the hook

The Hook

  It was a dark and stormy night…   

In the novel The Plague by Albert Camus, a character named Grand works diligently every night for years on what he hopes will be a great novel. When he finally reveals his work to his friends, however, all he has come up with is the opening sentence: “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.” Years of work had produced just this one sentence, yet Grand, still not satisfied, tinkers with it throughout the novel — never progressing beyond this first line.

Of course this is an excessive and absurd example, but it's true that the opening line of anything you write is important and deserves serious attention. Your first words ought to grab the reader by the collar and say, "You want to read this!" The first line is often referred to as the hook because if it’s done well, the reader is hopelessly snagged — compelled to keep reading.

Check out the following strong opening lines from well-known works.

  • I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.[1]
  • Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference; he wasn’t carrion yet.[2]
  • It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.[3]
  • Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.[4]
  • Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unsettling dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.[5]

Don’t these sentences make you hungry for more? Now, lest you believe all good books have great hooks, here are a handful of great works of literature with fairly forgettable opening lines:

  • In 1815, M. Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D----.[6]
  • In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.[7]
  • On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.[8]

Yawn. Somehow, these writers were able to pull off major successes despite these sleep-inducing openers. But remember that these are exceptions to the rule. We recommend investing the time into a catchy first sentence — one that catches the eye, sparks the imagination, or arouses curiosity. And this goes for anything you write, from creative fiction to comparative essays. 

[1] Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis

[2] The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

[3] 1984, George Orwell

[4] One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

[5] “The Metamorphosis” , Franz Kafka

[6] Les Miserable, Victor Hugo

[7] A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

[8] Crime and Punishment, Fyodor, Dostoevksy