“Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears …” How does one open with a sentence that eloquently and economically fires up the story and hooks you in right away? That opening line is pretty crucial. It can either grab you by the scruff of the neck or end the story before it begins. “The best stories usually hook you with their intro. They start as they mean to go on, rather than clearing their throat before getting down to business,” says one of the top 32 copywriters in the world, Tony Cox. Let’s take some examples from literary writers who can show us the beauty of this fine and critical part of the writing process:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer; 1984; William Gibson)

A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity’s Rainbow; 1973; Thomas Pynchon)

–Money … in a voice that rustled. (JR; 1975; William Gaddis)

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.” (Red Wind; 1938; Raymond Chandler)

“Unemployed at last!” (Such is Life; 1903; Tom Collins)

It was the  best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of reason, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. (A Tale of Two Cities; 1859; Charles Dickens)

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. (Love in the Time of Cholera; 1988; Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” (The Satanic Verses; 1988; Salman Rushdie)

In my experience, there’s nothing more motivating in the writing process than composing that hooky opening line (after coming up with a compelling headline). It’s the difference between generic and genuine, bland and beautiful, predictable and peculiar, valium and verve. Here is a recent example from this week’s Copywriting In Action class. We’re writing about cross-laminated timber, an innovative building material that allows faster, more efficient and environmentally responsible construction of multi-residential buildings. Okay, so it’s not Dickens or Marquez, but better a hook than a hack, don’t you think? So the headline reads: Construction that goes with the grain of sustainable living. Without going through the list of possible opening lines, here was the final outcome:

Before we go any further, get timber framed buildings out of your mind.

This took about an hour to write and involved 15 students collaborating on it with me pushing them for a workable outcome before the end of session. Once we got there, I made them try a few variations on the line to illustrate the importance of word selection in both textual and sub-textual narrative. Here were the variations and class comments for each:

Before you read any further, get timber framed buildings out of your mind.

All agreed it was too predictable. How many times have we read “Before you read on …”? The original also did a little extra engagement by using the word “we” which enables us to connect personally with the reader. The next variation was:

Before we go any further, forget about timber framed buildings.

There was another, more concise version of this one:

Before we go any further, disregard timber framed buildings.

These looked pretty good until a comparison was made between abstract and concrete words. Can you see “forget”? No because it’s an abstract notion. Can you see “disregard”? No because it’s another abstract notion. Can you see “get out of your mind”? Yes, because you are immediately taken to that place (your mind) and a sense of clearing takes place (get out). You can apply the same question to all your senses: Can you hear … (–Money … in a voice that rustled); Can you feel … (…curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch); Can you smell …( the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love); Can you taste …(see “bitter almonds”). In this case and more often than not, it’s a visual experience. And that experience is what involves your reader in the narrative, putting them “in the picture” as it were.

Copywriters have a much more difficult challenge than literary writers, because they are writing to a reluctant audience. Who wants to sit up in bed and read your ad, right? All the more reason to make sure your opening sentence comes with a guaranteed hook. You may never get into a “greatest opening lines” website but you will get your reader into your story as a willing participant. And by the way, I encourage you to follow that link and any others you may find about the pulling power of opening sentences. It’s a very interesting, insightful and entertaining subject in its own right. If nothing else, you will experience first hand what your reader will experience when you write that compelling opening sentence.

31 Comments

  1. Cecilie says:

    Really great insight into the process of writing that first sentence. As a selective reader, that first part will always determine whether I will continue reading or not. Understand the process behind good writing will lead me in the right direction.

  2. Melissa says:

    Really good article about the opening sentence – needs to be that hook to ensure the reader goes onto the next sentence. Looking forward to incorporating words that make the reader visualise.

  3. Jessie L says:

    “Better a hook than a hack..” I actually laughed out loud reading that. Thank you for the literary examples. They took me back to my childhood and delicious days in bed reading under the covers…

  4. M. Soan says:

    I never get sick of reading amazing hook lines / opening sentences. Much emphasis is placed on this in fiction writing, yet it is one of the hardest parts to write and is often revisited many, many times by writers to get the perfect ‘hook’. I also like the analogy someone else used here of fishing and opening sentences, so very true! I like your reiteration of using abstract and concrete words. It makes the difference between a solid piece of writing that appeals to the senses, and a flimsy, intangible one. Great post. =)

    • Thanks Melody and yes we’re like fish. They don’t notice water because it’s all around them and we don’t notice information because it’s all around us. A good copywriter is thus a good fisherman. A brilliant copywriter is like Lee Marvin and Ernest Hemingway with a Black Marlin on the end of their line.

  5. Julie says:

    Some very inspiring opening lines, really does bring home the importance of that first hook in the body text.

  6. Kirby Fenwick says:

    I’m a voracious reader – the opposite of reluctant, and those first few lines are so very important. My imagination must be captured, my interest piqued, my heart must race or I must find myself asking why?
    If that doesn’t happen, I simply stop reading.
    If the goal of the copywriter is to attract the reluctant reader, the importance of the hook can’t be iterated enough!

  7. Katie says:

    I had never realized how important the opening sentence is. Such important advice, especially in the world we live in now = overload of information. Better make it good so they read on!

  8. Lucy says:

    This is really interesting coming from a literary background. I am used to the idea that there may be a few ways to say the same thing, and perhaps not to stress about every individual word. Clearly, the brevity and commercial nature of writing copy in many ways demands more of the writer.

  9. Anagha says:

    The literary examples are Great! A great hook line needs to evoke an emotional response for the reader, so they are encouraged and interested to read the rest of the story

  10. Enjoyed the read. Good to recognise that copywriters are writing to the reluctant reader. Now need to remember to write in prose that the reluctant reader, can taste, touch, see it……

  11. Julie says:

    Good to be reminded that a copywriter’s readers are reluctant – in which case the metaphor of the hook is even more powerful.

  12. Leona Devaz says:

    I love the line about copywriters having a much more difficult challenge than literary writers – due to the reluctant audience. Great insight. The link to the 30 best opening lines was well worth the read. Earmarked some books to purchase – thank you!

  13. michaelcxs says:

    I loved the literary examples you used. All quite sensual (see/touch/taste). Though not quite as sensual, I can never forget the opening line to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’: “We were somewhere over near Barstow, when the drugs began to take hold.”

  14. Jen Keating says:

    Writing what the audience can see, touch, taste, smell or hear is such an interesting concept. And a challenging one. It is so tempting to allow one’s ego to take over the piece and attempt to “wow” the reader with an extensive vocabulary. It is simple, visual and clear copy which engages a reader, not pretentious prose.

  15. Jennie says:

    Great website! Very inspiring, I’ll be sure to following it!
    I agree that a killer open line is essential as it sets the tone and attitude of the reader for the rest of the piece.

  16. rebecca says:

    So much of writing for me is letting everything swirl around in my mind before I sit down to write. Once that first line is down, it gives me the momentum to keep going. Like Jeremy, I struggle with it at first but, like Sophie, once I’ve got it, I’m off and running.

  17. Sophie says:

    When i think of that killer opening line, it gives me such confidence in tackling the rest.

  18. Jeremy G says:

    I like the idea of opening lines hooking the audience in by appealing to the senses. When trying to write, the hardest part for me is getting the ball rolling. I generally sit there, staring at my laptop screen running the same question over and over in my head, “Where do I start?!”. Start by appealing to the senses with a concrete concept.

  19. Melissa says:

    Agreed and it all ties in well with being reader-centric and rewarding them for taking the time to read your copy. From personal experience, a great opening line does pull me in.

  20. Bronwen says:

    Perhaps easier in a book, but sound logic to quickly capture interest and once captured follow up with concrete words.

  21. Johanna says:

    Tantalise your audience’s senses; make it easier for them to connect through the use of tangible rather than abstract notions. Love the literary examples!

  22. Openings sentences need to hook reluctant audiences from the get-go. A sentence that tickles one or many of the senses draws the reader in and involves them in the content right away. Concrete notions can be grasped more effectively than abstract notions.

  23. Caitlin says:

    The hook line is clearly very important, but an interesting observation too of the strength of concrete vs. abstract words.

  24. I have never thought about why some books pulled me straight in and others don’t, then reflecting on that to see if it could help me with my writing. This makes perfect sense.

  25. Natalia says:

    It really hit home of the importance of not just having a great headline but then following with an amazing opening line. (Hook line). So true about abstract and concrete words! The concept needs to be tangilble to the reader. I found the literary examples inspiring.

  26. mark thomas says:

    It seems that creating a hook line incorporates a frame work (excuse the pun), abstract and concrete defines what is seen and not seen by the reader, as the meaning of the hook line takes you to a place that connects you with its meaning, the reason to read on and find the next tasty morsal to feed our imagination.

  27. Thanks’ Jeff for that fabulously visual comment. And as copywriting, it’s right up there with the best of them.

  28. Jeff Hyde says:

    Gotcha! Been quite some time since I caught a fish but from what I can remember of it there seem to be some parallels between the arts of fishing and effective copywriting. Using the right, tasty bait on the headline will attract interest and encourage a bite. If the hook is designed well enough the target audience, having bitten, will not be able to let go. If the lines are then subsequently played with skill, care and foresight there is every chance of landing a bountiful catch. Then there will be food on the table tonight.

  29. I really enjoyed reading the literary examples you have provided. They are all so beautifully and evocatively written. Definitely food for thought!

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