We’ve all heard the statistics about how long a person will look at a book before deciding whether or not to read it. It’s not very long–a few seconds, in fact. You essentially have the time it takes to read a billboard to convince a reader that he or she shouldn’t put your book down and move on.
So what does a reader look at?
After the cover design and the back cover blurb, they’ll open the book and glance at the first page. Beginning your story with a bang is essential to hooking your reader for the next 50, 100, or 200+ pages. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and not every best-selling novel has a show-stopping first sentence. But for the interest of discussion, let’s take a look at some first sentences from well-known authors and see if there’s a pattern to be found. The following are taken from the current list of New York Times Fiction Best Sellers (both paper and hardback) for the week of June 16-June 23, 2013. (complete list here)
-The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
-Divergent by Veronica Roth
“There is one mirror in my house.”
-Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
“The rain fell in sideways sheets, cold and relentless, the winds whipping it in every direction, making an umbrella, slicker, and rain boots nearly useless. Not that Andy had any of those things.”
-A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
-Inferno by Dan Brown
“I am the Shade. Through the dolent city, I flee. Through the eternal woe, I take flight.”
-Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
“The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motered into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.”
-Joyland by Stephen King
“I had a car, but on most days in that fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay.”
This is obviously just a small sample of first lines, but I think we can take away a few things:
1. A Character Introduction
You will notice that there’s a person involved in each of these openings. Yes, the very first sentence of Revenge Wears Prada is about the weather, but the author follows that up with a character named Andy in the second sentence. A great way to hook your reader is to introduce a person for the reader to connect with. This person will be your hook, because now the reader is interested in the character. Who are they? Where are they going? Take the dying actress from Walter’s novel. I want to know why the actress is dying. Is it from a disease? Has she been shot at? Is it a symbolic death? Allowing your readers to immediately connect with a character can be a useful tool.
2. Visual Description
Readers need to be able to picture the scene, or they aren’t going to be interested. In each of these lines, the author is providing readers something to visualize. Once a reader begins to see the story, they will be hooked. Take the above example from Veronica Roth’s Divergent. “There is one mirror in my house.” This is something I can picture; and not only that, now I want to know more. Why is there only one picture? What is the significance of the mirror itself? The other lines are full of visual description as well to help a reader navigate the story.
3. A Sense of Movement
Finally, you should notice a sense of movement in these opening lines. There’s a woman in a boat, a man walking, flying, a rainstorm, someone just waking up. Think about it as though you are pulling the reader into the story by getting them to move with your characters. The prose is already flowing with activity, and this will keep the reader moving as well.
I do realize that a few of these lines don’t have all three traits. You might say the line from Inferno has a character and a sense of movement but no clear visual description. The line from Divergent has description and a character but no movement. I think the point is that a great opening hook has a few of these traits, which are helpful to keep in mind during the writing process.
What else do you notice in these opening lines?
Do you have any other effective methods of hooking your reader?