October 24, 2011

Hooks for Books-by Celia Yeary

 "It was a dark and stormy night…" No, no, never begin a story with the weather. The reader will skip ahead and look for action or characters, or heaven forbid, close the book. Okay, let's see. "I was falling, falling…and then I woke up." Nope, I remember, now, NEVER open a book with a dream--or an alarm clock or phone ringing. What about something really funny? For example, "Nearing the counter with a full tray, her foot slipped on spilled…." Uh, oh. That's on the list of no-no's, too.

Such a list exists, in fact. The admonitions may vary slightly, but editors are programmed to stop reading a submission after the first sentence or first paragraph if she/he sees these red flags. The nineteenth-century Gothic novels opened with long brooding descriptions of the weather, or a monologue recounting the entire genealogy of the family in the story, enough to make one's eyes glaze over.

In today's world, the reader wants and deserves action, the inciting incident, the reason for the story, and he wants it right away. In some manner, the opening sentence or first paragraph or first chapter must give the reader what he wants--"What is this novel about?"

Grabbing the attention of an editor you'd like to impress or a reader you'd like to keep is an art form all its own. Books galore sit on shelves or can be found on-line that help the budding author or the experienced one who wants a refresher course learn a bit more about a good beginning.

I once won a little contest on a blog with the opening line of my first release. First lines from ten romance novels were listed and readers voted on the best opening. This is the winning line (mine): If I'd known running away would be this hot and this dirty, I'd have stayed home. However, what does my first line tell the reader? A woman is running away (from whom and why?), and the woman obviously is a little fastidious. In my humble opinion, this line met the criteria to set up the story. Plus, an editor liked it because she offered me a contract in three weeks.

Here are the beginning lines from four different romance novels.

1. The truth had long been settling on Jonathan Gray, sneaking into his resisting corners, but it had finally resounded in the deepest part of him. (The Fulfillment, LaVyrle Spencer)
2. He'd known all day something was about to go down, something life-changing and entirely new. ( Montana Creeds: Dylan, Linda Lael Miller)
3. Sister Bernadette Ignatius and Tom Kelly sat in the back seat of a black cab, driving from Dublin's airport through the city. (What Matters Most-Luanne Rice)
4. "Rachel! Rachel!" Ella called in the high-pitched panic voice that usually preceded bad news. (Texas Honor-Debra White Smith)

These opening lines come from Best-Selling authors. Do we need to pay closer attention to the novels we read? Go to a bookstore, find a shelf of best-sellers in romance, and open several to study the first page. Just read the first line.

Make a list of the kind of hooks that interest you in a book. Your list may be the same as mine.
1. Attention-getting
2. Exciting
3.Pulls me into the story
4. Straight forward
5. Brief and punchy
6. Rouses curiosity
7. Emotionally charged
8. A declarative sentence

Hooking your reader is not easy, but with a little self-study, you can improve your chances with editors and nail that contract. With your next or current WIP, try writing five opening sentences and ask fellow authors or your critique partners help you select one.

Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas


Virginia C said...

Hey, Celia & Anna Kathryn! I agree, a great first line can hook your interest in reading the rest of the book. I love this first line from “The Cowboy and the Lady” by Diana Palmer:

“They were at a standstill, the tall man and the willowy young blonde, poised like boxers waiting for an opening.”

Calisa Rhose said...

Hi Anna Katherine and Celia. Great first lines!

Here's one I am fond of.
‘WOLF MO…T…V...CAN…IES’. Dim, flickering lights of yet another motel, half the sign letters darkened, winked at Shyen Mills.

Sandy L. Rowland said...

First lines rivet you to a story. At least they get me interested.
I enjoyed yours. I wanted to know more. And isn't that what it's all about?
Here's one:
I don't normally play with dead things, but in your case I'll make an exception.

Another excellent post.

Lynne Marshall said...

Enjoyed the blog, Celia. Great advice!

One thing that confuses me is when an author includes a prologue, do you consider the opening to the prologue or the first chapter to be the first line? What's your opinion?

Celia Yeary said...

Virginia--I love this first line. When you begin looking at first lines of books, you realize there really aren't that many good ones. Still a book sells for other reasons. Buy it's been shown that a good beginning does help--it wouldn't hurt, either!

Celia Yeary said...

Calisa--now, that...is a great opening line.I had to read it twice! Is this one of yours?

Celia Yeary said...

Sandy--if there ever was a creepyu first line...this is it. It really makes me wonder--does the speaker really mean this? Is someone really dead? What is going on??Very good first line, I would say.

Celia Yeary said...

LYNNE--I have that same question, but I don't have the answer.
I include prologues rarely, mainly because editors don't like them--I love them!--and also for the reason you stated. Which is the first line? I'm thinking it would be the first line of the prologue...that's what a reader sees first.

Mackenzie Crowne said...

Excellent points, Celia. I love Sandy's first line.

Mona Risk said...

Great post, Celia, one that should be copied and saved for reference.

To answer Lynne, I would say both the prologue and first chapter should have a terrific hook.

Celia Yeary said...

MAC--I like Sandy's first line, too. It's about as unusual as any I've seen.
Thanks for stopping by-

Celia Yeary said...

Mona--why didn't we think of that? Both the prologue and the first page should have a good beginning.
Good idea.
Oh, and I save almost every post I write in a document file. You never know when you might need something but do not have the time nor the creativity to do so!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi. Celia, thanks for being my guest today. A great subject! First lines and openings are very important. I love the examples.

From two of my favorite books: The scene was all too familiar to the man surveying it. SLIGHTLY MARRIED by Mary Balogh.

"Huntingdon, I do think it would be prudent for you to reconsider this nefarious scheme of yours." TO MARRY AN HEIRESS by Lorriane Heath

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I loved the opening sentence in your first book, Celia. My worst nightmare is the entire opening of my story...I wish it was just the opening sentence. It seems like I finally hit my steam and the rest of the story flows perfectly. YOu gave us some great ideas. Thanks!

marybelle said...

The first line & the first page need to grab me. Otherwise, I will pass on that book. Too many great books to read to waste my time on mediocre.

Morgan Mandel said...

Great post! Yes, the opening hook is so important, and so difficult to do right!

Morgan Mandel

Celia Yeary said...

ANNA--I love Mary Balogh's novels. She's the only Regency author I read. Since it's not my favorite genre, I can't tell you why I read hers--I think I read one once thinking it was something else--and her style completely hooked me.
And that a great first line.

Celia Yeary said...

PAISLEY--It took a long time for me to understand just how important the opening is. Actually, the "opening" can be the first line, the first paragraph, or the first chapter. If nothing has happened by the end of the first chapter, then most readers will not continue. Very important.

Celia Yeary said...

MARYBELLE--I so agree. If I have to struggle through the first page, I see no reason to continue. I have, though, had second thoughts on such an opening, and continued reading anyway. Very few times was I rewarded, though.

Celia Yeary said...

Morgan--you're right. Sometimes, I've rewritten the opening first lines over and over.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Oh, great post, Celia. I really enjoyed this. I am huge on first lines, and hooks. They are so important.I just about always rewrite my opening line. It is sooo important, and what was "gotten away with" in years past would never fly today. Though I have to say, my all time favorite romance, STORMFIRE, does NOT have one of those hugely memorable first lines. How about this one?

"When he was thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

liana laverentz said...

You are an excellent teacher and writer, Celia! Thank you for putting the importance of a good opening into language we can all understand!

Calisa Rhose said...

Celia- that IS one of mine. Thank you for asking! It's the opening line for bk two in my shifter series.

Celia Yeary said...

Cheryl--it doesn't have to be hugely memorable, but interesting enough to draw in the reader. I liked the line you gave here--it's definitely a good beginning! Thanks...teacher.

Celia Yeary said...

LIANA--thank you! I just called Cheryl "Teacher" because she really does teach writing. I've learned some from her. However, I do have "teacher" tatooed across my forehead--it seem so, anyway. But the compliment about being a good writer is very welcome.

Celia Yeary said...

Calisa--well, it is a dang good one!

Cheryl Pierson said...

I wish the line I gave as an example WAS one I'd thought of myself...It belongs to Harper Lee, from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, my favorite book of all time.

Here's one of mine, from Gabriel's Law:

"They were beating him to death."

Caroline Clemmons said...

Celia, Sorry I'm late arriving, but I loved your post.