Hooks in Books or The first line phenomenon.

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Can you tell me which books these first lines are from (no cheating now.  The answers will be given at the bottom of the post)?

Call me Ishmael.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. 

As I’ve been reading and rating a lot of “First Pages” on Webook, I’ve noticed several things.  There are a lot of great sounding books, but their first pages do nothing for the book.  In my quest for a dream agent, I’ve come to find that THE most important thing you can do is make your first page(really your first line) exciting.  You have to hook ’em.  Whether it be your readers or your publisher/agent.

While that doesn’t mean you have to have the character in imminent peril if that isn’t what your book is about, but it does mean making it interesting.  And it has to make the “reader” ask a question.  There has to be a reason to keep reading.

Whenever I go into a bookstore there are three things that have to be done before I pick up a book I’ve never heard of before.  The cover has to be good, then the back cover blurb has to be exciting, and then I read the first page.  Now while, I may buy a book anyway, if I don’t like one of the three, the biggest determining factor is that first line and then the first page.

If I don’t like the first line, I probably will read on to see if it gets better, but after the first page if I still don’t like it, or it doesn’t give me a reason to keep reading, why should I?

Of course, for every rule there are exceptions.  Take Twilight, for example, I only bought it because my friend said I should, so I did.  I HATED, and still do, the first three chapters, but since I bought it, I forced myself to keep reading and I got hooked on the story and finished the rest of the series over the weekend.  So, had I applied my rule, I would have missed out on a great story.  Now I won’t debate with people about how good or bad Twilight is.  I have my own issues with it, but the truth is it’s a best-seller and there’s a reason for it, probably because she’s so good with the emotional aspects of her books.

Now how do we get to that all important part of this ramble.  How do we make sure that our first line is great?

1. Sentence Style.  Basically what this means is that the sentence must be concise.  This doesn’t mean it can’t be long, but it needs to make sense.  It definitely needs to be structured correctly so that the reader doesn’t feel as if it’s a mouthful.
2. It should make the reader ask a question.  Basically this part is your hook.  This doesn’t necessarily need to be in the very first sentence, but if not it needs to be in the first paragraph.  Give your reader a reason to keep reading.  Let it be a hint of what’s to come and set the tone for the book.  If it’s a comedy, open with something funny.  If it’s a horror, something scary, etc.
3. It needs to be relevant.  Since this line sets the tone for the rest of the book, don’t just add in something that sounds interesting or funny, but has nothing to do with the story.  It’ll only cause your readers to stop reading that much faster.  Readers are smart, they’ll figure it out.
4. It needs to allow for setup.  You shouldn’t toss your readers in the middle of a scene where no one knows what’s going on.  It’s distracting, chaotic, and of course another reason not to keep going.  People don’t like feeling confused.  They want to feel like they’ve got a good handle on something before they continue.

‘Call Me Ishmael’ – Moby Dick, and is one of the most famous in American Literature.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ – Cheeky set up, this one: Pride and Prejudice.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’– Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. One of those long sentences he’s famous for, but as you can see it follows almost every step to the T.


‘The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.’ — Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts.  An interesting set up that almost begs you to keep reading to find out what’s going on.  


‘You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.’ — Mark Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Maybe not the most grammatically correct first sentence, but it sets the tone nicely for the rest of the book.  


Did you get them all?  I’m sure you did.  Enjoy the rest of Monday and I’ll see you tomorrow with another Teaser Tuesday.  And don’t forget to check out my new feature Writer Wednesday where I’ll interview someone from the publishing industry.  This week is a very special guest.  One of my friends and an awesome Epic fantasy novelist,  MJ Heiser.  She’ll be talking about her debut novel, Corona, and will offer her advice to newbie and aspiring writers.  




4 Responses to “Hooks in Books or The first line phenomenon.”

  1. Liz Czukas says:

    >Fantastic post! You've got some great advice here. And, I'm feeling like the world's biggest idiot for not thinking of interviewing MJ. D'oh!

    – Liz

  2. slushpilehero says:

    >so, what's your great first line?

  3. lynnrush says:

    >I didn't get any of those first lines.

    Okay, on your next post, you should have people post the first lines to their current projects. . .

    That'd be fun to see, huh?

    Great post. First lines are sooo imporant. For me, first pages are as well. I'll be in a book store and read the back, then the first page, if I'm not hooked, it goes back onto the shelf. 🙂

    Nice job here!

  4. jasouders says:

    >Lynn that's a GREAT idea. That'll be my post for Thursday then. And Slush look for my great first line then. Though I'm not sure how "great" it is.