This post is an abridged excerpt from Barbara Kyle's upcoming book Page-Turner. Read the first post here.
As writers, our first goal is to create in the reader a desire to read on. We do that by crafting a hook. A hook is a novel's first sentence or paragraph, and it functions as a promise, an unspoken assurance that excitement lies ahead.
Examples of Hooks
The opening sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is: “Call me Ishmael.” It's famous, and for good reason. First, it’s an imperative sentence—a command—so it establishes an extraordinarily confident voice. Second, it gives a name, which conjures up a real, flesh-and-blood person. Third, that particular name, Ishmael, resonates with the Biblical character of the same name, establishing a portentous theme. Powerful stuff in just three words.
Jane Austen’s much-loved novel Pride and Prejudice begins with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” No one reading that sentence can withhold a small, wry smile. Which was precisely Austen's intent. She is telling you two things. First, this story is going to have a foundation of gentle humor. Second, it's going to be about love and marriage: it's a romance.
Here are some of the most effective ways to wield this essential tool of craft.
1. Name a character. As noted above with "Call me Ishmael," names have power, because they conjure up a living, breathing person.
2. Raise a question in the reader's mind. Toni Morrison starts her novel Paradise with these six, arresting words: "They shoot the white girl first." Instantly, the reader's mind lurches to ask: Who are "they"? Who's the girl? Why have they shot her?
3. Plunge straight into the plot. Paul Auster's City of Glass begins with: "It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not."
4. Foreshadow an intriguing element of plot. Here's the opening sentence of Dick Francis's mystery Straight: "I inherited my brother's desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."
5. Show a character’s personality quirk. The opening of Vladimir Nabokov's ground-breaking Lolita tosses a small bombshell of Humbert Humbert's quirkiness: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
6. Show a character’s attitude. In J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the cockiness of teenage narrator Holden Caulfield is on full-frontal display in the first sentence: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
7. Render a mysterious or suspenseful event. George Orwell's novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four starts with: "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."
8. Start at the story's climax. Donna Tartt uses this technique to open her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch. Theo Decker is hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel room, where, he says: "I'd been shut up for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out..." With Theo's crisis established, the author then loops back to the chronological start of his story years earlier.
Use any of these techniques and you'll have your reader intrigued, maybe even slightly on edge. In other words, happily hooked.
All my best,