Do you recognize these famous first lines from novels?
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“All children, except one, grow up.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
If you guessed Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, and Moby-Dick, then you are the fish that these authors hooked. The hardest part of starting a book is the first line.
In fact, Mystery Scene magazine devotes a page in each of their issues to announce some of the best first lines in new mysteries and thrillers.
And why is that first line so difficult? It must promise an adventure that will keep the reader’s attention past the first page. Once promised, it must deliver. In the first example, we are promised the adventure of the universal man/woman chase, exemplified by the Bennet daughters snaring husbands, and we also preview the character flaws that will separate Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy for a considerable clump of pages. The irony of the line in Bradbury’s book is that the fireman first burns books and then discovers the power of their words. In Peter Pan, the reader wonders, “Who is this child that never grows up?” “And why does he never grow up?” And finally, we wonder about the identity of Ishmael and what story he has to tell us.
When I joined a writing group a few years ago, I discovered that often the first two or three pages of a manuscript are composed of “spinning your wheels.” If you cut out several paragraphs or pages, you may find a better place to start. Your hook is often part way through the first chapter. It might be a conversation between two characters where the reader comes into the middle of the dialogue. That creates a situation in which the reader is overhearing the conversation and trying to figure out what is going on.
The hook could also foreshadow what is coming, begin the action immediately, or hint at a main character that piques our interest.
If you read books about the process of writing, you’ll often discover that authors spend days, weeks, months, coming up with that perfect first line. It must interest, thrill, foreshadow, intrigue, delight, and/or steal your mind completely, and all in a single line.
“I often wonder if my life would have turned out differently if I hadn’t picked up the gun on the floor beside his body.”
“Like a silk scarf—a filmy one—falling through the air in slow motion—gliding, twisting, turning—the whiff of smoke floated silently into her dream.”
“Despite the fact that there was no body, she planned the funeral, distributed his personal things to his family, and took off her wedding ring after months of agonizing. Then, walking down Fifth Avenue on a miserable, foggy, damp, morning, she saw him—her dead husband—walking toward her with another woman.” [Okay, so that was two lines.]
“On Thursday, right after celebrating my fiftieth birthday and blowing out the candles with my friends, I got the worst phone call a sister could ever receive.”
Each of these “hooks” begins a mystery, and one of them is the first line of my book, Three May Keep a Secret, coming out in November. But I won’t tell you which one. It’s a mystery.