The Happy Hooker    

No, this is not an article about ways to supplement your income.  The hooking we’re talking about here is engaging your reader in your story. I once heard an ex-editor claim he would judge a submission by the first line he read.  If it caught his interest, he kept reading.  If it didn’t, he wouldn’t even look at line two. Scary, huh?

Hopefully most agents and editors don’t follow that philosophy, but I had dinner with an editor once who had been requesting full manuscripts from all the pitch sessions at a conference I was attending.  When I commented on how busy she was going to be, she said, “You don’t really think we read all of those, do you?” She did say she’d read at least a couple of pages, but I got the distinct impression, that was all she’d give the manuscript unless it knocked her socks off quickly. So how is a writer supposed to do that?

As with everything else in writing, it can’t be done by accident.  The most important words you will write in your entire manuscript are the ones found on page one and not just because that will hook the editor. Studies have shown that most readers use the same criteria when shopping for a book in the store.  If they don’t know the author, they read the blurb, and then page one.  If they turn to page two, they will buy the book. 

The first line is so important, that I have an entire file in my computer that is nothing but first lines. When one pops into my head, I write it down so I won’t forget.  I’m not sure what story they’re going to end up in, but they’re ready for me in a pinch. As a matter of fact, I often write my first scene so that a particular first line will make sense there. While there is no set one way to guarantee anything in this business, there are some techniques that if done well, can increase the chances of grabbing that reader.

Start in the middle of a scene.

Most published authors will agree that starting with action is a good way to hook your reader.  Starting with a trip to somewhere, or the alarm clock going off is almost a guarantee that your reader is going to yawn and put down the book before getting to page two. As a contest judge, I’ve seen many entries that would have been much better if the author had cut off the first 5 or 10 pages of their manuscript and started the story with an actual story.  Your reader doesn’t need to start the day with an alarm going off.  After that, the only thing you can do is have the character eat and brush their teeth….yawn.

No back story

Back story is a term used to refer to what happened before the story started.  In other words, it’s filling in the past for the reader.  Sometimes, the reader needs to know some history in order to make sense of the plot, but that should never be in the first few pages and when it is introduced, it should be in little snippets not in big chunks. A story should move forward, not backward and talking about the past is going in the wrong direction.

Start with humor

If the story is humorous, starting with a funny line is a good hook.  If the story is not humorous, then starting with humor is a big lie for your reader and your reader will get ticked with you for misleading her.  As a rule of thumb, your first line should reflect the tone of your story.  If it’s a suspense novel, then the first line should be suspenseful and so forth.

Start with dialogue

This technique works because it’s almost impossible to start with dialogue if you aren’t in the middle of a scene.  Starting a book with something like, “If I wanted you to know, I would tell you” immediately gets the reader’s attention.  She will want to know who is speaking, who is listening and basically what’s going on.  Which brings us to the next technique.


Curiosity is a great way to keep a reader reading. Most readers will keep reading if they are curious as to what is happening. This can be done with dialogue or the judicious use of words.  For instance, say you picked up a book and the first words were:
            Deep, searing, unrelenting pain.

Now, wouldn’t you be curious?
Starting in a deep Point of View

Beginning a story deep inside a character’s head immediately makes your reader connect with the character, thus the story.  Suspense novels will often start inside the head of a serial killer or stalker, just so the reader knows this antagonist is a worthy opponent for the hero/heroine.

Starting in the POV of the hero or heroine will give your reader a reason to root for the character.  Many authors swear by starting in the POV of the heroine, though I often start in my hero’s head.  To me, a strong hero is the difference between a good romance and a mediocre one.  As a reader, I fall in love with the guy, not the girl.


A catchy first line might combine several of the techniques listed above.  Let’s look at some examples of mine that combine deep POV with humor and curiosity:

He’d always known he’d end up in Hell, but for some reason he’d expected much better company.
            --THE DAKOTA KID
To the good folk of the world, God gave a conscious. To everyone else, evidently, he gave a gun.
            --TEXAS HOLD HIM

Emma Marie Murdock had no idea that hiring a man to take her virginity was going to be such a bother.
            --AN EARL FOR EMMA

Grandma Cole was as good at dying as anyone Katie Napier knew.
            --A MIDWIFE CRISIS

In case you didn’t notice, I love to go into the POV character of the first scene and give them a chance to start the story with an editorial comment. Another fun technique is to take a well known saying and play with it.  For example, we’ve all  heard that love is blind, right? Playing with that saying gave me this line:

Whoever said love was blind must have overlooked a few other senses, starting with the sense God gave a goose and ending with the sense to come in out of the rain.
            --THE REDEMPTION OF BRODIE GRANT , Berkley anthology, 2010

Hopefully, this article has given you some things to think about.  Pull out some of your favorite stories and study that first page, keep in mind, however, that well known authors can get by with more that beginners can.  Their readers will tolerate a slow beginning because they know the story will pick up.  A new author will not be given as much leeway.   The next thing you need to do is look at your own story.  Read the first line separately and see if it would hook a reader’s interest.  If not, don’t just sit there, you have work to do.



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