The Hook Brings Them Back

The calm between the storms: And just where do they plan on fitting another foot of snow?

They sure do like to rush the sequels these days.  Just barely 72 hours after Snowmageddon dumped 20 inches or more over most of the Mid Atlantic, the sequel was rushed into production and now we have Snowmageddon 2:  The Sleetpocalypse, arriving mid-week no less and snowing-in the same area (and then some) once again.   As Dickens would say…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

But it seemed the perfect cabin-fever brew to stir up some inspired work on that novel…you know…the one I’ve been babbling about since — For the Love of Pete — April of 2008!  Though I have much of the outlining and research completed and even drafted a very rough first chapter, one thing I have been wrestling with is crafting that perfect, killer opening line.  They say you have to grab a reader’s attention instantly, and if you don’t hook them with the opening, then they are less likely to come back.   I decided to test that theory and thought what better way to procrastinate than to hit my bookshelves and crack open some of my favorite novels and current reads to see how the masters of their craft hooked readers with that opening line.  

I invite my readers and fellow bloggers to do the same and leave some of you favorite (or worst) opening lines to novels (or screenplays) in the comment form! 

Here are some of my findings:  

Say, Sally, whatcha readin' there?

Case #1The End of the Affair by Graham Greene 

  • Opening Line:  “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
  • Thoughts: Right from the get go, you start imaging the tortured internal struggles of a narrator trying to “tell a story.”  As a writer, I found this to be a brilliant opening line.  There are hints just in this sentence (coupled with the knowledge of the book’s title) that this will be no ordinary love story and the plot will probably not unfold in a linear fashion as there will be looking back and looking ahead.  Greene let’s the reader know instantly what we are getting into, and that the one telling the story is choosing what we will know and not know, so beware.
  • Conclusion: HOOKED!

Case #2Jazz by Toni Morrison 

  • Opening Line:  “Sth, I know that woman.”
  • Thoughts:  Immediately I felt like I was about to sit down with an angry woman to hear some seedy gossip.  I want to know “that woman” too.  Morrison puts the reader right into the middle of an ongoing conversation…one that as the book progresses becomes increasingly more lyrical, twisted and riffed on by different characters picking up their instruments of words.  Sing it, sister.  I’m listening.
  • Conclusion:  HOOKED!

Case #3An Accidental Man by Iris Murdoch 

  • Opening Line:  “Gracie, darling, will you marry me?”
  • Thoughts:  Again we have a female author opening with a dialogue of sorts, this one between two characters instead of a narrator and reader (as was the case with Morrison).  Is this going to be the central conflict?  A man proposing marriage?  Is that interesting enough in and of itself to hook you?  This does fittingly let a reader know this is going to be a novel loaded with dialogue, and it’s only later when your realize, Murdoch was a master at this “talk” game.
  • Conclusion:  It’s daring to open with characters engaged in dialogue.  There wasn’t enough in just this line to hook me completely…but admittedly I did “kinda wanna” know…would Gracie accept?  Eh, I’ll read on.

Case #4Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky 

  • Opening Line:  “Hot, thought the Parisians.”
  • Thoughts:  There’s not much in just the opening line, though it hints this is a writer who will be speaking for many people/characters, possibly all at once.  What is striking is its brevity.  So succinct.  And the lines that follow:  “The warm air of spring.  It was at night, they were at war and there was an air raid.”  There’s a “storm” building here, and Nemirovsky captures it with lighting quick clarity.
  • Conclusion:  Sometimes it’s not the opening line…but how the next lines build upon it and the totality and structure of the opening passage that hooks you.  But, oh, Nemirovsky…you had me at “Hot.”  Consider me hooked.

Case #5To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 

  • Opening Line:  “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
  • Thoughts:  Ah, Harper Lee, the simplicity and perfection of your story-telling techniques.  Right here, no doubt about it, the reader knows this is going to be a story about childhood…memories…the things that marked our lives.  I remember reading this in high school and wanting to know right away, how did Jem break his arm?  How could you not keep reading?
  • Conclusion:  Yeah, tell me more, Harper, I’m hooked.

Case #6Serena by Ron Rash 

  • Opening Line:  “When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was the young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child.”
  • Thoughts:  Whoa…is this a sequel?  Rash goes the old “expository” route and tries to fit in as much background as possible with this somewhat bloated by oh so intriguing opening line.  What hooked me was what followed, the description of that girl’s knife wielding father.
  • Conclusion:  Sometimes it’s the threat of violence that follows a somewhat innocuous statement of facts that hook a reader.  Again, as with the more succinct Nemirovsky, Rash lures us in with the totality and structure of his opening passage and proves it’s not just the first line that matters.

Case #7The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut 

  • Opening Line:  “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.”
  • Thoughts:  Hmmm…makes you wonder…is this a novel or a philosophical tome?  Vonnegut displays the importance of word placement as the “now” before the “knows” clues a reader into the speculative fiction aspect of the story that is about to be told.
  • Conclusion:  There’s going to be some stretches of the imagination, but yeah, Kurt, you got me.  I’m coming back for sure.

Case #8Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (my current read) 

  • Opening Line:  “The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long.”
  • Thoughts:  Only in conjunction with the chapter title, “Under the Logs” can a reader divine what is about to happen in the next few lines.  Irving shows a great confidence here.  To him, it seems, the most important thing is not showing-off with a killer opening line, but telling the story the way it should be told.
  • Conclusion:  It wasn’t until Chapter Two that I really became hooked, and this comfortably sits on my coffee table as my current read.

Case #9:  My very own, The Thief Maker 

  • Opening Line:  “William Donovan was an eleven-year-old boy living in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his mother and two younger siblings in Camden, New Jersey, when his world ended.”
  • Thoughts:  I clearly had some grand intentions here.  I wanted to introduce the protagonist, set the time and place, and pull a sucker-punch with “…his world ended.”  Strangely enough, this was not originally the opening line or even the opening chapter.  This “flashback” chapter was added about half way through the 1st draft when I feared readers would not sympathize as easily with the Alice character (whose story opens what would become Chapter Two) as they would with a look back on William’s tragic childhood.  But sometimes I wonder…did I reveal too much too soon and did I end up short-changing William, Alice and my readers?
  • Conclusion:  You be the judge.  If I hooked you…read on.

Of course, sometimes opening lines don’t even matter…it’s all about the title.  Take for instance the recent string of books that takes Jane Austen novels…and well, updates them a bit… 

Would you like a cup of tea with your pound of flesh?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

What more of a hook do you need!?  And where are the film adaptations already!?  Funny I should ask, as I just heard Natalie Portman is in talks to bring P&P&Z to the big screen! 

But back to the case in point… 

What are the opening lines to your favorite novels?  Speak out and speak up in the comment form. 

Thanks to all the writers (past, present and future) who have inspired and entertained me (and will continue to do so) and provided these words over which to mull.  As a reader and a writer, I would be lost without you. 

Written/Compiled By David H. Schleicher

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9 comments on “The Hook Brings Them Back

  1. Chris Tait says:

    Ah, Dave, the second I saw where you were going with this post, I knew I’d have to comment. Here are my top 5:

    1. THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

    I didn’t even look at the book on that one; I know it by heart. I read The Outsiders in 7th grade and still rank it as possibly my favorite book. It was the first time I was ever able to truly identify with a main character. I felt a true kinship with Ponyboy Curtis. That opening line mirrored something I’d done many times: leaving a movie theater, adjusting to the light, thinking about the movie I’d just left, and wondering how I’d get home.

    2. INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by Anne Rice: “‘I see…’ said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room to the window.”

    Probably not the most earth-shattering opening you’d find but it brought me directly into the situation and made me want to explore more. IWTV has a slow, langurous power, and that opening line reflects the patient way in which Rice lets her story unfold.

    3. IT by Stephen King: “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

    If your book is over 1000 pages, then it’s best to hook the reader right away, and that’s an eery and enticing image to open on.

    4. FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

    A vague opening line, but once again, an enticing image presented up front, especially if you know what the book is about.

    5. WONDER BOYS by Michael Chabon: “The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.”

    This sits atop of a long opening paragraph, which could sometimes be off-putting, but I wanted to know who August Van Zorn was and why the author thought him so important to mention at the outset of the book. Within a quick two pages, it was made clear. Chabon is sometimes too verbose for his own good but in this book, his writing was tight.

    Awesome, Chris. THE OUTSIDERS’ and FARHENHEIT 451 lines are killer. Pefect! –DHS

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    I was hoping you didn’t do MOCKINGBIRD, but it’s rightfully there, and so many other priceless opening passages, including your own!!!

    Well, as I write this response I am looking out the back window as the blizzard rages on! It appears that you were hit hard David by Snowmaggedon #1, though we in the NYC area dodged that bullet. But today schools are closed and we are looking at around 20 inches in a snowfall that will apparently continue until midnight. Shall I David? It’s my favorite:

    Whose woods these are I think I know.
    His house is in the village though;
    He will not see me stopping here
    To watch his woods fill up with snow.

    My little horse must think it queer
    To stop without a farmhouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

    He gives his harness bells a shake
    To ask if there is some mistake.
    The only other sound’s the sweep
    Of easy wind and downy flake.

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    Ha! Anyway, here are some classic opening liners, the first timely of course:

    1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all 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. – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

    2. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

    3. I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled. – Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)

    4. (note: This fourth selection for me has never, ever been forgotten since the first time I read this novel): The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

    5. Call me Ishmael. – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

    6. (note: This may be my personal favorite as I adore the book and have read it several times. I love only one novel more than this, and that’s Hugo’s LES MISERABLES)
    “HALFWAY down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. The street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon House; and an elm-tree, of (THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, Hawthorne)

    to be continued—

    Sam…ah, the snow…the snow…the snow. Who could forget “Call me Ishmael?” People who have never even read Melville know that line. The Red Badge of Courage line is also a stunner. Great picks! –DHS

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    a few more:

    7. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
    –Orwell, 1984

    8. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

    9. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

    10. “LILY, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Joyce, THE DEAD from “The Dubliners.”

    Of course it is THE DEAD’s LAST line that is MOST famous.

    I hope you will do a post on famous ‘last lines’ at some point. But this one david was a doozer!!!! Fabulous.

    Sam, oh…the last line of Joyce’s THE DEAD…in my mind is THE perfect END…and what a great passage for a day like today! Those Joycian snowflakes…”falling faintly through the universe, and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” BRILLIANT! –DHS

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    That’s it David!!! The perfect line for today indeed!!!

  5. BookSellerNJ says:

    As Sam pointed out with Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen had a talent for hooking you with the first line of her novels – two more come to mind …

    Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. EMMA

    No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. NORTHANGER ABBEY

    I’m no fan of Austen unless zombies or sea monsters are involved 🙂 –DHS

  6. John Greco says:

    Here’s a few of my own. I left off “The Catcher in the Rye” since Sam mentioned it in his comments.

    A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

    Marley was dead: To begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he put he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

    Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

    It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
    Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’ t quite jaundice.If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and wnet away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time
    confused them.

    Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett

    Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the homicide squad, complete with detectives and newspaper men. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You’ll read all about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it all over your radio, and see on television – because an old time star is involved, one of the biggest. But before you hear it distorted and all out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth…if so, you’ve come to the right party…you see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion, with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really, just a movie writer, with a couple of “B” pictures to his credit. The poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool…only the price was a little high…

    The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

    Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickest brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

    He said to Effie Perine: “Yes sweetheart?”

    She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished closing the door behind her, leaned against it and said: “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”

    “A customer?”

    “I guess so. you’ll want to see her anyway: she’s a knockout!”

    “Shoo her in, darling,” said Spade. “Shoo her in.”

    Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

    All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I really knew was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

    I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.

    John…aha…Wonderly….what a great name…shoo her in but quick! The closing to the opening of the Vonnegut — “There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground” — CLASSIC! –DHS

  7. BookSellerNJ says:

    I wanted to share my current read, a contemporary novel (1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross, POPE JOAN:

    THUNDER sounded, very near, and the child woke. She moved in the bed, seeking the warmth and comfort of her older brothers’ sleeping forms. Then she remembered. Her brothers were gone.

    Hooked!

  8. walt walker says:

    3, 4, & 8 make me want to read more. Yours, number 9, is right up there with them. And I’m not just saying that.

    I’m also not saying that the others aren’t great, but I am saying they don’t hook me, personally. But I’m hard to hook, because I can put any book down. I work with books every day, so it’s very easy for me to put a book down. I deal with more books than I could ever possibly read.

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