These days, hooking readers by grabbing their shirt fronts and pulling their faces into the book seems to be the way to go. That means getting them enticed within a line or two, or at least somewhere in the first paragraph. In the olden days, the reader might meander for two or three chapters or more and that was fine; no more.
I thought it would be interesting to look at a few of my books to see how that works.
First is Invivo, a novel about love, revenge, and significant pain. The first line is:
“Do you want to start a fight?” Harold finally asked, his face tight.
What does this tell the reader? Harold is important. He has held his tongue for a while but is now willing to take a risk. This means he is controlled, but only to a point.
The second line is: “No,” Shelly answered. “I don’t want to start a fight. I want to start a family.”
Now we have it. Shelly is most likely the wife. She wants children, Harold does not. They probably have had this discussion before. They are obviously a young couple, young enough to have children but none yet. This short interchange encompasses the story; he hesitates having children which results in waiting too long, regrets and tragic outcomes.
Another first line is also interesting. In My First Ten Days in Heaven, the first line almost from the first draft was “I don’t want to open my eyes.” Through more than two dozen revisions this line stayed the same until I looked at it and wondered why didn’t he want to open his eyes? He didn’t want to open his eyes because he was afraid that he wouldn’t feel as good when he again saw he was still in the hospital. He felt good as he awoke and wanted to stay that way. To do that he would keep his eyes closed. Since opening his eyes and realizing he was in heaven was the beginning of the story, I needed as much emotion to drive the realization as I could get. Since he was afraid to open his eyes, why not say it?
The new, improved opening line is now: I’m afraid to open my eyes.
Simple, emotional and the best way to start the character facing a new, totally unanticipated reality.
Another good line is from a golf novel, Murder on the Tour. First line of the first chapter is: Wack!. Our main character is hitting balls on the practice range. With this setting, I can set up the unfolding conflicts through the player and caddie discussing how bad he is playing and what he has to do to remain on the tour.
Another first line I like is: Not everyone gets to write a suicide note.
I have only one chapter written on that one and I don’t think I’ll be able to finish the book because there are too many other books to be written in line in front of it.
As much as they can, opening lines should be felt, be suggestive and elicit as many emotions in the reader as possible. And it’s a lot of fun trying to figure out how to do that.