Ahhh, the beginning of a book. That thing that often stymies writers more than the rest of the manuscript put together. Writers commonly tell me they feel the aspect of it dangling above their heads, like a scythe fixing to fall. Why? Because this is what draws in a literary agent, and an acquisition’s editor, and ultimately, your readers, hook for your book.
The hook of your book is, well, life or death as per anyone reading further.
Now, we’re not talking here about the synopsis or tag line (although those are enormously important!), but rather, about the actual book’s beginning line through the opening chapter.
Conventional writerly wisdom (which comes from God knows where) will tell you that the first 50 pages are imperative. But what literary agents and acquisition’s editors will tell you—behind closed doors!—is that they know on page one whether they’ll be interested in representing/purchasing publishing rights.
If the beginning perks up their ears, and each page through chapter one does as well, then they’re likely to request the rest of the manuscript. And, only if that happens.
Because, well, the book has either hooked them, or they’ve spit out the lure and gone on to the next fish in the sea.
Which is of course the opposite of our goal.
As a book editor, so often the manuscripts I see—both fiction and nonfiction—begin about 50 pages in. The front matter is a rambling exposition of backstory and info-dumps. In short, the very thing that causes readers’ eyes to glaze over.
Or sometimes, the opening is a grabber. But then the chapter descends into the mundane. Or, it ends with no reason to turn the page.
And all 3 of these—the opening line, how the chapter weaves around the story question, and the final sentences—comprise the hook of your book.
So let’s start at the beginning line, and go from there.
Your Opening Sentence.
You know how crucial this is. Because you get, well, one line, and then another couple to back it up. And if that doesn’t grab readers by the throat, or make them laugh, or intrigue them in some way, it’s all over but your crying.
So, let’s look at some ways to accomplish this
A. Startle your reader right off the bat.
“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” –The Color Purple, Alice Walker.
Now, that line will shake you up. Because every woman on the planet knows what underlies those words . . .
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”—The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold.
Okay, you got my attention! Our narrator is dead. And somebody killed her.
B. Get a pivotal plot point in, with the first line:
“It was dark where she was crouched but the little girl did as she’d been told.” –The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton.
Without reading anything else, I know this book has secrets. Lots of them. And I want to know what they are.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in a want of a wife.” –Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
This sets the mood for the whole story, and in those few words, lets readers in on what they’re getting into.
C. Make us laugh—no matter how serious the subject matter.
“I’m pretty much f*cked.” The Martian, Andy Weir.
Okay, this wasn’t something I’d normally read. And call me perverse, but this line caused an instant chuckle to rise. Didn’t it for you?
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know was where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and the like before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” –The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.
This is a trickier laugh, one of sarcasm from our narrator, and takes a palate that likes that. But it still gets me every time.
D. Begin at life-changing moments:
“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon. And then, Kyra, only six at the time, heard the screen door slap. Standing on the stool, she stopped scrubbing grits from the pot and lowered it into the basin of worn-out suds. No sounds now but her own breathing. Who had left the shack? Not Ma. She never let the door slam.” –Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
What I knew from that opening paragraph was that Ma did indeed leave the shack. And she was never coming back . . .
E.Set a significant tone.
An ominous one:
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and days more gray each one than what had gone before.” –The Road, Cormac McCarthy.
You know, I’d read a lot of Cormac before this, and Sci/Fi isn’t what he writes. Lol. But I knew without having heard anything about this book before picking it up, just with that opening, that we were in for a really bad trip . . .
A wistful one:
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” –Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
I’ll confess this is one of my favorite books ever. And I knew, from that opening line, this book would change me. Doesn’t it just pull you out to sea with it?
Or, the opening that caused me to buy a book unheard of at the time, which indeed became my very favorite:
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” A River Runs Through it, Norman Maclean
That one line said a thousand things.
The Body of the Opening Chapter.
What is this supposed to do? How does this further the hook of your book?
Say you’ve written that fabulous opening line. Where does that leave you? Well, that leaves you with backing it up in those first 10 or so pages of your opening chapter.
Here, we need to bolster that tone, expand on the life-changing event, make us laugh more, deepen the mystery, and cause it all to circle back in on itself into one whole.
Not asking much, are we!
Instead of going through how each of these books accomplished that (or this would be a book in itself), let’s take one and witness that circling.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, the chapter goes into real life for Kyra (via stunning prose), and then a few pages in:
“Ma didn’t come back that day. No one spoke of it. Least of all Pa. Stinking of fish and drum likker, he clanked pot lids. ‘What’s supper?’”
Things are not good here, and our worry for Kyra grows.
Kyra thinks of the love her mother has given her, of how their mornings usually go.
“But this morning, Ma had been quiet, her smile lost, her eyes red. She tied a white scarf pirate style, low across her forehead, but the purple and yellow edges of a bruise spilled out. Right after breakfast, even before the dishes were washed, Ma had put a few personals in the train case and walked down the road.”
While Kyra doesn’t know what is happening, we do. And our hearts crunch inward even more.
That Killer Final Line of the Chapter.
This is what causes your reader—whether literary agent, acquisition’s editor, reviewer, or reader to turn the page. Said reader has taken the hook, not spit it out, and this final line is what sets it firmly.
“Kyra returned to the porch steps later and waited a long time, but, as she looked to the end of the lane, she never cried. Her face was still, her lips a simple thin line under searching eyes. But Ma didn’t come back that day either.”
The set up here is clear. We know the parameters and we know the main character and her “real life.” We know the conflicts. Also, we know what she’s facing.
And we know Ma is never, ever coming home.
This book has been on the Times bestseller list for 91 weeks, and is still number 3 as I write this. As a book editor, I’ll say that I had huge issues with a lot of it, but the prose was simply stunning, and after that first chapter, there was no way I wasn’t reading on.
Because that’s what a bang-up hook for your book does. That’s what successful authors know how to do, and it’s up to you to fashion that in your work.
But it makes all the difference.
So go write that smashing first-line hook for your book. Build upon it. And then finish the opening chapter with a knock-out punch!