You’ve probably heard that nothing is more important in a book than the opening sentence.
So, allow me to ask a simple question:
What exactly is the importance of the first line and even the first page of a book?
Sure, the first line of a book can be a hook for a reader, but it goes deeper than that.
Let us rewind a little.
Imagine yourself in a bookstore, trying to pick your next read. You’ve arrived to look for something very specific. The new book written by Mr. Smith; the newest instalment in the beloved series “Very Famous Book Series”. The book is conveniently laid out on a table for you, right by the entrance.
But you’re already at the bookstore, so why not have a look at what else is new? Maybe you’ll be surprised by what you find. Besides you found the book so quickly, you have time to spare.
So you saunter around the table with your chosen copy of Mr. Smith’s new book, straight to your favourite section of the bookstore.
The shelves are full from top to bottom with spines of many books you know and just as many that you do not know. At least, not yet.
You scan the spines for something new and interesting. A title stands out to you. You pull the book out to see the cover. Not bad, you think. Looks pretty cool. You take the book down from the shelf, look at the cover more attentively and then turn it over to skim the blurb. It sounds like the kind of story you might enjoy too.
Does your journey stop here? Do you now buy the new intriguing book?
I would not. I would be standing there, still in front of the shelf where I had found the potential buy, book in hand, and I would open it. I’d flip through and then I would find the first page and I would read the opening lines. Perhaps even the entire first page to see if it’s something I might enjoy.
If it is, I’d turn the book in hand once more, consider the price and either put it on my list of potential future buys or get it right there and then. My choice between the two will depend on how much I think it will appeal to me. If I found myself engrossed enough in the story to read the entire first page, I’d be likely to buy it straight away. I’d consider myself “hooked”.
So what do we mean when we say “hook”?
I stipulate that’s it’s more than just enticing a potential buyer. Rather a hook serves to make the right kind of reader realise that this is a book that they will enjoy. That it caters to their taste. That they can trust what will come later. It serves to help them decide if they’ll enjoy the read.
I would therefore propose that a first line and a first sentence is more than what we traditionally think of as a hook. It serves as a clear indication of what will come later in the book, or at least it ought to.
I don’t think I’m the only one who has picked up a book with a killer opening line and thought: oh yes, if this is how it continues, it’ll be amazing, and then found that the rest of the book was nothing like the opening indicated that it would be.
I think of opening lines and pages as tools for authors to inform potential readers of what they’ll find between the covers of the book, and therefore a tool for authors to gain a readership who will be highly likely to love their work.
I use my first lines in several ways, namely to show a reader the exact level of violence and gore that will be reached later in the book.
It’s a warning as much as it’s an appetiser.
To the right reader who loves that kind of story it’ll serve as a hook. To a reader who would be repulsed by any violence it serves as a clear warning that this book is not meant for them.
I didn’t always see opening lines this way. Some years ago, I studied Creative Writing. It was during my MA that I started to pen my debut novel, Northern Wrath (The title is another clear indication of what a reader will find inside the book).
One day, I brought my opening chapter into my main writing class. It featured a midsummer party. Drinking and dancing and conversations between main characters. It was a good time.
Then, a few weeks later I bring in a chapter where… let’s just say a lot of people die. A LOT.
My teacher was appalled. ‘This is not appropriate. You can’t write this kind of thing,’ he said. He scolded me for the violence, told me I could never write something like this and it got me really angry.
So angry in fact that the day after class I was still fuming.
I went to see him in his office. I had brought examples of stories I liked with just as much violence. He let me into his office. I was so angry. Puffing I said something like: ‘Why can’t I have the violence? Is it because I’m a girl? It’s not worse than any of these examples.’
‘Remind me what your opening chapter is,’ he said, annoyingly calm.
I told him about the midsummer party where we meet our main characters.
‘What kind of promise do you think that gives the reader?’ he asked. ‘That it’s going to be a breeze. It’ll be as content of a ride as a midsummer party. The characters we see talk here will argue, maybe fight, but what your chapter was the other day…’
‘I reader won’t expect them to die like that,’ I realised on my own.
‘An opening chapter is a promise to the reader,’ said my teacher.
I was still angry as I left his office, but this time it was because I acknowledged that he was right.
So, I set out to write a new first chapter. I had many false starts. How was I supposed to lay the foundation for all the violence that would come without spoiling anything?
Christmas eve, Yule rather, it finally struck me. I recused myself from the family gathering and brought out my laptop, because I finally had it. The new opening which would make the contents of my story absolutely clear.
On that Yule day I wrote a new opening chapter and this was my first line:
“Death, pain and fear.”
With those words the Darkness chapters were born. Chapters I had not planned upon, but that significantly carried the overall tone of the series. The chapters were short, snappy and very violent.
If this new opening chapter didn’t let my professor know exactly what I was writing, and where the story was heading then nothing would, I told myself.
The classroom went quiet when my new opening chapter was shared aloud. ‘It’s very violent,’ said my professor who had told me to tone it down and get rid of the blood. ‘Very effective.’
I never had any complaint about unexpected violence in anything I submitted after that. The overall tone of what I was writing had been made clear to everyone by the introduction of my new opening. My professor had been right.
At the end of that school year, I finished writing the first volume in the Hanged God Trilogy. I edited it and realised that the Darkness chapters would have to be moved back a little. I needed a new opening chapter. I wrote one, without thinking too hard about it. I had become a better writer, I told myself. It would be easy.
The new opening chapter followed a smith called Sigismund examining an Ulfberht blade. I thought it was pretty good. It introduced a character who would become increasingly more important and it introduced us to a kind of blade which would play a big role too and there was even a little magic, but looking back now, it was a terrible opening chapter for my book. It did not in any way prepare readers for what was to come. Perhaps it set up some details and characters, but it did nothing to prepare readers for the death and grief ahead.
I realised this quite late, when an agent who was interested in my book told me that the opening chapter wasn’t quite there, although he liked the rest of the sample I had sent.
Luckily, the agent offered to give me a second chance. If I sent him a new opening chapter, he would reconsider, so I set off to write one.
Immediately I thought of “Death, pain and fear” which had worked so well for me last time I had been presented with this problem. But I couldn’t move any of the Darkness chapters forward. It would confuse the timeline and there were enough POV characters in this book that I didn’t want to cause more confusion.
I needed to write something new. Something which would effectively set the tone. Which is how the first line of Northern Wrath was born.
“Blood dripped from Einer’s fingertips onto the crisp snow.”
We start with blood and we start in the cold. The following paragraphs go further into the gore:
“The sound brought him back to his senses. His sleeves were bloody, his entire coat was, and his trousers too. The left side of his ribs stung. His coat was torn there. The wool flayed in long strips. Einer pressed a hand against his ribs. Fresh blood warmed his fingers.”
The agent who had offered me a second chance told me that the opening was much better but that ultimately, he would not sign with me as the story wasn’t quite what he was looking for. I was of course gutted, I had already seen us skipping through the field together, holding my book, but at least I was confident in my new opening chapter as I began to seriously query agents.
The experiences of changing opening chapters made the realise just how important opening lines are. So when later I set to work on the sequel, I made certain that I approached it the same way. That my first paragraphs would lay bare the violence of the story and prepare readers for what was to come.
And as such begins the sequel, Shackled Fates:
“Einer’s breaths were heavy. His left eye was swollen and beaten; most of him was. Blood trickled down his forearms, over his hands, ran the length of his two swords and dripped onto the snow. His northern wrath had left him.”
Not only did this opening clearly indicate the violence that is to be found later in the book, it also recalls the opening lines of the first book in an attempt to bring readers right back into the story no matter how long has passed since they read the first instalment.
I now do this with the opening lines of everything I write. I set the tone and the level of violence to be expected.
Here’s what I set out for my opening lines do:
1. Entice the kind of reader who is likely to enjoy my story
2. Warn readers who will most definitely not enjoy it
3. Become a promise to readers of what they will find later in the book
For any writers out there, I recommend that when you look at your opening line, paragraph and chapter, you think very carefully about what kind of story an unsuspecting reader might expect from such a beginning and ensure that it matches your book.
This blog post was inspired by responses to a Twitter thread by Kaitlin Felix, that you can find here:
Read more: How to write realistic characters