“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.