Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are you ready to get hooked?

It's time to go fishing for more ideas that will help the aspiring writer and also encourage the author to continue tossing out her line. Guest contributor, Delia Latham has some good stuff to share with us for the next few days that's all about that. Be sure to write in and let her know your thoughts too.

Hook Me!
By Delia Latham

If it had eyes, they’d be watching me. Reproachful. Accusing.

It’s a book, for heaven’s sake—a simple, ordinary, inanimate object without sight or voice. And yet it chides me for neglecting a duty…back pedaling on a promise. I feel its sightless stare each time I’m within five feet of it.

Here’s the weird thing: I love to read. If I pick the book up and read it, it will stop taunting me. So why not just do that, and eliminate all the unpleasantness of avoiding a lifeless object?

The problem is, I did pick it up and start reading. This particular novel didn’t grab my attention from the word “go.” As much as I love to read, that much, at least, is necessary. If a writer doesn’t hook me from the beginning and pull me in so deeply that I can’t put the book down, I will put it down, and I won’t ever pick it back up.

Except…I made a promise to read and review this book. So I have to open it again, and I know it won’t be a pleasure read. “Plowing” is hard work. If I must “plow” through a book, I’ve defeated my purpose in reading, which is pleasure, escape, entertainment and relaxation. I want to lose myself in the story, preferably from the very first sentence, and not have to think about the fact that I’m reading. I want to become a part of that fictional world, and forget the real one exists, at least for the duration of that novel. If the author fails to absorb me into his or her tale that thoroughly, then I am constantly reminded of my existence outside the book, and I will return to it, leaving the fictional world on the shelf.

As writers, we have a duty to capture our readers and allow them to submerge themselves completely in our stories. Anything less, and we have failed them on some level. We held out a tempting carrot and jerked it away when they reached for it. That’s not cool.

We cater to readers, not farmers, so don’t expect them to plow through an entire book. Pull them into your story, and do it from the first paragraph—the first word, whenever possible.

This can be done through dialogue or action. It can be done through narrative, but the author must have a specific “knack” for hooking a reader to accomplish it successfully.

So let’s discuss that. What is a hook?

Look it up in a thesaurus, and you’ll find alternate words like “fasten” and “catch.” Which pretty much says it all. We need to capture a reader’s attention (catch) and hold it in place (fasten). That’s what a hook will do.

I could have started this article with something like, “I know books don’t have eyes, but this one sure seems to be watching me.” But the opening sentence I used hopefully left you wondering what would be watching me if it had eyes. And why would the looks be reproachful and accusing? It’s that curiosity that made you read on. And if you’re still reading, apparently I’ve held your attention—at least this far.

An opening word/sentence/paragraph should:

  • Capture attention
  • Arouse curiosity
  • Activate interest
Let’s use the infamous “bad” opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night” for dissection. Exactly why is this considered a horrible opening?

Think about it. What kind of response do those words invoke in you? I can only speak for myself, but for me, they elicit a big yawn and a, “So what?”

The author could have said the same thing without saying it. (Show, don’t tell.)

Ex. 1: 

No moon. No light. Stygian darkness shrouded the night, broken only by jagged streaks of lightning and angry booms of thunder.

Better? Well, somewhat. You know it was a dark and stormy night, and I didn’t just tell you that. But talking about the weather simply isn’t a great hook. It doesn’t leave the reader thinking, “Oooh, what’s going on?” She isn’t hooked into reading further.

First lines need to give at least some indication of what’s going on in the storyline at that moment—some kind of action, not the setting. Surely we could improve on the above example. Let’s try something else.

Ex. 2:

Camy screamed and fell to her knees. Her arms flew up to shield her head as a bolt of lightning crackled past her ear. A fraction of a second later, a tree burst into flame a hundred yards further down the road. Fire lit up the moonless night, and Camy shuddered. “Way too close for comfort,” she muttered, then hunched her shoulders against the driving rain and plodded on down the road.

Now we’re getting somewhere. The reader should be feeling a bit of concern for Camy, and wondering why she’s on foot in the middle of a storm.

Ex. 3:

“Ai-yi-yi! Too close for comfort!” Camy pulled the hood of her soaked jacket up over her head and peered into the momentarily Stygian darkness of a moonless night. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. Angry bolts of electricity zipped across the sky every minute or two, followed by deep, booming rolls of thunder she felt all the way through her shivering frame. Being on foot in the middle of this storm was like asking to be fried alive.

This is a personal preference, but starting with dialogue works best for me almost every time. It brings the reader immediately into some kind of action. It also introduces a human being into the storyline right away, getting an immediate edge on forming a bond between the character and the reader.

I’m sure you can come up with even better substitutes for “It was a dark and stormy night.” Try it, it’s a great writing exercise.

Better yet, let’s do it here, it’ll be fun! Give us a first line (not necessarily the one I used) that doesn’t work for you, then re-write it. (No need to mention the title or author of the work.)

I’ll be back to check on you, but first, I have some plowing to do….

copyright 2011
Delia Latham

Okay, it's your turn. Come on over. Have a seat, and tell us how will you do it? Let's see those first lines!


  1. I have a a fun line in a proposal that's just about to go out: Is thirteen a lucky number?


  2. That's good, Angie! Definitely not the normal take on that number.

    Who else?

  3. How about a BAD one like this? "The girl yawned. She was tired. She could tell too." LOL
    Now, doesn't that do anything but grab you?

  4. I have one from a ms I just finished:

    I used to think of the bayou as a place of peace until that night on the black water; when the air heated so fast and so furious that the wet steamed right off me.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  5. Here's one from one of my WIPs:

    Kristen was gone. She wasn’t at work; she wasn’t at home. She hadn’t gone out to run an errand. She had simply… vanished.

  6. I've "plowed" through so many bad books I can't tell you. Sigh. But I think the one that starts like this has promise: Well, it was a first... No one had ever offered to sell him an unconscious woman before today. Just his luck, he'd left his wallet at home.

  7. This is one I saw in Linda Lael Miller's Secondhand Bride, and I think it's extremely good.
    "There was no place to run, no place to hide."

    Short, to the point, and yes, it definitely made me want to read on.

  8. Loved your examples, Delia. I'm not offering up any of my own just now, but ...
    We've all plowed. :)Getting hooked is so much better.

  9. ROFL, Shirley! That really grabs me, all right!

    Wow, Raquel! I'm gonna have to grab your book.

    Now that's what I'm talkin' about, Melanie! Make the reader immediately have to know where Kristin is!

    Great start on that one, Dana, you're right.

    Shirley, I like that one too.

    And Tracy...I'm just about to get that book "plowed" through...thank God! lol It terrifies me to think someone might feel the same about any of my books. Lord, deliver me from giving my readers fields to plow! lol

    I'm so glad everyone came by to join in the fun. I apologize for taking so long to get back with you. I'm out of town for a few days, with limited access to the internet. I'll be back to check in again as soon as I can.

  10. "Once a year, my senile aunt tries to kill me." The best opening line I can remember, from Michael Snyder's book "Return Policy". Love it!

  11. My personal favorite of my own first lines is fronm Calico Canyon.

    "The five horsement of the Apocalypse rode in. Late as usual."

    But a strong second favorite is the first line of The Husband Tree.

    "Belle Tanner pitched dirt into the hole and a stab of spitefulness made her toss it right on Anthony’s handsome, worthless face.
    She probably should have wrapped him in a blanket but blankets were hard to come by…unlike husbands."

  12. That is a good one, Pegg!

    Vickie,I like yours too - of course! And the line from The Husband Tree is priceless. LOL

  13. Oh gals, this is fun! I love all those lines! Up here at Estes Park, I'm getting to rub elbows with other writers again. Such a treat. I've had the blessing of reading some work from writers of all ages, including a 15 year old homeschooler's poetry. It was beautiful.

    Thank you for giving me such a fun bunch of first lines to read just when I came back from the evening activities at CCWC. Awesome!

  14. Well, here I am, two years later, reading at least one comment I missed in 2011. LOL So glad Angie cam by! And also noticed that I called Mary Conneally "Vickie." So sorry... Here's why. Her writing style and Vickie McDonough's are so similar. I love both authors, but I sure do apologize for that two-year-old gaffe! :)