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Bite on, little fishies: the importance of opening “hooks”

03 Aug

Hook into your reader as often as you can. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/atfruth/4734417197/

I started reading a wonderful novel called Blindsight by NZ author Maurice Gee the other day. It is … gasp … one of those old-fashioned things printed on … gulp … paper, but I’m reading it concurrently with several ebooks on my iPhone and, to be fair, I bought it secondhand. (I am probably one of the reasons Borders and Angus and Robertsons have gone under, as I like nothing better than spending the occasional Saturday morning kneeling uncomfortably on the cold linoleum floor of my local charity shop and picking up a preloved bargain. I do that because I am cheap love that someone else has read the book before me and passed it on, although whenever I come to a particularly suspect-looking stain I do wonder about my choices. Another good reason not to read erotica, I suppose. Anyhoo…) I’ve been a big fan of Mr Gee since I read The Halfmen of O as a child, and have continued to dip into his proliferation of novels ever since. Blindsight grabbed me as soon as I turned to the first page, and it did so because of the “hook”.

Never underestimate the power of a great opening line, or indeed a great opening paragraph. I am going to give you a few examples here of some great openers. I believe including these counts as “fair use for the purpose of study or review” under the Copyright Act, and that this might be seen to be fair and free promotion for these authors’ works. If anyone else believes otherwise, then feel free to set the hounds of the law on me and I will remove them and run like the blazes, but I reckon I can get away with adding just a sentence/paragraph or two here on a non-commercial blog that links to Amazon.

So, Mr Maurice Gee’s powerful first paragraph of Blindsight:

Father taught us how not to love.

The thought came fully formed as my brother walked by. As usual he did not see me, for I never stand in his way, but he slowed his step and changed his line for others on the footpath: college girls in summer uniforms, office workers with swipe cards on their belts. The girls look away with that affronted expression the young, especially the female young, take on at the sight of dereliction and decay. They cannot believe in a fall of such magnitude and set their faces in hostility. Some of the office workers believe. A man, well dressed, said: ‘Gidday, mate.’ That was kind of him — or perhaps it expressed foreknowledge in some way. Gordon did not hear; but must, I believe, have heard the whispering in my head, the message, the reminder, from the sister he had loved.

I dare not include more without seeking the author’s permission (in which case this blog post could be months away), but the next paragraph takes those mysterious elements (Why is she walking past her brother? What does she mean by I never stand in his way? What happened to Gordon and why is he a derelict? Why did she use ‘he had loved’? And, most enticingly, what does she mean by the somewhat ambiguous statement: ‘Father taught us how not to love’? ) and expands upon them even further, adding some even more provocative statements that completely reel the reader in.

The hook here, is that the paragraph above has the reader asking some enigmatic mental questions. However, this opening paragraphs also sets the scene. The ‘Gidday, mate’ places the story quite firmly in New Zealand, the reference to “foreknowledge” foreshadows some kind of conflict, and the reaction of the people on the footpath gives us an idea of how Gordon must be looking and behaving. I was hooked from page one, and if I didn’t have a freelance job on I would read this book straight through without putting it down. (In a weird synchronicity, I am working on a manuscript appraisal of a work also called Blindsight, a job I hadn’t yet booked in when I picked up Maurice Gee’s book! Life has a funny way of handing out those coincidences.)

Many great opening hooks catch the reader by creating more questions than answers. Here are just a few , from a range of favourites on my bookshelf, to prove it:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. — First sentence of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

What is a daemon? And why is this girl sneaking down the hallway and avoiding the kitchen?

The people who remained in this place have often asked themselves why it was that Ibrahim went mad. I am the only one who knows, but I have always been committed to silence, because he begged me to respect his grief, or, as he also put it, to take pity upon his guilt. — First two sentences of Birds Without Wings by Louis de Berniere

Why has the author used “people who remained” (a nice bit of foreshadowing)? Why did Ibrahim go mad? Who is the protagonist, the keeper of this secret? And what guilt does Ibrahim have?

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. — First sentence of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Why so matter-of-fact, then, protagonist? And why after the war ended? And just plain ol’ why?

All of these are very powerful openers that force the reader to question. Some opening hooks (most often those written in first person point of view) also help set the scene and introduce the genre of the novel and its protagonist, somewhat like Mr Gee’s does above. Take the first paragraph from fantastic author and all-round nice guy John Marsden’s first book in the Tomorrow series, Tomorrow, When the War Began:

It’s only half an hour since someone—Robyn I think—said we should write everything down, and it’s only twenty-nine minutes since I got chosen, and for those twenty-nine minutes I’ve had everyone crowded around me gazing at the blank page and yelling ideas and advice. Rack off guys! I’ll never get this done. I haven’t got a clue where to start and I can’t concentrate with all this noise. — First paragraph of Tomorrow, When the War Began, by John Marsden.

Marsden very cleverly introduces not only his refreshingly down-to-earth, “farm-girl” teenage protagonist Ellie in this paragraph, he also introduces another main character (Robyn), drops hints that this group of kids is in an unusual situation, or at least unusual enough that it warrants writing down,  and leaves the reader wondering what has happened. It also very effectively and firmly places this novel within the young adult genre.

Not all opening hooks have to ask questions, some can just paint a beautiful scene. Take the opening sentences of my favorite book of all time, Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea:

It was dolphin weather, when I sailed into Piraeus with my comrades of the Cretan bull-ring. Knossos had fallen, which time out of mind had ruled the seas. The smoke of the burning Labyrinth still clung to our clothes and hair.

The Bull from the Sea is actually the sequel to Renault’s earlier The King Must Die, but I discovered it first, as an eleven-year-old, and I loved it. I have read it hundreds of times. Renault’s opening paragraph tells the reader so much in just a few sentences. The term “dolphin weather” coupled with the verb “sailed” brings to mind an idyllic sun-drenched day with dolphins leaping before the ship’s prow. “Piraeus” establishes she is talking about Athens, and the mention of Knossos and the bull-ring gives a sense of time, while “time out of mind” also reminds the reader of a long and ancient past. Ahhh, this is a historical novel. Thanks for the heads up, Mary. The evocative “smoke of the burning Labyrinth” clinging to our, as yet unidentified, protagonist and his “comrades”, adds a sensory touch that draws the reader into this world, right where Renault wants them.

Another opener that gives a sense of time passing, as well as an excellent insight into the protagonist, comes from a man who is probably my favorite Australian author, award-winning writer Tim Winton. In Dirt Music, he opens with:

One night in November, another that had somehow become morning while she sat there, Georgie Jutland looked up to see her pale and furious face reflected in the window. Only a moment before she’d been perusing the blueprints for a thirty-two-foot Pain Clark from 1913, which a sailing enthusiast from Manila had posted on his website, but she was bumped by the server and was overtaken by such a silly rush of anger that she had to wonder what was happening to her. Neither the boat nor the bloke in Manila meant a damn thing to her; they were of as little consequence as every other site she’d visited in the last six hours. First paragraph of Dirt Music by Tim Winton.

If you haven’t read all of these books yet, get thee to a bookstore, to an ebook store (or a secondhand bookstore or a library).

For me, the best hooks include intrigue, scene-setting, and a glimpse of at least one aspect of character, along with (in some cases) foreshadowing of what might be to come. Of course, a great novel has more than one hook and works more like a set of “jag hooks,” snaring the reader at least at each chapter opening and ending, if not at each scene change, preventing them from escaping the story even if they did want to. Does your first paragraph do enough of those things to reel in your little fishes and ensure they don’t swim off to someone else’s creative pond?

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2 responses to “Bite on, little fishies: the importance of opening “hooks”

  1. Belinda Pollard

    August 7, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Hi Karin

    As I work towards the end of the first draft of my thriller, I keep reworking my opening paragraph every so often, like an old piece of plasticine. It is absolutely NOTHING like the opening paragraph I started with, but is it better, I ask myself. Well, it’s definitely better, but is it Good Enough yet?

    This post has at least given me some criteria by which to judge it. Thanks for that and for the inspiration!

    cheers, Belinda

     
  2. karincox

    August 7, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Thanks, Belinda. I’m glad it helped. I haven’t been sued yet either, which is a good thing. 🙂

     

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