Sunday, March 22, 2009

Opening Lines and Hooks

Hook 'em. It's not just for Longhorns anymore.

It's the advice writers hear at every conference, seminar, webinar, class, panel discussion, and club meeting. Hook 'em with the first paragraph, the first line. One of my how-to books says that "Jack Bickham, author of several dozen you've got to hook the reader in the first twenty-five words." There's even a book available on Amazon called Hooking the Reader : Opening Lines that Sell

Here are some samples of this ubiquitous advice:

  • What we want is that ka-pow! The horses out of the gate. The pop in the corn. The fizzle in the shanizzle. A writer should want to hypnotize the reader, make their blood pump, take their breath away. (from the Musetracks blog)
  • The first line of a novel is like the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth: everything else follows from it. (from author Crawford Killian's blog) (Love this!)
  • Start your writing with conflict if you want to guarantee sales, grab an agent or publisher, get paid a big advance. (from ISnare articles)

    Jennifer Jensen (in an article titled "Write Compelling Opening Lines") gives some great examples of opening lines, like:

    • It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby. . . (Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Morning)

    • Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time rolling on the ground with men who think a stiffy represents personal growth. The rolling around has nothing to do with my sex life. The rolling around is what happens when a bust goes crapola . . . (Janet Evanovich, Hard Eight)

    There's also this gem, from Earl Emmerson's Fat Tuesday: "I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper bag only complicated matters."

    Yes, those do compel me to read on. But is that the right tactic in every book?

    I'm not saying that advice is all wrong. I guess my quibble is not with the advice, in fact, but in the rapacious manner that we writers, hungry for publication, suck it in. We think we must have dead bodies or life-or-death decisions in that first paragraph. But seriously, is that what a reader is looking for?

    Glance at the opening lines of your favorite books. Do they conform to this idea of hooking the reader through shock and awe techniques? Chances are, they don't.

    • Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much...
    • When Mr. BIlbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
    • It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea. (Jonathan Livingston Seagull)
    • Along with teaching us that lamb must be cooked with garlic and that a lady never scratches her head or spits, my mother taught my sisters and me that it is a wife's bounden duty to see that her husband is happy in his work. (The Egg and I)

    Maybe humor is the way to go.

    I can picture a future writing seminar in which teachers mock the book opening that begins in the middle of a car chase, or where shots are fired, bombs blow up, or a man screams "I'm leaving you!!"--all as being so, well, early twenty-first century.

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