the first sentence dialogue:

1) "Honey, our sex life is dead."

2) "You're going to die tomorrow, Mommy."

After repeatedly trying to find other ways to start the stories with as much info and impact in so few words, I'm leaving them as is.

DebH said...

heya anita
love the posting. i like your rework on the angel story. short, sweet and a bit captivating.

i'll share three opening lines. one is from a Writer's Challenge based on a story i'm working on for Noc Bites and the others from two of Rachelle's little contests.

Four years college, top honors at the Academy and she was stuck being jail bait.

"Sweet Mother of…

My brain goes into the biological equivalent of the blue screen of death right after registering who’s blocking my sun.

I’d always thought my Mom was a certifiable nut case, right up until the moment some dude threw a fireball from his hands and turned her into la femme flambé.

Personally, i kinda enjoy the a femme flambé part. *heh*

Anita Mae Draper said...

Jeanne, your line was:
"Janie woke up covered in sweat, her bed feeling like a swamp where not only was walking fraught with dangerous alligators and snakes, but the very water was toxic."

I took a stab at it but it became longer:

As the putrid odor of a thousand decaying alligators invaded her nostrils and clogged her throat, Janie thrashed about on the bed in an effort to free her air supply and let the silent screams escape.

I think I let the next line affect the whole passage. Oh well.

BTW Jeanne – did you ever get anyone to discuss Angel Blood with you? just curious.

Silver James said...

Thanks, Karyn and Jana. The *she* is my main character in the new project. Aggie is a doctor in Victorian England working in the coroner's office "off the clock" as it were since both autopsies and women with stethescopes weren't quite the vogue back then. ;D

Anita Mae Draper said...

Silver, I'm trying with yours but just seem to keep regurgitating the same words but in a different order.

So far.

Anita Mae Draper said...

oh, btw Silver, I appreciate the compliment, but for me, creativity is one of those illusive things - it's always there, hovering in the background but when I really need to latch onto it, it decides to play a game of tag.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Anita, an excellent topic, and I loved reading your own examples. Unfortunately I don't have time to read everyone's comments and first lines, but I'll try to come back later.

The one thing I find with wip first lines is sometimes people go over the top in trying to cram information in, or make them So Exciting (!!!) that they just feel ridiculous. Ray Rhamey had a contest a little while ago over at Flogging the Quill where members voted for their favourite first lines from the participants. It's an interesting look into both the preferred styles of openings, but also the audience judging those lines.

Similarly I had a vote on my blog at the end of last month where people chose from a selection of 'blind' first lines, all from published novels without any titles or authors attached, to see which were favoured. I enjoyed the process (and in no way intended this paragraph as a shameless plug :)

As for my own first line, I haven't entered it anywhere, and it may yet change before the thing is completed, but I've had really good responses to it in critiques. Short and sweet: "Jereman was dead."

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Capt'n, yeah, gotta keep the dialogue in there. And if you think about it, it's the same 'old school' experts telling us we shouldn't start with dialogue that had everybody screwed up with all that head hopping they used to use.

I love your 2 first lines and wouldn't change a thing. Good job!

Help us out here with Silver's, wouldya?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks, Deb, I appreciate that.

I've always loved your line #1 and the story that went with it. No wonder you were a finalist for that contest of Rachelle's.

And your other 2 lines are very imaginative to say the least.

LOL. Glad to 'see' you, Deb.

Captain Hook said...

Silver, I am working on yours. Have some ideas swimming around in my so-called brain.

Jeanne, I turned yours into - Janie woke up covered in sweat, trapped in the toxic swamp her bed had become.

Vince, mine isn't a romance, but I have a YA (A Day With Death) that is first person with the MC talking directly to the reader. Critters love it so far. Of course that could be because Death looks like Shane West, wears Armani and carries a Glock.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Well, Hayley, your shameless plug worked! I hadn’t realized ‘hooks’ are the talk of blogland lately. I’ve been meaning to write this series on hooks ever since I listened to the workshop on my ACFW conference CD’s. The only thing holding me back is because I didn’t want to infringe on copyright laws, since I have so many problems with photos, etc.

Back to Eventide, #7 and #9 are the most compelling but I may be too scared to read #9.

And yes, I like your first line as well. It’s short but opens up so many possibilities.

Thanks for stopping by Hayley. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Looking forward to the rest of your hooks series. Since I'm back in the early part of the book again, it's always at the front of my mind.

Didn't want to flood comments with links before, but if you're curious, the 'answers' to the Eventide first lines are here, with the voting results beside.

Now must go polish up my post before tomorrow. Very much looking forward to a day on the Prairies!

Molli said...

Hi Anita. I like the way you set up the post with your examples, and I've enjoyed reading through the responses. Don't think I have anything to add to the suggestions other than it's great to see so many interesting takes on them.

I'm not an action opening kind of reader. I'm often happy to be led slowly into the story but I know that's not the preferred method at this point so I'll keep your post front and centre in my mind when I go into self-edit mode.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks, Molli, I know what you mean about being eased into a book. That's kind of how I feel about backstory. I like it. I like knowing what happened in the past. And I like knowing it upfront so I can feel the emotions with the characters instead of watching them and wondering what they're thinking. Oh well.

Thanks for dropping in. Nighty nite.

Jeanne Ryan said...

Thank you everyone for your help.

I had one person I talked about Angel's Blood with. It was frustrating having read it and not being able to talk about it.