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?