Sarah Mason had always thought that when Death finally came calling for her, he would be better-looking.
That’s the first line of Karen Robards’ 2006 novel, Vanished. And if you would put down a book that opens like that, there is nothing I can do for you.
Here’s the thing: as a reader (and now as an agent), I’m willing to overlook some flaws in a novel if the beginning shows a lot of promise. But if the beginning doesn’t hook me . . . (cue Jaws soundtrack).
I know you’ve heard that before. And I can hear you tearing your hair out and screaming, but what does it meeeeeeean????
When we talk about openings and hooks, we often tend to focus on high concept ideas: a Connecticut Yankee gets plopped down into King Arthur’s court and high-jinks ensue. A high school kid has to get back to the future. Those kinds of hooks can indeed get a reader to turn the page (or a movie-goer to keep watching the screen). But not every novel has one and not every novel should. How then do you hook the reader?
We often say, by giving the reader a reason to care. (And yes, I can still hear you screaming, but what does it meeeeeeean???)
There are all sorts of possibilities we could sort through, many having to do with making the reader identify with the protagonist, and so on, but here’s what you really need to do: Show the reader the conflict that’s about to happen — and show it from the very first page. Even from the very first sentence. If you can’t guess the core of the conflict in Vanished from the sentence I quoted above, you’re just not trying hard enough.
I’m not saying dump your protagonist in the middle of Afghanistan and start shooting at him, although that’s not necessarily bad or wrong. I’m just saying if I don’t see a hint of conflict on the first page, I’m probably not turning to the second. Not even if I really like your protagonist and your prose is really excellent.
What are some of your favorite first lines and why?