A Contrarian’s Rant About First Line Hooks

first-linesI know we’re supposed to hook the reader in the first sentence, but the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. Isn’t that a lot to ask of one measly sentence?

Over a decade ago I attended the Maui Writers Retreat, my first-ever workshop. I had some fledgling pages, an idea, and a boatload of nerves. When it came to hooking readers, the instructors talked about hooking them in the first page.

FIRST PAGE, my friends. At the time, that seemed daunting enough. I remember an evening session in which we could volunteer our first pages for public scrutiny. The instructor placed the pages on one of those overhead projector thingies that we don’t see much of anymore. I was so tragically nervous I thought I would die, but I did volunteer a page. The instructor told us our main aim was to get readers (i.e. agents) to turn the page.

Turn the page, yes. At least we had some paragraphs to play with. Nowadays we’re hosed if our first sentences don’t rock the literary world.

I’m not saying that our first sentences shouldn’t be quality–all I’m saying is that, jeez, can’t we slow down for LIKE 30 SECONDS to let the first paragraph or first page hook us?

I blame our ADD society for the cult of the first-sentence hook. Everything is so fast-paced that if we’re not instantaneously gratified we can’t be bothered.

There’s also the literary agent factor. They are so inundated with manuscripts that they must judge submissions fast. So, maybe what’s really going on with the first-sentence nuttiness is the hooking of agents. I’d like to think that readers peeking at Amazon first pages peruse the first paragraph or two. I’d like to think.

I may pine for the good old days of first pages, but I did my damnest to write a hooky first sentence. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I cared about writing a hooky first paragraph. What we’ve got here–hopefully you agree–is a mysterious backstory; moodiness; foreshadowing; a protagonist with issues.

Merrit McCallum rolled a plastic vial between her palms so that the liquid morphine sloshed against the sides. Red and viscous—like blood—the liquid coated the plastic on the inside of the vial while her slick palms left smudges on the outside. She was tempted to squirt the opiate down her own throat rather than contend with Andrew, who waited her out from his rolling bed. She no longer called him father.

I also give you one lesson about beginnings, which is really a lesson about endings: Optimally, your ending should resonate back to your beginning. Full circle. I hope you’re now wondering how KILMOON ends, hehehe <wicked little laugh while rubbing hands together>.

So, tell me, in a world of first lines are you secretly a first-paragraph or first-page person?

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

27 thoughts on “A Contrarian’s Rant About First Line Hooks

  1. I write short sentences. The first sentence of my first novel was “Sarah sat in the kitchen, alone.” I’m hoping that’s enough to get a reader to sentence #2.

    One of my mystery stories starts with the detective quoting Oscar Wilde, and then lighting a cigarette and sipping coffee (her usual breakfast). That sets a certain tone (we’re not dealing with a two-fisted private eye here — she quotes Wilde in French in another story), but it’s not magic. If it gets you to the next sentence, its work is done.

    Hey, “Call me Ishmael” is famous, but it’s not a huge hook — it’s only famous because of the novel that comes after it.

    • Hi Anthony! You make such a good point about “Call me Ishmael.” People talk about that first sentence as if because of it, MOBY DICK became a classic. Backwards thinking for sure.

      I’d keep reading given your first sentence. It’s a simple sentence, but that comma-alone is intriguing. I don’t think hooks have to be these grand things. In fact, quiet is great. I love quiet.

      • I thought about this more on the train to work, and it occurred to me that there are some openings (I’m not going to quote any 🙂 ) that are so carefully polished and so complex and so full of little hooky things that you can feel the writer at the keyboard muttering, “I’ve got to hook them, I’ve got to hook them, I’ve got to hook them!”

        Desperation is never attractive. 🙂

        • I couldn’t agree more, Anthony! They can feel unorganic (authorial intrusion big time!), hokey, phoney … It’s a shame too. Doesn’t need to be this way.

  2. Lisa,
    Loved this post. I totally hear you! And to quickly answer your question, I not only go past a first sentence, or paragraph, I usually will give a book a full first chapter before I make a decision to shelve it or read it through. Your points are spot-on. You can’t make a rich, luscious dessert with one ingredient and you can’t write a novel in one sentence. Experienced readers know that a good story is made by layering: scenes, emotions, character motivations, details.

    • Thanks, Stacy! You were probably at the first-page session too. Don’t know if you remember that. I looked back at my Elizabeth George workshop notes and she talked about “narrative hooks,” mentioning that they could be the first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter.

  3. I’m a middle of the book person. When I use the “look inside” feature on amazon I always ask for a surprise and I don’t think it has ever just flipped to the first sentence? Hmmm…? Nice hook lady.

    • Thanks!

      I’ve never noticed that option on Amazon, actually. I should try it. Have to admit, that I get curious about how other authors begin their books.

      See you soon!

  4. I’m with you. I at least go to the end of a chapter, if not more, before I decide whether a book is worth finishing. Heck, I used to be one of those people who finished no matter what, but life’s too short.

    For my own writing, I think I’m a “make the first sentence catchy, but have them on the line by the end of the scene” kind of writer.

    • That’s a good way to think about, Mary — “catchy.” I like that. It’s reasonable. It makes sense. And I agree — the first scene’s gotta do it.

  5. I love a good rant. I agree that the first line or page is way too paltry a sample to judge a whole book. I’ll give a book 50 to 100 pages. If I’m not hooked by then, I’ll put it down.

  6. Well, I did start one book with the line, “They’re all dead.” Don’t know if it made a difference in sales, but it was my small dig at the “first line hook” convention. The first line of the WIP is “Maura Donovan looked at the piles of papers spread out on her kitchen table and despaired.” Now, which one would make you keep reading?

    • Hi Sheila! Both! But for different reasons. Truthfully — I’m more keen on the second one because it’s centered on character, and I like character, and I have a sense of grounding/place, and I like that too.

  7. You’re right that the first line, the first paragraph, the first page are for hooking an agent—but I think they’re also for hooking people in the bookstore and for those of us who load samples on our e-devices in the hopes that we can’t stop reading. If we get past that point, then the first chapter is on the hook to be perfect.

    • Very true, Lori. I could have gone about hooking readers more generally, but my rant wound down … 🙂 I’m still a proponent of getting the read to turn that first page. That’s still the way I think about it…

  8. Great post! I can’t even just read the first sentence of the book and say “oh that’s it” and put it aside if I don’t love it. If I’m in the bookstore or library, I think I just naturally read the first few paragraphs to get a sense of the voice and tone and whether I like the feel for the story. I think its more about the opening scene, for me, than anything. That being said, there was one author–who I ended up loving–who started a book with such a disturbing first line I couldn’t read any more. I heard great things about her other books, so I read all of them, and FINALLY came back to that book. I’m sure others were really intrigued by the line, but I think it can be a gamble to put all your punches in the first line.

    • Hi Susanna! I naturally read at least the first couple of paragraphs too. This seems typical to me, which makes this insistence on the first-sentence wow-their-pants-off hook even more puzzling to me.

      I wonder if I know which author you’re talking about–if so, I love her books too. 🙂

  9. I agree with you, Lisa. The ADD of society is a detriment to not just agents and writers, but to our over all spirituality in this life. Taking time to absorb and digest is so important. As an editor and a reader, I give a book a chapter or two before I decide it’s not for me. If the writing is really beautiful, but I’m just not into the story, I may read more. Love the rant! Right beside you on this one.

    • Oh, Heather, I could also go on about the spirituality of our lives–so true! There are times I feel I can’t go deep and soulful the way I used to. It’s like the whizzing Internet technology is affecting my brain synapses, making them whiz fast-bang but on the surface of everything. I worry about this for my writing.

  10. Since, I can now download samples of books and read them at my leisure, I’ll read at least a few pages.

    • Hi Rachael! Just saw your comment today. Thanks for commenting! It’s much easier to browse a few pages these days, I think, which makes me doubly perplexed by the hook ’em in the first line “rule.” Ah well, it is what it is, right?

  11. I like the first sentence idea, but don’t judge a book by that. I like to start my stories with plenty of action and immediate introduction to some trait of the main character. As a reader I give a book a few chapters before I totally give up. Give us writers a break for Heavens sakes.

    • Exactly, Geanie! I think most readers are more forgiving than agents and editors. Even people browsing in book stores will read a few paragraphs of the first page, right?

  12. I have heard so much about the first sentence, but I personally feel that’s a bit unrealistic. I’ve read books that I’ve had to force myself to get to page 100 to see if the book was worth reading. That’s way too much time to invest in a book to discover if it’s of any interest. These days, with such a TALL TBR pile (make that piles) and so many good books, I don’t want to wait too long to get hooked. First paragraph is fantastic, first page is great, first chapter is very good, but I would read a couple of chapters if the book had great reviews. I think the first sentence must be to help editors sort through what must be an enormous amount of manuscripts. That being said, I’ll keep you posted when my copy of KILMOON arrives and let you know exactly when I got hooked.

    • Michelle, hello! Late seeing your comment on this post. I agree that the first-line thing must be more for those in the biz. I can’t wait to hear when you get hooked on KILMOON! 🙂

  13. I think, overall, I’m a first-page person, though there’s a lot you can learn from the first few lines. I generally won’t put a book down altogether if the first line doesn’t hook me, but my TBR list is so long, at this point, that if a book doesn’t grab me pretty quickly it might not get the chance. Rather than ADD, though, it’s more a function of “too many in the queue.”

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