Thursday, February 2, 2012

Opening Hook

What do you look for when you choose a book to read?

At a writer’s conference a while back, my friends and I sat down to go through the free bag of books we each received —all different. We read opening lines/paragraphs out loud to see what grabbed us, looking for that great hook that would entice us to read that book first.

First lines/paragraphs are all some people look at when choosing a book. I decided to give you a few today to see what grabs you. You may want to go back and re-write the opening lines of your own novel after this.

(Titles and authors are listed at the end—but first see if you can guess the authors, or match them up to names at the bottom before looking at the final answers) Most are mystery writers but not all.

1.         Nathan Rubin died because he got brave. Not the sustained kind of thing that wins you a medal in a war, but the split-second kind of blurting outrage that gets you killed on the street.
            He left home early, as he always did, six days a week, fifty weeks a year. A cautious breakfast, appropriate to a short round man aiming to stay in shape through his forties. A long walk down the carpeted corridors of a lakeside house appropriate to a man who earned a thousand dollars on each of those three hundred days he worked. A thumb on the button of the garage-door opener and a twist of the wrist to start the silent engine of his expensive imported sedan. A CD into the player, a backward sweep into his gravel driveway, a dab on the brake, a snick of the selector, a nudge on the gas, and the last short drive of his life was under way. Six forty-nine in the morning, Monday.

2.         The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered this when she was nine years old. At ten o’clock on a morning in early June she was sitting in the back seat of her mother’s Dodge Caravan, wearing her blue Red Sox batting practice jersey (the one with 36 GORDON on the back) and playing with Mona, her doll. At ten thirty she was lost in the woods. By eleven she was trying not to be terrified, trying not to let herself think, This is serious, this is very serious. Trying not to think that sometime when people got lost in the woods they got seriously hurt. Sometimes they died.
            All because I needed to pee, she thought . . .   

3.         My worst dreams have always contained images of brown water and fields of elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades. The dreams are in color but they contain no sound, not of drowned voices in the river or the explosions under the hooches in the village we burned or the thropping of the Jolly Green and the gunships coming low and flat across the canopy, like insects pasted against a molten sun.

4.         Everybody lies.
            Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
            A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the box and agree to be lied to.
            The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patient. To wait. Not for just any lie. But for the one you can grab on to and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that blade to rip the case open and spill its guts out on the floor.
            That’s my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where everybody lies.

5.         The secret is how to die.
            Since the beginning of time, the secret had always been how to die.
            The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms. The skull was hollow, like a bowl, filled with bloodred wine.
            Drink it, he told himself. You have nothing to fear.

Hint: here are the authors out of order, can you match them up? 
Stephen King
Lee Child
Dan Brown
James Lee Burke
Michael Connelly

Okay, here are the answers:
  1. Lee Child – Die Trying
  2. Stephen King – The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
  3. James Lee Burke – The Tin Roof Blowdown
  4. Michael Connelly – The Brass Verdict
  5. Dan Brown – The Lost Symbol 
How did you do?
Did this give you any ideas on how to improve your own work?
What do you look for when you choose a book to read?

tags: mystery, horror, thriller, writing, reading 


Linda Maye Adams said...

The cover or the title is what will get me to look at the book at all. After that, then I look at the back of the book to see what it's about. I often make a decision to buy or not from that. If I'm on the fence, then I look at the inside.

Cora said...

You're right, covers are the first draw, and if it's the type of book you want to read, but blurb hype on the back will only go so far. If I open the book and it doesn't grab me, I put it down. There are so many books now, and I only have time for the well written ones that keep my interest. (I confess if the first words grab me, I also open the book at random to make sure the writing is good all the way through.)
Thanks so much for your comments.

Annalise Green said...

Oh man, these are some great opening paragraphs! They grab you by forcing you to ask questions about the characters and situations. I definitely use the first paragraph to judge if I want a book or not. If the writer knows what they're doing, then they should be able to grab my attention. If they can't do that, then it makes me wonder if they'll be able to do it later on in the book.

Cora said...