It seems obvious that in order to get a reader interested in your story, you must have a great line. Something that stands out, grabs their attention, but isn’t corny. The idea here is to intrigue your reader and bring them into the story without making them lean away and smile politely until they can put the book down and effectively leave the room of your tale. Ideally, by the time you have their interest, they will take your book to bed with them and stay up half the night having fun.
Writing a striking first line without crafting something fit for Bulwer-Lytton is a challenge. And it’s not just the first line, it’s the first paragraph, page, and so on. Like the guy at the bar who never plans for a girl to actually respond to his first line, don’t be left floundering for story when you spent ages getting your hook perfect.
I started thinking about this when I grabbed the quote below as a metaphor example for class, and realized that a brilliant metaphor is a good way to start. Not by any means the only way, but it can be intriguing.
“Port Tinarana was like an old, decaying tart, her face lined with a myriad of streets and alleys, inexpertly caked with a crude makeup of overhanging buildings.”
Dave Freer has a way with words like few other authors I have read, and part of the reason is that he seems to be a passionate reader himself. He knows what we want, and he delivers. The opening lines to The Forlorn evoke a place we wouldn’t want to live in, but from the safe distance lent by a page, we venture into those reeking alleys, and meet a character we are compelled by.
Personally, when I read I am looking for characters to fall in love with. This may be the reason I can’t stand stories where no-one has any redeeming qualities. There has to be something, for me. A touch of honor, a glimpse of hope, a soul that will not go quietly into the gray fog of nothingness. I adore characters that are curious, chivalrous, and loving… while being a rogue, and even grouchy. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden or Larry Correia’s Jake Sullivan are men I could read all day long.
Another thing that first line or paragraph can do is signal the tone, the genre, the feeling of the whole book. That guy (or girl, I do tend to be more attracted to men for some reason *shrugs*) sitting there talking to you gives those cues to what they are in haircut, clothing, eyes… all that has to be boiled down to just a few words.
“We came up the trail from Texas in the spring of ’74, and bedded our herd on the short grass beyond the railroad. We cleaned our guns and washed our necks and dusted our hats for town, riding fifteen strong to the hitching rails and standing fifteen strong to the bar.”
You immediately know what to expect from this rugged outdoorsman, and Loius L’Amour always delivers. The opening lines to Kiowa Trail, even if you never saw the cover, promise an old west adventure.
I’m going to put some more first lines below, with the author and title in white – select to highlight and read. I’ve grabbed a handful of older books (hint) of different genres. Have fun, and remember to look at what makes them work (or not) and guess what genre they are.
“The starship came out of its envelope just long enough to unload the first rack of bombs. It flashed yellow, then it was gone – hypersonic and untouchable by anything not also in a star-drive envelope.”
David Drake, The Forlorn Hope
“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.”
Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison
“The weather door of the smoking-room had been left open to the North Atlantic fog, as the big liner rolled and lifted, whistling to warn the fishing-fleet.”
Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous
“It was only a little after nine o’clock in the evening, but already the horde had gone rampaging away. Lemeul Siddons swept them out with jokes and gestures; he said Scat and Scram by turns, he threatened with pointed finger and clenched fist, he talked of the paper work he must do.”
MacKinley Kantor, Follow Me, Boys
“‘If you were a genuine Army colonel,’ Pilgrim said, ‘instead of one of the most bogus and unconvincing frauds I’ve ever seen, you’d rate three stars for this. Excellently done, my dear Fawcett, excellently done.”
Alistair Maclean, Circus
“She was up to her elbows in someone else’s blood when the call came in. She was used to being up to her elbows in her own blood, since she cultured it practically by the vat these days to incubate the virus in. But to have her hands inside a dying woman, trying like mad to keep the blood in, was new for Mirabeth Tofler. It was of course, this damn field work. In the lab she could maintain a proper detachment. Out here, you got attached to people, and then when they got shot, you did wholly unsanitary things like showing your fingers into a spurting artery and screaming for help while you were being splashed with the blood of a person who you had only known for a week.”
Yeah, Ok, this one is me. Opening lines I wrote for a workshop, when asked to write a ‘hook.’
Next week: what to do now that you have their attention, or; how not to stammer and blush uncontrollably.