I’ll admit that, like many of my countrymen, I’m hooked on American Idol. How could I not be when the show has all the trappings to suck a viewer in: a few underdogs, beautiful people, loads of conflict (involving the judges, contestants, audience and the host), an ever-evolving saga with a guaranteed happy ending… Last Tuesday night’s show featured guest artist Kenny Rogers, who had a lot of good advice for the singers, including one great chestnut that applies to almost every kind of art: Since you need to hook your audience early, you should focus your energies on those first few notes, otherwise they may not stick around to listen to the rest.
We all know the importance of a good hook, but how often do you stop to appreciate the first few lines of a story? Does the opening of your wip chime crystalline or might it make Simon say humiliating things to you on national television?
Here are some of the first “notes” from some of the most popular fiction out there, taken from a wide variety of genres. I’ll focus only on the first 2-3 lines.
Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn’t change that.
Laurell K. Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures
They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here.
Paradise, Toni Morrison
“Do you think you’re a nymphomaniac?” Bill wants to know. We sit on my counch close enough for him to grab me should I offer the right answer.
A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, Jane Juska
In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person.
Seasbiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand
Zack Freeman woke out of a deep sleep to see his butt perched on the ledge of his bedroom window. It was standing on two pudgy little legs, silhouetted against the moon, its little sticklike arms outstretched in front of it, as if it was about to dive.
The Day my Butt went Psycho, Andy Griffiths
In a draughty passageway below the Dalriadan fortress of Dunadd, two men met in shadow. The place was well away from the eyes and ears of the Gaelic court there, and thus suited to covert exchange. The information to be passed was dangerous; in the wrong hands it could be deadly.
Blade of Fortriu, Juliet Marillier
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
On Plow Monday, all the chickens died. Elayne knew she shouldn’t have tried to substitute a chicken feather for the quill from a magical hoopoe bird.
Shadow Heart, Laura Kinsale
Certain people have said that the world is like a calm pond, and that anytime a person does even the smallest thing, it is as if a stone has dropped into the pond, spreading circles of ripples further and further out, until the entire world has been changed by one tiny action. If this is true, then the book you are reading now is the perfect thing to drop into a pond. The ripples will spread across the surface of the pond and the world will change for the better, with one less dreadful story for people to read and one more secret hidden at the bottom of a pond, where most people never think of looking.
The Penultimate Peril (from A Series of Unfortunate Events), Lemony Snicket
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before.
The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber
A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck on the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air. White and purple summer thunderheads mounded around her. Below, the Yellow Brick Road looped back on itself, like a relaxed noose.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire
I was thirty-three years old when my husband walked out into the field one morning and never came back and I went in one quick leap from wife to widow. I wasn’t the one who found him; that was Sam Gill, who’d come by to ask Mitchell to help him load a horse. He’d fallen off the tractor and under the blades of the mower–my husband, Mitchell, not the horse; I guess we’ll never know how.
The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch, Marsha Moyer
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
It was 7 minutes after minutes. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.
Eragon, Christopher Paolini
The most highborn lady Mick had ever been with–the wife of a sitting member of the House of Lords, as it turned out–told him that the French had a name for what she felt for him, a name that put words to her wanting his “lionhearted virility”–he liked the phrase and remembered it. “‘A yearning for the mud,'” she told him. “That’s what the French call it.”
The Proposition, Judith Ivory
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. He killed a waitress named Alma Frechette in 1970; a woman named Pauline Toothaker and a junior high school student named Cheryl Moody in 1971; a pretty girl named Carol Dunbarger in 1974; a teacher named Etta Ringgold in the fall of 1975; finally, a grade-schooler named Mary Kate Hendrasen in the early winter of that same year. He was not werewolf, vampire, ghoul, or unnameable creature from the enchanted forest or from the snowy wastes; he was only a cop named Frank Dodd with mental and sexual problems.
Cujo, Stephen King
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.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling