First Lines, Hooks, and Asking Too Much of Ten Words

First lines are the mules of literature these days—they do the heaviest lifting in a given book, needing to “hook” the reader into reading more. Writers, I’ve been told, need to show the characters, the overall context for the story, at least a glimpse of the story’s novelty, and the conflict that will drive the plot. That’s a ton of work for the start line of any marathon. Come to think of it, real starting lines only mark a space. First sentences in fiction mark well more than the small area they occupy. Blog after writing blog expresses concern for writers who send in the first several pages of their manuscript—are there enough motivators for readers right at the outset? One conference I attended had a “first page review” with a panel of agents and editors, and more often than not, the industry experts laughed at the submissions presented to them. Surely there were a few ugly dogs among the contenders, but even so, one mere sentence that is supposed to stand above all others is a precariously high bar, and it’s something that feels (to me) less about art or creative integrity to the piece, and much more about marketing standards and focus group data. Consider the following first sentences:

  • Call me Ishmael.
  • It was like so, but wasn’t.
  • All this happened, more or less.

Yes, I picked openings that set up the narrator (Moby Dick, Galatea 2.2, and Slaughterhouse-Five, respectively). Do they say enough as a discrete sentence? I may be a more generous reader than average, but I’m willing to stick with a text past the first 50-300 characters or 5-30 words. (Robinson Crusoe starts off with a 50+ sentence, by the way.) Some ideas may work better with a little set up and delivery. Consider:

Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French. —Opening to The Luck of the Bodkins, by PG Wodehouse

Narrator, tone, level of eloquence, this sentence also reveals that the novel is in third person, the setting, and what action is about to occur. Post World War II, writers played with these assumptions about literary constructions, because I don’t know, maybe people got tired of Bloomsday parties.

But first lines are often asked to do even more than this in contemporary literature and fiction. They should show the conflict hook, or the main character’s most compelling trait, or hit readers with big emotion, in addition to all of the aspects presented in the example from Wodehouse. Often this means that there is no room for the simple sentence as the starting line.

Of course books are longer than one line. Most stories are too, Hemingway’s famous six-word story aside. Second, third, and fourth lines are critical to supporting the opening and leading more detail to the very start of the work. But thinking about what I’ve heard from editors and agents and published authors, the preponderance of interest is formed in the first dozen words, and if the audience’s attention isn’t captured then, the writer may lose them altogether. How does this sentiment or requirement affect today’s writing? We start stories with bullets, explosions, family deaths, other huge moments that are supposed to help these hooks coalesce into interest for readers. To me, it borders on formulaic, and heck, I write in-action first sentences, too, because I really want my work to get past the necessary hurdles that publishing industry professionals set out for writers. I understand that there are whole oceans of awful prose out there, from sentence number 1 to the end of a tale. Such ideas about good writing help overworked agents and editors get through their bloated in boxes. Also, if a writer is worth her salt, these are not impediments for her, as she can craft an opening that will be interesting, true to the work, and capable of including every hook and interest point needed.

And still, I think it would better fiction overall if we moved away from asking our first lines to perform such service to our stories. Yes, they should add to the story, but then again, every single sentence needs to meet that minimum bar. I just want room for the next generation of Vonneguts, Joann Russes, LeGuins, and Carvers to start stories how they think is best, now how they think an agent will think is best.

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2 Comments on “First Lines, Hooks, and Asking Too Much of Ten Words”

  1. June 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a book with a sucky first sentence will choose the NEXT book on the “Best Sellers” or “New Releases” rack at the airport.

    Or at least, it sounds like that is the sensibility of agents and editors these days? Personally, I am willing to give it at least 3 paragraphs to decide. And I wish that agents and editors would spend more time on the LAST chapter, paragraph and sentence than the first. It seems like NO ONE can end a book anymore (I am looking at you Anne Rice and author of [horrible] Bee Season). I’m very curious about how you tackle this problem – meaning balancing the expectations vs. the line you wanted to write?

    In my area of writing, I *always* do the opening paragraph last. Scientific papers are very formulaic; the Methods section pretty much writes itself after a while (journal specs require you to report the same kinds of things in the same way over and over), and you already know what your study limitations and conclusions are by the time you’re drafting the manuscript. IME, the craft is putting together your Results in a coherent way that shows your line of reasoning; the sequence of evidence you’ve amassed that support your conclusions have to flow logically and temporally. Then you do the introduction – which is the sexy window dressing to convince the reader that what you did was worth doing, and what you found moves the body of knowledge forward. So the first paragraph is crafted to be an “elevator pitch”, and it’s SO much easier to do that AFTER you have all your other stuff clear in your head.

    • evmaroon
      June 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

      According to Ms. Rowling, she had the ending of the Harry Potter series written years before she finished the books, and several folks gave her a hard time about it. Presuming that fiction is supposed to end when the main character has made a shift, signalling that moment is pretty critical.

      And now I want to read a scientific report of yours!

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