It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, journalism, marketing copy, or an essay; if you want to claim your reader’s attention, you need a hook. The hook is what makes the reader want to continue reading and comes within the opening paragraph.
Since I mostly write fiction, I’ll be concentrating on that, but hopefully this will be helpful for writers in all fields.
Think of all the stories you’ve read, whether they’re novels or short stories. What makes you continue past that first paragraph? For me, it’s the promise made that this is going to be something I will enjoy reading. The author doesn’t always follow through (I’ve stopped reading novels and stories that had great openings because they didn’t fulfil that promise), but for the most part I can usually tell that this is going to be my kind of read from what’s in that first paragraph, or even in the opening line.
We see lots of advice on not to use certain things for openings because they have been done so often they become cliché: someone looking in a mirror, the weather, someone talking, someone waking up. And yet, a good writer can take these clichés over-done openings and make them into something new and original. Here are some examples below:
“Polly cut off her hair in front of the mirror, feeling slightly guilty about not feeling very guilty about doing so.” – Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett.
This is the opening to one of my all time favourite novels. Polly Perks is cutting off her hair, so she can pretend to be a boy and join the army to look for her lost brother. When people use mirrors, they tend to do so to describe the character’s appearance, which is a cliché, but in this case, Pratchett used it to show us something about Polly’s character rather than her appearance. Cutting her hair off is something she is expected to feel guilty about, so we can tell immediately that she’s in a world where society believes women and girls should have long hair. The fact that she doesn’t feel guilty enough tells us that she’s independent and can think for herself. I’m immediately interested in Polly.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer, William Gibson.
I like this opening because it gives me a sense of something being not quite right. The language is stark, and the image is foreboding. It’s also unusual as far as a weather description goes. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a sky that colour before, so perhaps it’s somewhere other than earth? I’m pulled in to read further so that I can find out more about this place.
“A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.” – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick
This opening has someone waking up but it’s the mood organ that makes me want to read on because I immediately know we’re either not in this world, or if we are it’s somewhere in an imagined future.
“They’re made out of meat.” – Terry Bisson
“They’re Made out of Meat” is one of my favourite short stories. Not only does it open with dialogue, but the whole story is a conversation between two disembodied voices. There is no narrative, no description, no action, just dialogue. Everything about this story is a literary ‘no-no’, and yet it works perfectly.
Of course, these are all notable exceptions. I’m not saying that we should all go out and ignore the advice on not using cliched openings. These are examples of what a skilled writer can do with something that is considered a cliché.
A good opening line or paragraph sets an expectation of who or what the novel, story, article or essay will be about. It also sets the tone of the piece of writing, whether that be matter of fact, foreboding, humorous, etc. In speculative fiction, it also often gives us a glimpse into another world.
“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
This opening starts off normal enough for a seventy-five-year-old man. Then boom, Scalzi turns that impression upside down and we’re immediately asking ourselves questions because joining the army is probably the last thing we’d expect a man that age to do.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I love this opening. If you know anything about the galaxy or solar system, you immediately know that this is earth we’re talking about here. There’s a self-deprecating humour in the way it’s written that is so English and so endearing that I immediately want to read on.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
This one is so matter-of-factly talking about something so odd that it is an immediate draw. There’s no sense of panic, no terror, which creates a kind of morbid fascination. Just what has happened to Gregor? We need to know.
I’ve often found that I don’t know the opening line until I’ve written the whole story. I start at the beginning, of course, but it’s mostly just a placeholder until I’ve written the whole thing and know how it ends. Then, when I’m going back to edit, I look at the opening and fiddle with it until it becomes the hook I need for that particular story.
What was the most memorable opening line you remember reading? Or better still, give me an example of an opening line of your own. Here’s one of mine to leave you with:
“Whispers flitted across his mind. Distant voices murmuring words he could not quite grasp; like moth wings, they brushed memories he had tried for so long to forget, wafting loose the shrouds he had wrapped around them over so many years with so many empty wine-skins.” The Lost Weaver