Once upon a time
. . . it was tradition to begin a story with those words. Today’s reader wants to be hooked. The reader will accept that “once upon a time” opening only for a certain type of story. Regardless of the genre or style of fiction, the beginning of the book is critical. Often readers will open a book and read the first few paragraphs before deciding to spend their time on the story. If the first lines of the book make the reader go ‘bleh,’ she puts the book down and never opens it again. If the opening lines hook the reader, the reader enjoys the book for hours.
Arbitrarily defining the opening of the story as the first 100 words, here are the hooks of two of my favorite books.
Dune by Frank Herbert, Ace Books 1965
In the weeks before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather. The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul’s room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.
In three lines of Dune, Herbert has given us a location, a life-changing event, the main character, and a mysterious presence. He created tension, a sense of foreboding, and a sense that something momentous is about to happen.
Catch the rhythm, the cadence of his words. Pay attention to the sound and feel of the words: Arrakis, scurrying, crone, Castle Caladan, ancient, Atreides.
Notice it’s final scurrying and unbearable frenzy. Did you catch the references to change? Are you hooked? I sure am.
Okay. Let’s try another passage from another book.
Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card, Tor 1987
Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand through the straw till her fingers bumped something hard and heavy. She gave no never mind to the chicken drips. After all, when folk with babies stayed at the roadhouse, Mama never even crinkled her face at their most spetackler diapers. Even when the chicken drips were wet and stringy and made her fingers stick together, little Peggy gave no never mind. She just pushed the straw apart, wrapped her hand around the egg, and lifted it out of the brood box. All this while standing tiptoe on a wobbly stool, reaching high above her head.
In this 108 words by Orson Scott Card there is a strong sense of character, of the roadhouse, of the society in which little Peggy lives. I’m hooked. I already know I like Peggy. Do you? Do you want to know more about her? Can you feel the straw and the sticky eggs? Can you see the wobbly stool with little Peggy reaching for the nests? Do you want to know what happens next?
Great openings hook the reader, but the story must continue to deliver the same great content. In my opinion, the two books listed above do just that. Strong characters, interesting situations, a hint of a problem that promises to grow larger, and a setting that fascinates create compelling first lines.
What do you think? Will you read past a so-so beginning? What books hooked you? Was there a particular part (character, setting, problem) that drew you in?
I love to hear from you. And you know my TBR pile can always use a few more books. Won’t you tell me about your favorites? What first lines hooked you?
I’m not sure what about an opening gets me, but I do like an interesting first line. A first line that sticks with me is from Feed, by M.T.Anderson: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
What a fantastic first line. I’m sure that the rest of the book has the same quality of writing. I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for sharing!
The first line doesn’t have to wow me, but there has to me something on the first page that compels me to turn it. A couple of years ago, I was given an assignment in a writing class that required me to type out the first few paragraphs of a book by one of my favorite authors. I typed out a page and a half of a book that may be twenty years old and was surprised to find the story didn’t open as sucessfully as I remembered. For example, the author used more adjectives and adverbs than the scant amount in favor today. She meandered. That said, in a few paragraphs, she sketched a community–and reminded me why the book matters..
That was a fascinating assignment. And what a terrific assessment, “in a few paragraphs, she sketched a community-and reminded me why the book matters.” If a book can do that in the first few paragraphs it promises to be a very good read. Wonderful. Thanks so much for stopping by, Pat.
I’ve been meaning to tell you that I really enjoyed this post, Lynette! I’m going to link to it in one of my posts. 🙂
Thank you, Diana. I’m delighted you enjoyed it.
I really enjoyed this post, Lynette, and although it is a bit late, I wanted to tell you. For me, first lines are absolutely critical in terms of my own writing–I always feel I fall short here and have only a few that I have felt made the grade–in any book, short story, or poem the first lines must grab me or I do not continue. I’ve always been this way is reader and no doubt probably have missed some really great stories and poetry but then again, those I have found have been stunning. Really fine post, Lynette.
Thank you so much, Karen. I agree, first lines are critical. I wish I could say I have always written stunning first lines in my work. All we can do is the best we can do right now. Some of the lines will be great, others not so much. But it will also be that beauty is in the eye of the reader. 🙂 And I’m grateful for readers like you, those who look for that beauty.
. . . it was tradition to begin a story with those words. Today’s reader will accept that opening only for a certain type of story. Other types of stories need a different style of opening. But regardless of the genre or style of fiction, the beginning of the book is critical. In fact, often readers will pick up a book at the library or store and read the first few paragraphs before taking the book home. If the first lines grab the reader, the book goes home. On the other hand, if the first lines of the book make the reader go ‘bleh ‘ the book is put down and never opened again.
I absolutely agree that any style or genre of fiction needs a good beginning. Yup, I’ve been guilty of reading the first few paragraphs and deciding to pass on a book. Thank you so much for stopping by, Hans.