About Once Upon a Word: We're a large group of multi-talented authors working together, to bring you the best romances.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Opening Hooks by Celia Yeary @RebeccaJVickery @celiayeary


"It was a dark and stormy night…" No, no, never begin a story with the weather. The reader will skip ahead and look for action or characters, or heaven forbid, close the book.The nineteenth-century Gothic novels opened with long brooding descriptions of the weather, or a monologue recounting the entire genealogy of the family in the story, enough to make one's eyes glaze over.

Okay, let's see. "I was falling, falling…and then I woke up." Nope, I remember, now, NEVER open a book with a dream--or an alarm clock or phone ringing. 

What about something really funny? For example, "Nearing the table with a tray of filled tea glasses, her foot slipped on spilled gravy…." Uh, oh. That's on the list of no-no's, too. 

Such a list exists, in fact. The admonitions may vary slightly, but editors are programmed to stop reading a submission after the first sentence or first paragraph if she/he sees these red flags. This means if the editor stops reading, so will a reader. 

In today's world, the reader wants and deserves action, the inciting incident, the reason for the story, and he wants it right away. In some manner, the opening sentence or first paragraph or first chapter must give the reader what he wants--"What is this novel about?" 

Grabbing the attention of an editor you'd like to impress or a reader you'd like to keep is an art form all its own. Books galore sit on shelves or can be found on-line that help the budding author or the experienced one who wants a refresher course learn a bit more about a good beginning.

I won an on-line contest once featuring First Lines. This is the First Line I submitted from one of my Western Romances:
If I'd known running away would be this hot and dirty, she fumed, I'd have stayed home.

Here are the beginning lines from six different novels I have long loved.

1. The truth had long been settling on Jonathan Gray, sneaking into his resisting corners, but it had finally resounded in the deepest part of him. (The Fulfillment: LaVyrle Spencer)

2.  He'd known all day something was about to go down, something life-changing and entirely new. ( Montana Creeds: Dylan: Linda Lael Miller)

3.  Sister Bernadette Ignatius and Tom Kelly sat in the back seat of a black cab, driving from Dublin's airport through the city. (What Matters Most: Luanne Rice)

4. It was well known around Russellville, Alabama, that Tommy Lee Gentry drove like a rebellious teenager, drank like a parolee fresh out, and whored like a lumberjack at the first spring thaw. (The Hellion: LaVyrle Spencer)

5. When Ella Brown woke up that morning, she didn't expect it to be a momentous day. (Rainwater: Sandra Brown)

6. A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods and out over the sage. (Riders of the Purple Sage: Zane Grey)

These opening lines come from Best-Selling authors. Do we need to pay closer attention to the novels we read? Go to a bookstore, find a shelf of best-sellers in romance, and open several to study the first page. Just read the first line.Make a list of the kind of “hooks” that interest you in a book. Your list may be the same as mine.

1. Attention-getting
2. Exciting
3. Pulls me into the story
4. Straight forward
5. Brief and punchy
6. Rouses curiosity
7. Emotionally charged
8. A declarative sentence

Hooking your reader is not easy, but with a little self-study, you can improve your chances with editors and with a reader. With your next or current WIP, try writing five opening sentences and ask fellow authors or your critique partners help you select one. You might consult a good friend, too, one you know will give you an honest answer.
Happy Writing!

Celia Yeary-Romance…and a little bit of Texas
The Camerons of Texas:
Texas Blue: Book I
Texas Promise: Book II
Texas True: Book III
Texas Dreamer-a spinoff


  1. Wonderful lesson! When I'm asked to critique stories written by people still learning the craft of writing, my most common suggestion is to get rid of the the first few paragraph or even chapter and begin the story where something starts happening.

    1. Gerald--Yes, this is the very first Rule To Follow. It was my biggest fault when I began writing. I loved to describe what the reader would learn in the book. Best advice every--Show...Don't Tell. It was a hard lesson for me.
      However, I love Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing, and # 10 is cut out the "Hooptedoodle," those passages that make a reader's eyes glaze over. But he adds, when he reads John Steinbeck, he reads every word of the Hooptedoodle. Thanks for mentioning this.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I agree, one should set the conflict up within the story as soon as possible. One thing to avoid, though, is making the reader feel like he walked into the middle of a bar fight and doesn't have a clue what is going on until much later in the chapter or story. I have quit reading a couple of books within the first chapter because of this. Having no idea of what the action was about and having no stake in it myself, I couldn't bring myself to wade through more chapters in order to orient myself within the story. Then there are the exceptions, like "Lonesome Dove," which had so little action or conflict in the beginning, the only reason I managed to delve deep enough into it to finish is because I wanted to finally see why it was such a critically successful novel. How do these type of novels manage to keep readers reading? Something besides action and conflict must resonate with readers. If only we could all duplicate that.

    1. JD, I think I'm the only person in the world who is not a LONESOME DOVE fan. Or a McMurtry fan, in general. I felt the same way you describe when I began reading Lonesome Dove, and...well, when I finished, I still didn't see what all the fuss was about. I had a lot of issues with that story. But I suppose 99% of the other people in the world DIDN'T. LOL

  4. You are so right. And I, too, have closed books that make me feel as though I've walked into an on-going conversation. Why did readers love the book Lonesome Dove? Because Larry McMurtry wrote it, of course.
    Then Bill Whitliff took it and wrote the screenplay for the tv series, making it very popular. And the Bill Whitliff gallery on the 7th floor of the huge library of Texas State U. in San Marcos holds "everything" Lonesome Dove..including the very thick binder with Mr. Whitliff's rendition of LD for tv.
    How to be famous...In odd and assorted ways.
    Thanks for your comment--it was very informative.

  5. Please forgive me for I have sinned--more than once, and in just about every way possible. There is no wrong beginning I haven't done at one time or another. It seems I have to learn everything the hard way.
    I have learned the first line ought to be action--like dialogue that sets a defining moment in the story or an unusual action that grabs a reader's attention right off the bat. I've already tried all the boring things.
    One more thing I learned (and have done, sorry to say), is to start off with a prologue. Best just to call that chapter one and give chapter two a date. I have to say, as a reader, I am put off when I see the word "prologue". It screams "here comes the boring flashback that never ends." And, of course, I've done it a few times myself probably just to prove to myself that it's a bad way to start a book.
    This was a great blog, Celia. I sure wish I could have read it about 20 years ago and saved myself a bunch of painful rejections and regret.

    1. Well, there you go again--sinning all over the place.
      Uh-oh--I think I've been hanging out with Outlaw Kathleen Rice Adams too much.
      Your sins mirror mine, for sure. I had only written science research papers--remember, "topic sentence" then expand on that? Sort of how I wrote my first fiction manuscripts. One editor said, You have a good plot but it reads like a textbook. Yes, it did. Learning to write with emotion was a steep learning curve.
      Prologues--we should talk about those one day. I, too do not like a prologue in a novel, but I have added them to mine anyway. So far, I ended up with only one story with a prologue, and it's as long as a chapter. The ms is hidden away in my files, pulled from Whiskey Creek Press, and I probably won't re-release it. It I do...I'll make the prologue as Chapter One, as you suggested. If..
      So, on to bigger and better things, Sarah. Let's make 2016 a BIG year.

  6. Great post, Celia! Action is the best, or dialogue, in most cases--but I know there are exceptions. I have ALWAYS loved that first line from you ALL MY HOPES AND DREAMS, when Cynthia is thinking about the pros and cons of running away. LOL I remember "back in the day" when prologues were HUGE-so lengthy and tedious! I think that's where the idea of no prologues came along. People skipped them not because they were a prologue, but because they were so long, it was like reading another mini-book before you could get to the meat of the story itself. If I include any kind of prologue in my stories, or READ a prologue in another author's work, it better be short and sweet. LOL As always, a very good post and one we can learn from.

    1. AMHD was the second book I actually wrote, but the first that got published. I took the first three chapters of AMHD and the first three chapter of Texas Blue--actually the first I wrote, and gave them to one my writing group members. I asked her...which is best to be my first submission.She chose TB, said AMHD was a little trival and silly...but I knew it was a good story. I went against her and submitted it to TWRP. Got a contract right away.
      And you know the rest of the story.
      Prologues are hard to resist, though. If there's a back story, I do have a strong urge to tell about it in a prologue...yet in my heart and mind I know this is not right. I should allow the reader to learn the back story a bit at a time throughout the story.
      I'm such a slow learner, sometimes. But when I do "get" something, I stick with it.
      Thanks for your comment, Cheryl, which is always like a mini-post in itself. I always learn just a little more.

  7. Loved this post, Celia! Great pointers. Those first few sentences are critical. If you lose the reader there, it's all over.

    Wish I knew all this way back when, too. :)

    1. Thanks, Karen--I'm glad you approve! Don't we all wish we could have "do-overs."

  8. Great blog and great advice, Celia. I try to stress the first sentence and the first page with my editing clients. New writers are sometimes so married to their words that they don't want to change them, but now I can point them to this very informative blog. We all learn eventually. :)

    1. And I was one of those guilty first writers. I had no clue what I was doing, except I am educated and knew enough grammar and punctuations rules. It was that Show-Don't-Tell business that took longer to learn.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Late again. At least, I can't be labeled as "No-show Linda" since I eventually do comment. Great blog and I'm guilty as charged. I do have one short story that begins with a line I'm proud to share. "Katey Hammond went into the attic over the garage, and there beside the black market sugar sacks, bent over a and put the shotgun barrel into her mouth and blew her brains out." And the title was "Waiting for Puberty."

  10. Awesome post, Celia! I loved Rainwater and all of Spencer's books. You chose great opening lines and this is a good reminder before I start writing my new book. Thanks for another great post on writing.


Comments relevant to the blog post are welcome as long as they are noninflammatory and appropriate for everyone of all ages to read.
Thank you for your interest and input.