Thursday, April 19, 2012


by Lois Winston

I’m currently teaching an adult school course on “Writing the Publishable Novel.” One of the topics we covered the other night was opening hooks. I’m a firm believer in dynamic openings. I believe the first sentence of a book should make the reader want to keep reading. The hook doesn’t have to be defined in that first sentence, but that first sentence should lead into the next and the next until you have a paragraph that becomes a hook that grabs and won’t let go.

Your first paragraph should do for the first page what your first sentence did for your first paragraph, and the first page should do for the subsequent pages what the first paragraph did for the first page.

Openings should be filled with interesting action and/or dialogue that intrigues the reader and makes her want to continue reading, not filled with paragraph after paragraph of back-story and/or description.

A good book will often begin by throwing the reader right into the middle of a conversation or event. Dynamic openings avoid head-to-toe descriptions of the characters, movie camera eye-view narratives of the setting, and AccuWeather reports.

One of my favorite opening lines is from Kiss an Angel, an early romance by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

“Daisy Devreaux had forgotten her bridegroom’s name.”

How can you not be intrigued by that opening? Doesn’t it make you want to read further?

Here are some other favorites, from both classic literature and contemporary novels. All are quite different, but the one thing they all have in common is that they contain bits of information that pique reader curiosity. What you don’t see is all sorts of needless prose, just enough information to ground the characters in a hear-and-now and give a hint of things to come.

See if you recognize the books attached to these openings:

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

“Until she was twenty-six, Jody Linder felt suspicious of happiness.”

“July 1st. The most dangerous day of the year.”

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

“All children except one grow up.”

“Between the parishes of Shepfold and Martlake in Somerset existed an area of no-man’s-land and a lot of ill feeling.”

“I hate whiners. Always have. So I was doing my damnedest not to become one in spite of the lollapalooza of a quadruple whammy that had broadsided me last week.”

“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself -- not just sometimes, but always.”

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me -- not forever, but periodically.”

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series. The first book, Assault With A Deadly Glue Gun, was a January 2011 release and received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Death by Killer Mop Doll was released this past January. Visit Lois at and Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog,


Charmaine Clancy said...

Some very good examples there.

Wagging Tales

Robin Allen said...

Thank you for telling writers that they have to back up their first sentence with a good paragraph, page, and book!

Hmmm...I don't recognize most of those opening lines. One that sticks in my memory is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

Jeffrey said...

My favorite would have to be “Until she was twenty-six, Jody Linder felt suspicious of happiness.” It provokes so many questions that you would need to find out more about Jody. That's what a good opening line does.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Great examples, Lois and so is your statement to back up every sentence afterward.

Shannon Baker said...

I'm in high anxiety over the opening of my current WIP. Damn. I wish I had what these writers have! Thanks for the inspiration.

jenny milchman said...

I love the subject of openings, and the lines you collected, Lois. One of my favorite books on craft is HOOKED, all about the inciting incident, by Les Edgerton.

Jill Archer said...

Fun post, Lois! I recognize Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun. :-) I know the Joe Morelli quote is from a Stephanie Plum novel, but I don't know which one.

Lois Winston said...

Thanks for playing, everyone! I'll post the titles at the end of the day.

Shannon, I can't start writing until I've come up with that first line. Once I have that, the opening scene flows for me, but I will sometimes ponder for days until I find that perfect opening.

Unknown said...

Oh, you tease - great hook to get us back here later. I know some but not all of them. My favorite opening line is not from a mystery, but from Karen Blixen's Out of Africa: "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills." Not so dramatic, but a frame for the entire story. Thanks Lois - I never tire of great openings.

Larissa Reinhart said...

Great post. I loved Kiss An Angel, that was a great line!

Camille Minichino said...

Great choices, Lois. I like this one, too:
"It is a relatively little-known fact that, over the course of a single year, about twenty million letters are delivered to the dead." From The Girl With No Shadow, by Joanne Harris

Lois Winston said...

Thank you all for stopping by today and playing along. As promised, here are the titles to the opening line quotes:

1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
2. The Scent of Rain and Lightning, Nancy Pickard
3. Lifelines, CJ Lyons
4. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
5. Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
6. A Murderous Procession, Ariana Franklin
7. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, Lois Winston
8. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
9. One for the Money, Janet Evanovich
10. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
11. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
12. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

Mia Marlowe said...

I really love the opener to VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER by CS Lewis--"There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it."

Joanne Guidoccio said...

Thanks for sharing all these intriguing openers.

jeff7salter said...

I only recogonized # 4 & # 5.
And even though I read your book, I didn't remember it's opening line (# 7). Sorry.

Carla Swafford said...

Great first lines.

It tickles me that you picked one of SEP's. Love that book. She has some great first lines (along with books). My favorite is "Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father's funeral." What a visual! Of course, from SEP's IT HAD TO BE YOU.

Anonymous said...

Just hadda post my fave first line.

"I wished Giovanni would kiss me."