Writers in the Storm

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June 3, 2013

Hooks, Lines—and Sinkers

NOTE: Our very own Laura Drake is teaching an online course on "Fearless Pitching," June 10-July 7. Click here for more information.

Now, Let's welcome back Shannon Donnelly!

shannondonnelly_nm1First lines fall into three categories—hooks, lines, and sinkers.

The sinkers are pretty obvious—they’re the dud lines, the lines that don’t help a reader into the story. They’re when you start with a cliché (everyone at a funeral), or with the weather, or with description that doesn’t sing. They’re when you’re tap dancing around the story instead of starting the action.

So let’s talk about hooks and lines.

A hook is just that—it’s something so interesting going on that the action or idea hooks the reader. You just have to have more. But you can also start with great lines. As in beautiful writing, an evocative phrase, or a line that happens to set the perfect mood.

But you have to be careful here—a great hook, or first line, can also backfire on you. If all you have is a fabulous first line (and nothing else to go with it), the reader is going to figure that out fast and put down the book. Also, if you polish and create a fabulous hook, or a wonderful first line, but the rest of your book doesn’t live up to the promise, that’s a problem. And, if the first line doesn’t match the tone of the story, you’re in trouble. As in, if you want funny, you want to start that way and stay that way—same thing goes for sexy. Start as you mean to go on.

Let’s get back to those first lines, and look at some classics.

Ralph Ellison starts with a hook—I am an invisible man. (And, yes, the book is The Invisible Man.) That is definitely starting with the right tone and a idea to hook the reader.

William Gibson in Neuromancer offers up both a hook, and a beautiful line—The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. That’s a line that invites the reader into the book, setting the tone for what is to come. And it’s just beautiful writing—clean, crisp, with a great image.

Doddie Smith in I Capture the Castle (a charming book), starts with a hook that leaves the reader wondering—I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. And why she’s sitting in the sink—not at it—is part of the story.

Jill Shalvis uses dialogue in her first line of At Last to hook the reader—“I’m not lost,” Amy Michaels said to the squirrel watching her from his perch on a tree branch.

So how do you get to a hook or a great first line? There are many approaches.

Questions. The Cardros Ruby starts: Des Cardros was tempted to toss a coin—would his brother shoot him on sight, or simply toss him out of the ancestral home? A question is a great hook—either a direct question or one implied. The question still needs to set the tone and overall pace of the book—are we in more of a character study, or a fast paced action thriller?

The question can be implied not direct, as in Paths of Desire, which starts: I can’t do this, Thea decided, her fingers cold and fretting the ties of her brocade dressing gown. Here the reader is left with a couple of questions--what is it she can’t do, and why is she in a dressing gown?

Dialogue. This is a favorite way of mine to start a book—it gets you right into a scene, and sets a fast pace. “Beauty ain’t required, but she’s got to catch the eye,” Theodore Windslow said, striding across the small salon, one hand fisted behind his back and the other gesturing in the air. That’s the start of A Proper Mistress, and sets the tone of the book right off. It’s not a strong hook, but it’s a good line—good enough to pull the reader forward into the rest of the scene, and that scene is the book’s overall hook.

The Writing. This is where you go for a line that might capture a reader—it’s not the strong hook, it’s the softer allure of the writing. As in the start of Edge WalkersNothing could dampen the sweet rush of anticipation singing in her veins. This book was a new departure for me, so I wanted strong writing and a strong voice—and I wanted that to show up in the first line of the story.

Action. This is where you throw the reader into the story in the middle of things happening. Working with people who killed demons for a living had its downside, and Mackenzie Solomon was staring at six of them. That’s the start of Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the pace is set from the first line—there’s a lot of action. The tone is also set right away as well—you can tell this is not a Regency historical romance.

Philosophy. This is one I don’t often use, but Jane Austen famously creates one of the most quoted lines when she opens Pride and PrejudiceIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. This is a brilliant line, offering wit and style—as does the rest of the story. This line is an invitation to settle back and enjoy.

And that, ultimately, is what you want your first line to do—to evoke the right feeling for the book. The feeling that this is a taut thriller, or a scary ride, or a delightful romp. You’re making a promise with that first line—and you then have a story to deliver that fulfills the promise.

So what are your favorite first lines?

About Shannon Donnelly
The Carcrods Ruby CoverShannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Riding in on a Burning Tire, the second book in the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series is just out from Cool Gus Publishing. And her latest Regency romance, The Cardros Ruby, a RWA Golden Heart finalist, came out this May.

31 comments on “Hooks, Lines—and Sinkers”

  1. Super take on first lines, Shannon! I love them, sweat over them, and change them multiple times. I agree, they're critical. My first line in my August release, Her Road Home, is:

    Running away from home at twenty-eight—that’s gotta be a first.

  2. Shannon, always love your posts. I find I learn something new each time I read you. Thanks. From my current mystery.

    Toni Gallucci did not believe the old cliché about a thousand words ... she knew some pictures were only worth one word she could barely whisper.

    1. Good line. You might try a version that's tighter: Toni Gallucci knew some pictures were only worth one word...one she could barely whisper.

  3. Shannon, this is a fabulous post, because you get right to the point of what works in the opening of a book, with some great examples to back up your thesis that you need either catchy dialogue, action to pull the reader in, or evocative description--depending on the type of book you're writing. I wish I'd read this post years ago!

  4. One of my favorite opening paragraphs is from Dick Francis's Straight: "I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."

    1. I don't know anyone who does an opening better than Dick Francis -- he's the one I recommend to anyone who wants to learn how to write a compelling character that the reader immediate connects with.

  5. My writer daughter and I used to email each other fake first lines from books we never intended to write, then critique whether it was compelling, and identify the style of the book. Great exercise, and you've captured what we learned from in in your post, Shannon.

    1. This is strong and good, but you could add even more punch if you have a second part that twists the first (as in....but she wasn't dying, or something to that effect). A little more will help you set the tone since it's not fully locked here. And this may be a case where it's the first paragraph (not the line) that is your hook, as with the Dick Francis example posted above.

  6. I love working on first lines. It's funny how long it can take just to write a single sentence. I often don't have the right one until the book is finished.

    For the book I'm working on now, a fantasy romance, the first line (technically 2 lines) is:
    A mirror tells no tales. Its stories are all true; a past in pictures captured in glass.

    1. You do have a good first line "A mirror tells no tales." That's your hook, and it's starting out with a philosophy. And, yes, sometimes you don't have the first line locked until you write the final line.

  7. This blog always offers the most helpful posts. I love the way you all give great advice, usually supported with good examples to illustrate your points. Thanks so much!

    I'll join in with a few others who've offered up first lines for feedback. This is from a contemp. romance I'm shopping around to agents now:

    The choppy water of Long Island Sound pitched the ferry up and slammed it down, but that wasn’t why Vivi was in danger of losing her lunch.

    Good, average, needs work??
    Have a great day!

    1. Going for a more active sentence would make it a stronger sentence (also pitching is the up and down motion of a boat, so it's a little redundant to add slammed down, so let's fix that, too), as in:

      The ferry lifted up, slammed down, and started up again on the next wave, but the watery roller coaster wasn’t why Vivi was in danger of losing her lunch.

      Or you could go for more punch with a tighter sentences (depending on the tone of the rest of the book), as in:

      The pitch of the ferry wasn’t why Vivi was in danger of losing her lunch.

      Or you might go for even shorter:

      Vivi wanted to throw up.

      This is where you have to look at the tone of the overall book: Is it funny? Is it lyrical? You want the opening line to have the same tone, so you may want more description if you have a more lyrical book. If you have a fast-paced contemporary, you want the short punch.

      And this is why only you know how to open your story because you're the only one who knows how the pace and story develops.


      1. Thanks for the super-quick reply! Your second suggestion probably best fits the overall tone (which is a little more lyrical than 'funny'). Although the last sample surely makes the boldest statement. Love it!

        Have a great day!

  8. Shannon, I loved the blog and it made me think -- may change my first line to a question!
    By the way, I can't tell you what delight it gave me to see I Capture The Castle's first line -- I've loved that for years. Great book. One of those that made me want to write, too.

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