Recently, Lev Grossman, the book critic at Time magazine, made some predictions about publishing. Among his predictions about the novel was the following: "Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life."
I agree, except on one point: This isn't coming. It's already here.
A novel's first paragraph, or "opening hook," has always been important, but it has never been as important as it is now.
Agents and editors have always looked for the hook as a way of judging a manuscript's grabbing power. Consumers in search of a solid entertainment value for their dollars most often turn to page 1 and start reading. If the beginning doesn't hook them, back the book goes.
Some people maintain that a novelist has as many as five pages to grab a reader. That may have been true once, but not anymore. I believe that today you must engage a reader in your novel's first sentence or risk losing her forever. Below are eight tips for accomplishing this feat, with examples.
Raise a question in your reader's mind.
A desire to know more, to find out what the first sentence means, can pull readers onward. Make us want to know more. Raise a question. Create a mini-mystery.
Here's the first paragraph of Joy Fielding's suspense novel See Jane Run:
One afternoon in late spring, Jane Whittaker went to the store for some milk and some eggs and forgot who she was.
How can you not want to know what that means?
Signal that something is about to radically change.
Robin Cook's medical thriller Critical begins this way:
Within the course of a week spanning March and April 2007, a serious, untoward event in the health of three strangers, two of whom lost their lives, was destined to impact the lives of hundreds, even thousands of people in a complicated web of causality.
Clearly a major change is about to take place. Readers want to know more.
Indicate a change from the routine.
Make it clear that the action of your first sentence is not the norm. Here's the first sentence of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.
If he's the curator, we assume he belongs in the museum-but why is he staggering? Clearly whatever is happening is not routine.
Present an intriguing person.
This is the technique Margaret Mitchell used for the first sentence of Gone With the Wind:
Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
What kind of charm, we wonder, could captivate these two men? This woman is clearly special. Who is she?
Present an intriguing place.
In The Keys to the Street, Ruth Rendell describes the park that will play an important role in her story:
Iron spikes surmount each of the gates into the park, twenty-seven of them on some, eighteen or eleven on others.
What is this place that is protected in this way?
Present an intriguing object.
Here's the first line of my mystery novel Hanging Hannah:
There were marigolds in her salad, bright spiky orange petals among the radicchio.
My lead character, literary agent Jane Stuart, is lunching with a client in a particularly pretentious Manhattan eatery, and to me the flowers in the salad say it all.
Present an intriguing situation.
Here's the first sentence of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
What, we wonder, is this time of such contradictions? And we read on to find out.
Give your reader something unexpected.
Ken Follett began The Key to Rebecca like this:
The last camel collapsed at noon.
What is he talking about? What about the other camels? We read on to find out what's going on.
Whatever method you choose, be sure to give your novel a real killer of a first sentence. These days, it's the only way to make sure all those other sentences get read.
Evan Marshall, president of The Evan Marshall Agency, is a former book editor and packager. Recently he and coauthor Martha Jewett released The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, based on his bestselling The Marshall Plan® writers' guides. Evan is also the author a number of popular mystery novels; recently released are Death is Disposable and Evil Justice. Visithttp://www.writeanovelfast.com and download Evan's 77-page Fiction Makeover Guide with tips and ideas on writing a great novel.
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