• How Do You Hook A Reader?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 61 comments
    Apr
    10

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    Discussion questions: As a reader, how does a writer hook you within the first few lines of a book or story? As a writer, how do you hook a reader with your opening? Share the best opening you’ve ever written, or share one you’re currently struggling with (and tell us what the struggle is). And don’t be afraid to comment on another writer’s opening! Does it make you want to read more?

     

    YOU HAVE TO GET THE READER’S ATTENTION WITH YOUR FIRST LINE!

    But in a more elegant, far less obvious and obnoxious way than I’ve done here.

    Your first few lines are your only chance to make a good first impression. In journalism it’s often called the hook, so called because it’s your chance to get the fish — i.e., the reader — on your line. To make the reader take your bait and then keep taking your bait.

    It’s of utmost importance in fiction, too.

    There’s a reason the internet abounds with lists of the best and most famous opening lines: Clocks striking 13, particular homes being spiteful, instructions to call someone Ishmael, queer, sultry summers full of electrocuted spies. “First sentences are doors to worlds,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin.

    But it can be difficult to unlock those doors, and even if we do, they can be creaky, and, oh god, this line is terrible. (Thankfully I already have you on the hook!)

    How do you write a good opening?

     

    I don’t know!

    But I do know a few things I don’t really like:

    — Novels that open with dialogue (seems like most of you don’t like it either)

    — Writers trying *so* hard to be profound or to show off their lyrical prowess that they communicate nothing about the story

    — Any opening I’ve ever written

    Also, in an August 2019 Yak Babies episode we discussed what we like and don’t like about the beginnings of books. I don’t remember what I talked about. Doesn’t August 2019 seem like six lifetimes ago?

    (For you YB Patreon subscribers, there’s also a fun EIME game about the opening lines of books.)

     

    It really boils down to this:

    If a reader likes the first line, he/she will be more inclined to read the second. If he/she likes the second, he/she’ll be more inclined to read the third. And so on, until “hooked.”

    I’m currently working on my eighth different opening paragraph for a short story I want to submit. It’s not getting better every time, but the present version is the best so far. And hopefully is the last! It provides a lot of the who, what, where, when, why, and how, but is also about as well-written as I’m capable of.

     

    What’s the best opening you’re capable of? In the comments below, share your favorite of your own opening lines, fiction or non. (Try to cap it at 100 words or so; the longer it is, the less likely that people will read it!)

    Or share a few examples of your favorite openings as a reader.

    Or share what you look for in the opening lines of books, stories, journalism, etc.

    Are you currently struggling with an opening? Share it below and tell us what the struggle is.

    And while you’re here, help another writer out by offering some feedback on an opening or two.

     

    david blog

     

    WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

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    chuck

    “Aaron would not come out”, by William Goldman in Boys and Girls Together.

    David Duhr

    That’s a good one. I’ve never read that book.

    Raymundo

    Discussion questions: As a reader, how does a writer hook you within the first few lines of a book or story? As a writer, how do you hook a reader with your opening? Share the best opening you’ve ever written, or share one you’re currently struggling with (and tell us what the struggle is). And don’t be afraid to comment on another writer’s opening!  ———————————- Openings that grab me are those that hit upon a subject that interests me, presents a mystery or dilemma I want to se resolved, or promises revelations of some sort. Hook types are nearly countless,… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hey Ray. Where does the luck come in, just in reaching a reader, hitting him/her at the right time? Or do you find that there’s some luck in the writing/creative process itself?

    You have a favorite opening or two? Do you like 1984’s?

    Raymundo

    I think luck in openings is like luck in all of writing. It’s a mix of author inspiration and craft, with reader interest and their finding a piece of writing at a time and place when they can connect. Personally, I like openings that metaphorically promise what’s ahead, or present an image that reinforces a theme. I think “1984’s” does the former with the clocks striking thirteen. “Lost Horizon” does the latter thus: “Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Good examples, Ray. I like the Hilton, though the repetition of “had” at the end of the line would kill me as a writer.

    What happens with Fennec? Does the strap land in line 2?

    Raymundo

    It does, and he is beaten pretty badly.

    Charles Dikmak

    Fishing with Arthur on Thanksgiving Day…………………………. Charles Dikmak

    Time for a gift, from me to me, I thought to myself. Maybe I’ll send myself a nice card too, laughing out loud.  Besides, patiently freezing in 44F water up to my thighs, hoping some unwary fish hung-over from a night of Piscean debauchery, would have an affinity for biting my hand-wrought raggedy rendition of a newly hatched insect, while fishing in uninsulated waders was putting a damper on any flyfishing excursion outside of June-August. 

    Jerry Schwartz

    One of my favorite shades of purple

    David Duhr

    I like it, Charles. Thanks for sharing.

    David Duhr

    What’s the gist of the whole?

    Kenneth

    From own file of eyes-squinted-face-contorted file of opening lines:
    ”There is no more powerful force in human nature than that of the Gentle Person who has become Fed Up. Thus did diminutive life-long GP and quite FU Callie Hagstrom…”

    David Duhr

    Oh man, more. More!

    Kenneth

    …present herself at the pastor’s study door immediately after services. It was her firm belief that the membership of the Mount Olivet Church of the Living Word in Christian Union needed a good prodding from their pastor to remind the them that the church’s outreach program should reach out farther than tut-tutting the less fortunate in the church basement over cider and baked goods. Taking a deep breath, straightening her five-foot-one-inch frame while patting the back of her carefully coiffed hair, she knocked purposefully on the door. The Right Reverend Winston R. Skeins, aged 49 years and “called to preach”… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I dig it. This is a novel? Story?

    Kenneth

    It began as a story and probably should stay that way but every now and then the neurons sputter to life and I go back to it. Gist is, a severe winter storm paralyzes a small southern Ohio town in the late thirties. It’s effect on the plans and schemes of some of the locals illustrates John Lennon’s dictum that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Spoiler alert; Reverend Skeens is in for a rough ride.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I like stories that bring me into an atmosphere immediately. I’m not particularly good at that kind of thing, but I like being sucked in. My own stuff more likely will begin with a bang: “The car loses traction on the snow and slides out of control, hitting an enormous old oak with a thud. The hood folds like an accordion, the windshield shatters, and the airbags explode. Silence…then a boom as the huge tree, burdened by age and snow, crashes onto the wreckage.” Or, more simply, “The woman fell flat on her face, and drinks flew everywhere.” I don’t… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I like both styles. Are the first two from things you wrote, or did you invent them on the spot?

    Jerry Schwartz

    All three are from completed stories. The first is about a succubus who finds and decides to keep a human orphan. The second is a fairly ordinary boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl. The third is a Lovecraft pastiche based on The Call of Cthulhu, told from the POV of a cuttlefish. (If you’ve read the original, you’ll understand the reference.)

    Last edited 24 days ago by Jerry Schwartz
    David Duhr

    Oh yeah, you’ve mentioned the cuttlefish POV. I’ve never read “Cthulhu,” or any other Lovecraft. It’s something I’m told repeatedly that I should rectify.

    Barbara Mealer

    Savannah rolled over with a groan. The opening line needs to say something , but it doesn’t need to be this killer all by itself. The rest of the paragraph can complete that hook. LIke the opening line above. It’s simple and leads you to why she groaned. Montana made better time than she expected. That is the first line in the book I’m currently editing. Nothing fantastic, but here is the rest of that paragraph: Route 8 was a gently curved road winding through the hills of farms and forests in western Pennsylvania. A perfect road for motorcycle riding… Read more »

    David Duhr

    For sure, it’s a popular approach for a reason. Like you say about the backpack one, a good opening line can ask a question (by *not* actually asking a question) that a reader wants an answer to. Do you have a favorite from another writer? What’s your favorite Michener opening?

    Barbara Mealer

    I don’t have a favorite. My favorite book of his was Chesapeake.

    KevinW

    I have to reread that. I always loved his descripton of the sailors’ dinner on the boat, golden oyster bisque with crisp bacon crumbled in, “God Almighty, that’s good”..

    John Liebling

    First line. First paragraph. First page. As I edit hundreds of pages, inspiration or perspiration strikes and I once again, and again, and again…revisited those words, and reshuffle, remake, and regret the hours, days, and weeks I’ve spent on just Juan page. That is what I am providing, and would appreciate any feed back. I’ve changed the working title of my book from David Sagacious: That’s Life…to David Sagacious: Immortal Mortal. The following is my first page, from the first chapter, of my first novel: Our life is death. Our death is life. David Sagacious! Tenacious, audacious, loquacious. I am… Read more »

    David Duhr

    A lot of work has gone into reshaping this, I can see that. Are you happy with it now, or still tinkering? (At first I wrote “thinkering,” and I kind of like that.)

    Elizabeth

    Love “thinkering!”

    John Liebling

    I need to thinker before I can tinker. I am happy with what I’ve created. But hell I’ve said that many times over the years, and a few months or years pass and I find a way to change it. How the NY Covid policy? I am wrinkled enough to get my second shot April 26. Minor soreness from the first shot, not other issues.

    David Duhr

    It’s open to all adults now here. But appointments are hard to come by so far. No surprise, what with 10 million or so people in the area. Gives me more time to thinker.

    John Liebling

    My younger brother, well he just turn 60 a few months ago…had a big time reaction from the second shot, which he did not have from the first. I just found out about this late on Sunday. He is slowly doing better but he almost called an ambulance to pick him and take him to emergency care. My mom who is 90 had only minor soreness from her second shot.

    Elissa Malcohn

    This site might be of use:
    https://hidrb.com/
    From the Miami Herald: “The website, available in English and Spanish, acts like a nationwide virtual waiting list. People who sign up will be notified when a vaccine provider in their area has extra doses available. You’ll be asked if you can arrive by a set time and if so, to ‘claim the dose.'”

    My partner and I get our second Moderna shot next week and are counting down the days. From what I’ve read anecdotally, hydration is highly recommended.

    Maria Zobel

    Writing a memoir piece. This is the opening:
    I didn’t love him. Attraction? Yes, there was that.

    I’m wondering if it should read: I didn’t love him yet. Attraction? Yes, there was that.
    Not enough? Boring?

    Gary B

    I prefer the first line because it creates questions in the readers mind. “Is she?” “Will she?” “Could she?” The only way to find out is to keep reading

    MariA Z

    Thank you,Gary. That is my preference also, but I kept vacillating.

    David Duhr

    But I’d say the second asks questions too, just different one. What changes, being the main one.

    That said, I’d vote for the first as well.

    MariA Z

    Thank you, David.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Hm… If it were mine, and it is not, I would write

    Attraction? Yes, there was that. Love?

    and leave it there. I don’t know if you’re writing something heavy or something light. That would inform the next sentence.

    david lemke

    I went through a few of my stories, novellas and novels, some published and some not. My openings are all over the place. You can pick out some to hate or love and comment. Story Openings You’ve had a bitchin’ weekend. Your boyfriend Ryan, the one with the red Porsche 911 Turbo S, said it matched your eyes. Three years. Three years ago tomorrow, my daughter hugs me and says, “don’t worry mom, I’ll be fine. I’ll write every day.” At an undisclosed government location in a smoke filled, paneled room with a polished conference table, no decision is reached.… Read more »

    David Duhr

    “At an undisclosed government location in a smoke filled, paneled room with a polished conference table, no decision is reached.”

    I like this. Even better than “… a decision is reached.”

    Elissa Malcohn

    A hook must have tension, something that piques the reader’s curiosity. (With respect to dialogue, I immediately think of the opening to Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”) Tension can be created in various ways, using different tones. A sample of my hooks: Amy knows her name means “beloved.” The knowledge is no comfort. — Lazuli (Asimov’s, Nov. 1984) I asked a technician where the Taurus Incident was. He told me to go past the laser display and inflatable domes, turn left, take a flight of stairs to some hole in the ground that looked like a dungeon, and swing a sharp… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I like “Memento Mori” the most of an excellent batch. But “Lullaby” is a real grabber, for sure. What’s the second line?!

    Elissa Malcohn

    The second line for “Lullaby” is: It screeches in surprise and insult at the electric shock.  “Memento Mori” got its start as a Halloween-themed exercise in a free-writing group I belonged to, back in the 90s (and where I also met my partner; we recently celebrated our 25th anniversary). About a dozen years later I saw the Unspeakable Horror call for submissions, fished out the exercise, gussied it up, and submitted. It was a vignette back then. Was told to expand it more, and voila! (UH was also one of two publications in my experience that required a query letter — for a… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Haha, yeah, I’ve never seen such a requirement. That’s kind of crazy. Especially after a call for submissions? “Submit to our thing now! But, you know, query first…”

    Hey, so long as it worked.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Helix is no longer publishing, but their submission requirements were unusual with respect to format. They wanted manuscripts in something like single-spaced 13-pt. Arial (!). As you say, so long as it worked…

    KevinW

    It was the century’s most important and notorious murder (and one of the most significant in all of recorded history) but there is still disagreement about the motive, the method and the presumed guilt of the alleged assassin.

    David Duhr

    Good. This is yours?

    KevinW

    Yeah, this is the origjnal opening for a chapter I did for a criminology anthology.

    David Duhr

    What’s the case?

    KevinW

    JFK assassination

    KevinW

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
    Still might be my favorite opening ever…

    David Duhr

    Excellent closing line to that book, too. One of the rare examples of a book appearing on both best-first and best-last lists.

    Everything in between ain’t bad either…

    KevinW

    He lvd bb.
    Yeah GO invented text language in between, OMG LMAO LOL.

    KevinW

    Morton knew that there were many shades of black. Night in Tunisia, night in the Nevada desert from the top of a mountain that hopefully sheltered silver ore, night reflected in the rain-wet tail-fender of a 1959 Cadillac, the frozen black Ice in Carolyn’s eyes at the end…he’d seen them all, but he didn’t know the ultimate blackness of death. Yet. He knew that tonight that could change…

    David Duhr

    This is really good. I particularly like the ’59 Cadillac portion. What’s it from?

    KevinW

    “Morton Fears The Woo”, a touching unpublished (unfinished) short story about an adventurous peripatetic nebbish and the martial arts Master he dreaded.

    Jenny

    I think it depends on the story. I don’t have a specific way, but when I’m writing, I look for a surprising, maybe absurd line to draw attention to the story.

    David Duhr

    Do you have a favorite example from your own work?

    KevinW

    Homer loved the little twisted black cigars that old Italian men smoked. Tasty, satisfying and very cheap, they were one of the few things in the world that worked the way things were supposed to. Everything else was complicated, expensive and only intermittently satisfying but a DiNobili was a consistent source of joy. He wished Renee could be a DiNobili, flamed away in the ash of his desire, to reappear tomorrow in the anticipation of lighting up fresh from the pack, like a new summer’s morning to be enjoyed and forgotten. Instead he had to call back three lawyers, two… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Good, I like the misdirection at the end, and the “new summer’s morning” part is excellent. What’s it from?

    KevinW

    CertainHalfDesertedStreets (a file on my computer containing half-finished/half-baked/half-assed story ideas ..)@@@@

    John Liebling

    I worked shopped some pages with my UCLA writing group and after their input I thinkered and tinkered…and here are the results…First page only…though I did get rid of some info dump during the first chapter, because it did not necessarily move the characters forward. Seasoned sanguinary saliva savors our selectable delectable soul. We are beef patty on malevolence’ Multiverse roll; living beyond, beneath, and betwixt our screams, dreams, and themes. Doctor Ross, at a loss. This Pangloss’ characteristic idealistic, and heuristic. Gulping bitter coffee. Sleep deprived brain mutters, When did I become fatalistic? Doc clears his raspy voice, “We… Read more »




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