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!
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 Walkers—Nothing 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 Prejudice—It 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
Shannon 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.