You have to hook the reader with the opening lines.
Writers hear that so often it’s a wonder any of us makes it past the first sentences of a book. As it is, most authors probably revisit those first lines more times than we’d care to admit before we declare a book finished. Wouldn’t we all love to come up with something that would lift our openings into “Call me Ishmael” territory? An opening that would let no reader put down the book, that any sentient being would find compelling, intriguing, unforgettable?
Yeah, well. We try.
The opening lines of a book have to carry a heavy burden. They must tell the reader what kind of book this is, they must set the mood and/or the scene. They must intrigue. They must make people believe that reading this book will be a worthwhile investment of a few hours out of their lives.
Will I give up on a book if the first line doesn’t sing? Not necessarily. Some of my favorite writers have committed dull openings. But I trust them enough to hang in there. Because I know the caliber of the writer, I am confident the book will rise above its weak opening. Usually it does. Sometimes the reverse happens: the beginning shines but the book as a whole disappoints. A terrific opening followed by a terrific story – that’s what writers aim for and readers demand.
Looking around the room I’m sitting in and grabbing books at random, I came up with these openings that I like a lot. Can you tell what kind of books they are just from the first lines?
From Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, my very favorite book of 2010:
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house."
Lies of the Heart by Michelle Boyajian (2010):
"It’s one of those surreal moments in life, sitting there in the courtroom and staring into the eyes of her husband’s killer."
Fourth Day by Zoe Sharp (2011):
"Nothing brings home a sense of your own mortality like being locked up alone in the dark.
Which was, of course, precisely why they’d done it."
A Hard Day’s Fright by Casey Daniels (2011):
"Here’s the thing people didn’t get about Lucy Pasternak, I mean people who never met her: Lucy sparkled."
If Books Could Kill by Kate Carlisle (2010):
"If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do."
Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook (1995), one of my all-time favorite novels:
"This is the darkest story that I ever heard, and all my life I have labored not to tell it."
Hearts and Bones by Margaret Lawrence (1996), another lasting favorite:
"Whatever they thought when they found her was bound to be wrong."
What first lines have you come across lately that instantly caught your interest? Quote them in the comments section, with the book titles and authors’ names so others will know what to look for if they’re also intrigued.
For those of you who are writers: Please feel free to show off the opening lines of your latest books! And tell us how much time and thought went into crafting them.