“It was a dark and stormy night.”
(A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle)
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
Some people call them “hooks”—that all important first line of a book. Imagine a fishing hook with a big, fat juicy worm on the end wriggling like a delicacy. That worm is much more appetizing to a fish swimming by than the metal hook will ever be dangling all by itself–and so will a juicy first line of a book to potential readers cruising the shelves in a bookstore or library.
A fishing rod and worms is how I describe the creation of story hooks when I do my Creative Diary writing workshop with kids. You want to throw that great, delicious hook out there, capture your reader, and then reel them in. As a writer or a librarian or a teacher trying to grab a child with a book, we want our potential reader to get intrigued, to *Get Hooked* and KEEP READING.
So just how important IS that opening first line or first page for Readers and how important are first lines for Writers?
Let’s go to our panel of experts:
Aubri, 15-years-old: “The cover of a book definitely draws me in first, but the first line makes or breaks it. I have to be intrigued, but I also like funny stories like the Junie B. Jones books that start out really funny and scary books where a character might be in prison and something is going to happen to them.”
Shelby, 12-years-old: “A first line makes me want to keep reading. If it’s boring, I’ll stop. I will probably read the whole first page, but unless I like it, I’ll stop reading the book. When I’m browsing the bookshelves, I read the synopsis on the jacket, too. And the Author stuff on the back.”
Milyssa, 16-years-old: “I like good first lines, but it’s more than that. The whole first paragraph has to be great.”
Writers Next! (Clicking on the author’s name will direct you to their website)
“The first line needs to set the stage, giving us a glimpse into when and where the story takes place so we can immediately begin to picture things. Optimally, it should give us a meaningful glimpse at the main character–saying, thinking, doing something relevant to the story. (That is, I don’t think highly of stories that try to grab you with a cheap falsehood, as in: Terrified, Melanie screamed, convinced she was going to die. Of course, no one had ever died from seeing a mouse, but it COULD happen…) It should set the tone, giving us the voice of the character if it’s in 1st person.
And, if possible, hint at the conflict which will be at the heart of the story.
“The voice has to grab you and make you want to continue and there should be some follow-through in the rest of the novel about the thing(s) that arose in the first line.
In NINJAS, I used, “I knew I was in trouble when I heard the cello,” which lets us know the protag is (a) in trouble and (b) is in some strange situation wherein that trouble is announced via a cello. And the “trouble” itself forms the basis for the main conflict.”
“First lines set the tone for the story (funny, dramatic, etc). First lines are the front door of the story and should say “come on in”.
My favorite first line is from my book, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies.”
“Meanwhile, in space . . .”
I think the first line should give the reader a certain amount of information but also leave the reader with questions.
The information in this short line is: The Main Character is in Miami. He left Miami. Now, he’s back. He’s regretting it.
The Questions raised: Why did he leave? Why did he come back? Why does he regret it?
Enough to keep the reader reading on.
“I never know my first line until I’m sure of the last. Several first lines often fall off.
The first line of my new middle grade The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum, June 2011) has stayed almost intact from about the 3rd draft.”
“Dolly Singh’s fabulous face floats across the screen of the TV in the family room.”
“The former journalist in me always thinks of first lines as the “lead” to a story. When I was writing for newspapers and magazines, I always found that once I got the lead right, the rest of the article flowed from there. It’s like building a house on a solid foundation.
My goal for the first line is to reach out and grab the reader by the lapels and pull them into the story.”
“‘Absolutely, positively not!’ roared my father in a voice meant to be heard through the teeth of a Cape Horn gale.”
The first sentence of The Barrel in the Basement is a first sentence that HAS to be followed by the second – which is even better!
“Pudding gazed with horror at the huge yellow cat who lay on his side daintily probing the mouth of the jar with his paw.”
“I often go back and change my opening after I’ve written the end. In Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, my main character thinks in the end that the siege was like one long staring match between the British and the Patriots. I wasn’t happy with my opening, so I went back and decided to open with a staring match:
“I wanted to open with action, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book.”
“Here’s my favorite from a short story called “Witch’s Son”.”
“When Abigail Brewster brought her son, Hugh, back from the dead the first time, he looked all fragile and wispy, like morning mist on the village commons.”
A big thank you to all of our reader and writer experts on the subject of First Lines and Hooks!
Now Go forth! Find a Great Hook Today or Write a Great Hook – and Fall In Love at First Sight!
Kimberley Griffiths Little’s been juggling book launch parties for The Healing Spell (Scholastic) with her right hand, twirling a handful of new characters with her left while typing her next book for Scholastic with her toes. Throw in a pot of Louisiana gumbo, too many pecan pralines, fishing for the perfect worm . . .and you have a typical day in the life of a writer on deadline.