Many readers, whether in a shop or on Amazon, will make a decision about whether to buy a book by reading the first few pages. If you’re lucky, they read pages. They may only read the first few lines.
And if you are seeking traditional publication, whether through an agent or acquisitions editor, your first few lines must be brilliant to set you apart from all the other manuscripts on those desks.
☐ A strong opening hook pulls the reader into the story.
There are several things a novel’s opening can do. It can, among other things, reveal character, set the tone for the book, give a flavor of what the conflict will be, or show the setting. If you can do two or three of these things at once, go for it. But beware of trying to do too much in a short space. You want to intrigue the readers, not give them sensory overload.
Here are some of my favorite opening lines:
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”—Neuromancer by William Gibson; shows setting and hints at theme
“You better not never tell nobody but God.”—The Color Purple by Alice Walker; reveals character and conflict
“He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.”—Kim by Rudyard Kipling; reveals character and setting
The one thing all three of these do is set the tone. Each of these writers has a unique style, and their voices are apparent even in a single sentence. An ideal opening will give readers a feel for what the rest of the book will be like.
The opening hook, however, is not limited to the first line. Ideally, it will fill the whole first scene, or at least the first few paragraphs. Your hook is the lure, the intrigue that keeps your reader turning pages to find out what’s going on under that dark sky, what cannot be revealed, why Kim defies municipal orders.
Avoid common opening plays
Many, many new authors’ novels begin in one of the following ways:
- The protagonist wakes up and gets dressed.
- The protagonist surveys the local geography.
- The protagonist arrives at a destination.
- The narrator gives a weather report.
- The narrator gives a lesson about the region’s history.
- The narrator gives a lesson about the protagonist’s background.
All of these are weak because they have been overdone and usually fail to engage. They are fine as warm-up exercises, and when you were writing your first draft, you were right to just put them down and keep going, because that’s what first drafts are for. (I confess to having used the “heroine getting dressed” one in an early draft of my first book.)
Now we are editing, and any opening that depicts the mundane or constitutes a lecture of any kind needs to go. Refine your opening to make it unique and engaging, compelling the audience to read further.