Catch a Reader by the Hook – great first lines

You’re standing in front of a shelve of deliciously tempting books inside Barnes and Noble or Books a Million…or even the library. The smell of imagination cooking between fresh print pricks your curiosity and you scan the rows looking for a title or cover to push you from temptation to commitment. Finally, something snags your attention and you draw the book from the shelf, the promise of a tantalizing visit to otherworlds tingling through your body. (okay, maybe I’m the only one who gets this feeling, but I also write fantasy so it works for me.

You slide your hand across the silken cover dancing with brilliant colors and a magical picture, finally flipping to the first page.

Once upon a time….

It was a dark and stormy night…

It is a truth universally acknolwedged….

Either the book grips you in the first paragraph and delivers on its’ promises from the back cover, or you realize…this book is not for you.

So what makes a gripping first line…a first paragraph even?

Part of it has to do with personal preference, I know, but first lines have a tendency to draw us in, catch us, and then hook us like a fish in the water.

With this thought in mind, I’ve listed a few ‘first lines’ in books (old and new) as an example. See what you think.

“Scarlet O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm, as the Tarleton twins were.” – Gone With the Wind

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” David Copperfield

“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.” – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

“A gentle breeze from the north-east after a night of rain, and the washed sky over Malta had a particular quality in its light that sharpened the lines of the noble buildings, bringing out all the virtue of the stone; the air too was a delight to breathe, and the city of Valletta was as cheerful as though it were fortunate in love or as though it had suddenly heard good news.” – Treason’s Harbor by Patrick O’Brian

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

“A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again.” Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalss Wilder

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”  Holes by Louis Sachar

Now for some Christian Fiction examples How do they compete?

“Oh, to be a calculating woman!” Julie Lessman’s A Passion Denied

“Nice girl gone bad. That’s me: Claire Le Noyer.” Kissing Adrien by Siri Mitchell

“Nothing like running late to make a wonderful first impression.” Stand-In Groom by Kaye Dacus

“The day was gray and cold, mildly damp. Perfect for magic.” The Book of Names by D. Barkley Briggs

“Breathe not a word of my visit, Jean. not to a soul.” Thorn in my Heart by Liz Curtis Higgs

Bran!” The shout rattled through the stone-flagged yard. “Bran! Get your sorry tail out here! We’re leaving!” Hood by Stephen Lawhead

“Dragon riding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Ashley grumbled. Enoch’s Ghost by Bryan Davis.

“Belle Tanner pitched dirt right on Anthony’s handsome, worthless face.” The Husband Tree by Mary Connealy

“They were coming. They were coming! Christophe shoves his little sister, twelve-year old Emile, through a hidden door in the wall, quickly following her.” Love’s First Light by Jamie Carie

Now, interestingly enough, these examples have something in common: They are out to get your attention BUT they use different means to get it.

– Some draw in the reader with ACTION. You enter the story in motion and are swept into the pages.

– Some use INTRIGUE…something’s ‘not quite right’, so your curiousity is peaked.

– Some use HUMOR and brings you in with a smile.

– Others use the UNEXPECTED – something is stated (kind of like intrigue) which is out of the ordinary so to keep from teetering on the brink of confusion, the reader must read on.

-Finally some capture you with WORDS, magically descriptive, palpable words which ensnare the senses.

Any way you choose to write it, SOMETHING has to happen in that first paragraph which captures the readers attention to keep them reading…wanting more, inescapably attracted…

and then –

hopefully

You’ve caught yourself a reader. 🙂

Daggling the Reader by a Cliff

One of the hallmarks of a great story is the ability to keep the reader engaged. Now, of course, fantastic characters and riveting plots are the main contributors to fantastic novels. Conflict is another thing. But something else to remember in the grand scheme of a story, is the element of cliffhanging.

What is a cliffhanger?

According to dictionary.com, a cliffhanger is:

  1. a melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.
  2. a situation or contest of which the outcome is suspensefully uncertain up to the very last moment.

 So, how do authors do this? Let’s take a look at a some examples for the next few days to get a ‘taste’ for how the experts do it.

 I’m going to start by introducing you all to one of my son’s favorite authors. He’s quickly becoming one of mine too. Stephen Lawhead writes epic fantasy with historical threads, with Celtic and Britain mythology braided throughout. In his book, Hood, he takes on the tale of Robin Hood and brings it to life.

Here are the last few paragraphs of chapter one:

 As he turned to take the third attacker, Iwan glimpsed his king struggling to keep his saddle. He saw Brychan lurch forward and topple from his horse into the water.

 The king struggled to his knees and beheld his champion fighting to reach him a short distance away. “Ride!” he shouted. “Flee! You must warn the people.”

 Rhi Brychan made one last attempt to rise, got his feet under him and took an unsteady step, then collapsed. The last thing Iwan saw was the body of his king floating facedown in the turgid, bloodstained waters of the Wye.

 Now, do you wanna turn the next page and see what happens? Sure. You’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. You can’t just go to sleep now?

 Okay – okay, for those of you with a more romantic leaning, let’s visit Denise Hunter’s newest novel, Driftwood Lane. Can ladies who write romance create cliffhangers too?

“The fact is, the children are in dire need of your assistance, Meridith. Since Mrs. Hubbard fell ill, members of the church have been taking shifts. Very kind of them, of course, but it can’t go on. If you don’t come quickly, I’m afraid I’ll have no choice but to alert Child Protective Services. I’d hate to see the children go to foster care, even temporarily. And there’s no assurance they’d be placed together.

Foster care! Meridith imagined suited men coming into their home, carrying them off. She imagined the littlest boy, screaming for his mommy.

From somewhere deep inside compassion swelled, followed quickly by a surge of protectiveness she didn’t know she was capable of. She had no doubt there were decent foster homes. But the thought of the children being separated seemed cruel when they’d just lost their parents. Besides that, they were orphans. And didn’t he Good Book admonish them to look after the orphans?

She had to do something. It was her responsibility, even if she’d never met them, because T.J. and Eva had named her the children’s guardian. And because, like it or not, she was their sister.

 Yep, I’d say Denise does a nice job of a cliffhanger here at the end of chapter one.

How about one more for today. Let’s try Deeanne Gist’s novel, A Bride Most Begrudging.

“How dare you!” she cried. “You will not get away with this. Mark you, if you do not arrange an audience with the governor at once, I will create a commotion of such magnitude they will write legends about it.”

 The captain did not even bother to acknowledge her. “Throw her back in the hold, Cooper,” he said over his shoulder as he descended the steps.

 She filled her lungs with the intention of letting out a scream the likes of which would not be ignored. Before she could release it, the first mate squeezed a band of flesh between her neck and her shoulder.

Debilitating pain cut off her scream and buckled her knees. She crumpled to the ground. Cooper did not let go but followed her to the floor. She whimpered, trying to pull away from the torturous vice his fingers created.

     His hot, foul breath invaded her ear. “Not one sound, dovey. Not one.”

 What’dya think? The key element of the cliffhanger is creating a question in the reader’s mind. It’s an unsettling thing. That’s why snatching the reader’s emotions in the first chapter is so important. They HAVE to find out what’s going to happen to this character they ‘care’ about now.

 How have you created a cliffhanger in your WIP? Or novel? Is it a sufficient hook to make the reader HAVE to turn to chapter two?