Opening Hooks and other Writerly Tricks

First, we'd better start with the answers to little quiz in last week's post. You remember. The one where I asked you to match up the first line with the title/author. Here goes:

  1. The boys came early to the hanging. PILLARS OF THE EARTH by Ken Follett
  2. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984 by George Orwell
  3. To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor. SILENT IN THE GRAVE by Deanna Raybourn
  4. There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubbs, and he almost deserved it. THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER by C.S. Lewis
Did you get them all? 

If not, no matter. Now I get to tell you why I think they're terrific.

Follett uses the shock of children in conjunction with something as violent as a public hanging to let his readers know that they are not embarking on a safe story. People will die. Some horribly. Some unjustly. If you're looking for a grim adventure in this doorstop of a book, he could not have telegraphed his intent more clearly.

Orwell takes a seemingly ordinary start and stands it on its head. 13 O'clock? Something is clearly amiss here. It sets the stage for his dystopic vision. But Orwell didn't come up with this opener on the first try. It was originally It was a cold day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen. Makes you stumble a bit, doesn't it? Sometimes, simpler is just plain better.

Raybourn delivers a definite tone to introduce Lady Julia Grey, her narrator. We instantly know things about her protagonist. She's precise, elegant and not without a certain dark humor. How can we help but read on?

C.S. Lewis is one of my all time favorites and this is probably his best first line. I laughed out loud the first time I read it. And it emphasizes the importance of choosing our characters' names well. Eustace really is a least at first.

Writers probably angst more over that first sentence than any other part of their manuscript. I've changed my opener for Sunday is for Suspects a dozen times already. And it may change again. I'd welcome your comments and suggestions.

I'd love to hear from you. What favorite first line has stuck with you?