Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What's Your Hook?

What do the following quotes have in common?

“Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” Dan Brown, Angels and Demons

“Whoosh. That was the sound of another high profile prisoner being sent into eternity.” John Burke, Empress Hunter: 2010

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” Donna Tartt, The Secret History

“I’m what you call an orphan, I guess. Officially, I’m a ward of the state of Texas.” Jenny B. Jones, In Between

“It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet.” Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife

“Outside the village there is a fire ring, blackening the thawing snow.” Elizabeth Kostova, Swan Thieves

“PJ Sugar would never escape trouble.” Susan May Warren, Nothing but Trouble

“I wasn’t surprised when Mama asked me to save her life.” Randy Susan Meyers, The Murderer’s Daughters

“Some people are born with extraordinary abilities.” Michelle Weidenbenner, Willow (working title)

These are the first sentences in each novel.

When I’m at a bookstore—or surfing at—I look through at least ten prospective books and read the first sentence in each one. Why? It’s fun. It’s a game I play. I try to determine the story’s plot, the genre, and whether the lead sentence hooks me. If it does, I study it. Why does it get my attention? How does it set the tone for the entire novel?

Sometimes I can tell by the first sentence if the book is literature—something thought-provoking, or if it’s mind-candy—something that will merely entertain me, and not make me think too hard.

It also tells me something about the writing. I’ve noticed that the more recently published novels have much better hooks than novels with an older copyright date. I often wonder if it’s because more and more publishers are demanding better writing from their authors. I think they are.

In my first novel, Oksana, the first sentences were, “Stealing is common here. It’s survival.” When I entered that book in the Genesis and Frasier contests, one judge valued that sentence as her favorite, while another judge thought it should be eliminated because it was telling and not showing. This clearly illustrates that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Fortunately, God made us all different with different opinions, but one thing that most publishers will probably agree upon is that your first sentence definitely matters.

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t flesh out your hook sentence the first time you sit down to write your book. You may need to write your entire novel before you find it. Sometimes it’s buried in your first chapter, or your last one. In Oksana, author and teen leader Bryan Davis found my hook about three-quarters of the way down my first page during a critique session at the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference.

Is your hook sentence good enough to pass my test? Is it good enough to pass yours? I don’t know, but make it good enough to make your publisher happy and my guess is that it’ll be good enough for the majority of your readers, too.

What’s your hook? Do you have a personal favorite? Please share!


  1. Great reminder, Michelle. And while I understand the important principle of showing and not telling, I think your novel's first line works because the reader HAS to go on.

  2. I love first lines! How about..

    "My conscience must be out of order."
    That line practically requires you to read on to find out what the character has done. Taken from My Name is Russell Fink by Michael Snyder.

    "Nice girl gone bad. That's me"
    A nice girl gone bad in a Christian novel? Oh my! I'm forced to read on. Taken from Kissing Adrien by Siri Mitchell.

    "Ever hear the dead knocking?"
    I'm absolutely forced to read a scary suspense novel even though I'm a member of the Big Honkin' Chicken's Club. Taken from Dark Pursuit by Brandilyn Collins.

    Great post, Michelle!

  3. Thanks, Rachel! Your comments means so much to me. Thanks also for all your help at

  4. I picked up The English Major by Jim Harrison because of the first line:

    "It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn't."