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Crafting the Hook

Crafting the Hook: Why Your Novel’s First Line is Crucial

Crafting the Hook

Some call it a hook, others call it an opener—I call it the most important sentence in your story. Every time I edit a book, I look most closely at the first sentence.

Here’s why.

Imagine yourself as a reader. You begin reading a novel with only a cover, title, and blurb as your entry points into this world. In a certain sense, you’re actually entering blind—you have no real idea what strange vistas you’re stepping into. Until you read that first line, you’re floating in a colorless, formless void. With that first line, you could be thrown into the middle of the desert, as in Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, or you could start deep inside the mind of a teenager, as in Catcher in the Rye.

The narrator might be omniscient, watching from a mile up, or they might place us deep inside a character’s head. The writing itself could be staccato and violent. Or it could be soft and jewel-like and gorgeous.

Take, for instance, this classic:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

We all know this line, even if we don’t know what it’s from. It’s so good, it has persisted for a hundred and sixty-five years.

(For those of you wondering, this is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.)

As soon as I read that line, I feel transported. The voice carries gravity and a certain poeticism that’s unignorable. It makes me intensely curious what the next sentence will be.

For readers, this is part of the joy of entering a new story. Unless you’re a neurosurgeon or a legit psychic, this is as close as you’ll get to entering the mind of another person—what Stephen King calls “an act of telepathy.” When you’re inside the head of a writer, you have no idea what landscapes they’ll guide you through, or how.

That’s why the first sentence is so crucial. It’s where the world begins to take shape. Readers are seeking grounding, and great writers know this fact. It’s part of a writer’s calculus when thinking about how a story should open.

So let’s dive into the four parts of a strong opener.

The four elements of a great first sentence

One of my favorite first sentences comes from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune:

“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”

I love this sentence; it sucks me straight into a pre-existing, anxious, tumultuous world where crones come visiting for mysterious purposes.

Why does this opener work so well? It has all the elements I look for.

Narrative voice

In a good first line, readers are looking for a way to orient themselves to this world. Where are we, and who are we with? Who’s our narrator?

Right away, we have a sense for the narration in Dune’s opening line. We’re with what feels like an omniscient narrator, who has distance from the characters involved: ”an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.” This narrator clearly isn’t any of these three characters who have been mentioned—this person/god/entity hovers somewhere outside, watching. This feels like a classic omniscient voice.


The idea of grounding refers to readers’ desire to know where we are, to gain some footing in the story’s world. (Remember the colorless, formless void?)

Dune’s first line places us in some sort of household—this is suggested by the formality of the phrase “their departure to Arrakis,” and the idea of “scurrying about” and a “nearly unbearable frenzy.” All together, we begin to question whether this is some sort of royal home. It’s enough initial sense of place to take us from nowhere to somewhere.


A good first line raises good questions. After reading the first line of Dune I’m left with several good questions: Why are these people departing to Arrakis? What is Arrakis? Why is everyone scurrying about? And the biggest question of all: Why is an old crone visiting a boy?

You may be wondering what “bad” questions are. A bad question is one that pulls us out of the story and reminds us that we’re reading. Questions like: What’s the writer saying here? I’m confused—how did we get from place X to place Y?

Good questions are what keep readers reading. The only way those questions can be answered is by reading on. The best first lines raise questions in the reader’s mind, as Dune’s does so expertly.


Last, tension is the fuel of fiction. Many novels utilize tension in their first line, and Dune’s does this well: there’s a sense of tension in the idea of departing, of people scurrying about, of the specific, suggestive phrase “old crone.” There’s a real sense of movement and anxiety in that first line, and anxiety itself is tension.

But not all first sentences have all four elements!

Of course, all of these elements don’t have to be present for a first line to be great. In some cases, only one element is present (see “Call me Ishmael,” the first line of Moby Dick, as an example of only one element—narrative voice—being included in the first line).

But one thing is universal: great first lines are intriguing. They raise questions and usually create tension.

Here are some first lines from massively popular books. When you read them, think about how many of those important elements each one includes, and how they’re handled:

  • “Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice)
  • “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

As you could probably tell, each of these great first lines uses the elements of grounding, narrative voice, and questions/tension in different ways.

The opening of Pride and Prejudice offers little in the way of grounding, but it does raise good questions, create tension, and it makes me smile. (Making readers smile or laugh is a bonus element when it comes to keeping them reading!)

On the other hand, the first line of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gives you a strong sense of narrative voice, of grounding (we’re flying through the cosmos, zooming in on a sun), and raises questions and even creates tension.

Putting it all together

Why are great writers able to execute on these elements in such different, delightful ways? Because they’re great. One of the joys of mastering the craft is the knowledge that there are no rules, not really.

For example, “show, don’t tell” is a simple way of bringing novice writers around to the idea of inhabiting scene more often. But so many great writers show and tell, and some even spend most of their time telling. Books with lots of telling can be amazing—it’s all in the execution.

Let me repeat: it’s all in the execution.

This is why I’ve dissected the parts of a great first line. So that anyone who reads this will become aware—or perhaps be reminded—of what excellent writers are often thinking about as they start writing a story. (For experienced writers this is probably subconscious because they’ve absorbed the practice into their marrow.)

At first, as with any art, we think about the component parts of what we’re creating and how we can put them together. Later, we do so seamlessly.

The more you practice with the elements of a great first sentence, the more effortlessly you’ll be able to use them to create unforgettable first lines.



About the author: Shavonne Clarke is an urban fantasy author of eighteen novels (as S.W. Clarke) and a fiction editor. She’s the founder of Motif Edits, which provides editing services for indie writers. You can contact her at

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2 comments on “Crafting the Hook: Why Your Novel’s First Line is Crucial
  1. This is such a good breakdown of what makes a compelling first line! Thanks for this thorough and excellent overview. It’s super valuable and helps to demystify a crucial (and often intimidating) aspect of any book.

  2. Great info. I always strive to open with a sentence that makes you want to keep reading. Here are two of my opening sentences from two books: Senator Helen Delany’s heart pounded in her head like a sadistic woodpecker repeatedly ramming his beak into a Maplewood tree trunk. Here is the other opening sentence: Paul Clark blinked several times as consciousness slowly reclaimed him.

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