Blog by VONNIE DAVIS -- International, Award-Winning Romance Author: Adventurous...Humorous...Amorous.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


I love a story that reaches out in the first paragraph and wraps its hand around my throat. One that grabs my attention from the get-go and laughs or threatens, “Hang on, girl, I’m gonna take you on a fantastic ride.”

Isn’t that what we want from a book as readers? To be swept away from the pile of laundry, the dirty toilet or the five pounds that somehow sneaked onto our bathroom scales? To be reminded of those push-and-pull moments of initial attraction to a man. To be swept away to some exotic place or another era? To be pulled into a dangerous situation? To be snatched by the writer onto an emotional ride from laughter to tears to anger or fear? If these statements are true, then we as writers must work hard at providing those moments for our readers.

But before we can attract the reader to the plot of our stories, we have to snare their attention from the initial words under the words: Chapter One.

To grab the reader, a writer needs a good hook.

If an agent or editor isn’t hooked immediately, she’ll reject the manuscript. Sometimes this happens after reading the first five pages, but more often, the rejection comes after the first page, or worse the FIRST paragraph. So, as writers, we must have a great hook. Something startling, or charming, or amusing that makes our reader want to read on. A paragraph or two that dares the reader to walk away. This is rarely easy.

Still, with a critical eye and a gazillion rewrites, we can do it. Forget the fluff. In the past, it was more acceptable to ground the reader with a setting or show the reader what the character’s life was like in the past. Now, more and more editors and agents are asking—no, demanding—the writer start with the inciting incident and then go back and fill in the details.

Start your story at the inciting incident—the moment where your character’s life changes, either for the better or the worse.

Let’s take a look at some examples. In Storm’s Interlude, I started with a bizarre scene:

Someone swaggered out of the moonlit night toward Rachel. Exhausted from a long day of driving, she braked and blinked. Either she was hallucinating or her sugar levels had plummeted. Maybe that accounted for the male mirage, albeit a very magnificent male mirage, trekking toward her. She peered once more into the hot July night at the image illuminated by her headlights. Sure enough, there he was, cresting the hill on foot—a naked man wearing nothing but a black cowboy hat, a pair of boots and a go-to-hell sneer.

Imagine the number of rewrites to get that paragraph just the way I wanted it. Let’s take a look at a few more opening hooks. In my opinion, opening hooks should speak to us, make us shudder or smile, make us identify with the heroine or simply ask questions that make us want to read on to find the answers. Here are some that captured my attention right away. Openings that made me want to read on for a variety of reasons.

Chase Paladin slammed on the brakes and prayed. Momentum, and the heavy livestock trailer he was towing, sent his pickup careening toward the red sports car idling in the middle of Route 66.
With tires smoking, he rocked to a stop inches from its rear bumper. He peeled his fingers from the steering wheel and spared a glance for Bo, who had slid off the seat onto the floor of the truck. The hound shook himself.   
-- Jannine Gallant’s Nothing But Trouble. (Don’t you love the visuals she’s thrown in with just the right word choice, like “peeled his fingers”? This tells me I’m in for an excellent read.)

“Reese, if you weren’t dead, I swear, I’d kill you!” D’Anne Palmer stomped from her mosquito-infested campsite toward the Laundromat. “Damn it!” she cursed, smacking a super-sized, bloodsucking pest feasting on her neck.  -- Lynne Marshall’s One for the Road
(I love reading about a woman pissed, which she clearly is. So, now, I have to read on to find out why she’s angry. And who is this dead man?)

“Kyle, I’m pregnant.”  
(Three words and I’m hooked. Oh, well done!)
-- JM Stewart’s Staking His Claim

“What the hell did ye find wrong with that one? She’s a well-bred lass with a tempting dowry, and ye’re a blind man if ye missed those breasts.”  -- Maeve Grayson’s The Highlander’s Fury (If I’m smiling, I’m hooked…and the author most definitely has me smiling.) 

She’d read somewhere that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, but Samantha McNead knew better than that—in certain men the stomach was aiming just a bit too high.

Wade O’Riley was one of them. 
(Haven’t we all felt that way about a man, or twenty, in our time. She’s hooked me because already I’m identifying with the heroine.)
-- Jill Shalvis’s Slow Heat

“You look like you’ve been hit by a truck.”
(Oh, really? And why? What’s happened?)
Mackenzie Crowne’s That Dating Thing

 “I need a wife, Carter, and I needed her yesterday.” Riding in the back of the town car en route to a Starbucks, of all places, Blake Harrison glanced at his watch for the tenth time that hour.  
Catherine Bybee’s Wife by Wednesday (Can’t you feel his annoyance? If the reader can make me feel what the character’s feeling, I’m hers for the duration of the book.)

Sometimes the hook comes in a set of carefully arranged lines.

The Change

Waikato Hospital, New Zealand

The lights dimmed and the humming intensified, echoing in her blood.

Radiation snaked out from the machine like tentacles and struck deep. As if she’d gone down a hill too fast, Jenna’s stomach lurched. She gasped aloud as internal organs stretched and shifted and her heart beat frantically in her chest. She fought the urge to vomit and closed her eyes, breathing deeply. Why did everyone say x-rays were a piece of cake?

LaVerne Clark’s Affinity (I was hooked by this point and there was more to the paragraph. I had to know what the author meant by the first line: The Change.)

To me, the variety and power of an opening hook are endless. In a book I recently contracted, Rain is a Love Song, this is my opening paragraph.

It wasn’t the hardened man who eased his motorcycle to the curb that snagged Gwen Morningstar’s attention. Nor was it the wide spread of his shoulders or the way his black jeans hugged his muscled thighs like a pair of lover’s hands. For sure, it wasn’t the long scar on his right cheek or the small silver cross that dangled from his ear. No, it was his pristine-white angel wings that dragged on the pavement.

In my current WIP, Jazzbeat of Surrender, I am floundering with my opening. Big time. I have rewritten it, moved paragraphs, deleted, tweaked, freaked and still don’t like it. But as Hemingway said, writing is rewriting.

These hives were going to kill her. For reasons she kept secret, weddings and anything associated with romantic love made Simone Reynard’s skin crawl. While most women sighed and cried at weddings, she suffered the annoying itch of hives.

Her gaze swept over her sister’s yard, lavishly decorated for the outdoor wedding reception. She scratched at her chin, thankful concerns about the weather proved fruitless; the fall day was gorgeous, although slightly cool. Thank goodness her maman and Gwen, the other bride, decided on a double ceremony. She’d only have to go through this misery once.

I’ll get eventually. I guess.

What about you? Do you have trouble with your opening hooks?

*** Oh, to all you talented writers that I mentioned and shared your opening hooks, Blogger's Label feature only allowed me so many characters, so I could not include the titles of your referenced work. Sorry.


Joanne Stewart said...

I love this post. Loved seeing everybody's opening. I struggle almost every opening. That particular one, wrote itself. Oh, I revised it a time or two, but always seemed to end up back there. The WIP I just finished...I revised the first three chapters. And I'm still not happy with it.

I don't know if this helps or not, but, these sentences, "Thank goodness her maman and Gwen, the other bride, decided on a double ceremony. She’d only have to go through this misery once." I think this would make a great opening hook. Then you could put everything else beneath it.

Debra St. John said...

Vonnie, Great post! All of these openings totally drew me in right away.

I think my favorite opening line of the books I've written is: "There was a naked man in her grandfather's bathtub."


LaVerne Clark said...

What a wonderful post Vonnie - and I'm humbled you chose to use Affinity's opening as an example and what amazing writers to be grouped with!

Wow - those are all great openings - and I'm loving your's too Debra! But no fair - what's the title of this first line? :)

You've got me already with Jazzbeat's intro - but then, you always do! Love Joanne's suggestion too. There is nothing like having writer friends is there? :)

Vonnie Davis said...

JoAnne, that's a good idea. Thanks! I'll play with it. I fiddle and think I'm pleased with it. A week goes by, I read it again and wince. This is the first time I've struggled this much with an opening. That should tell me something...right? Yet the hives play an important part to the story since she gets them often, especially around the hero.

Vonnie Davis said...

Whoo-hoo, love your opening. Awesome. What an inciting moment.

Vonnie Davis said...

LaVerne, got my package from New Zealand today. Simply love it! The New Zealand bear is a treat since I have a small collection of them.

Including your opening hook was a no-brainer. It captured my imagination.

And you're so right. Writer friends are the absolute BEST!!!

LaVerne Clark said...

Yay Vonnie! So glad he went to the right home :)

Jannine Gallant said...

Love that you used my opening, Vonnie. I have to admit, it's the best one I've written. Usually they don't come that easily. All your examples were terrific! Geez, more books for the TBR list!

Mackenzie Crowne said...

Awesome post, Vonnie, and so true. This cracked me up, as I spent the morning battling with this very issue.

I love being included in this group because those are some kick ass openings. (Yep, Jannine, the TBR list is a living, growing thing.)

Maeve said...

Great post, Vonnie and I'm so honored that you included my latest release. You're spot on about that opening hook. When I'm hunting for a new read, that very first sentence/paragraph lets me know right away if I've found a winner. Thanks again, my friend! :-)

Nona Raines said...

Durn you, Vonnie! All those opening hooks were so great, I've now got to read the books themselves. And I'm already overspent at the Kindle store! The opening lines of a book are so hard to get right. They're a real struggle for me. Thanks fo sharing all these great openers!

Calisa Rhose said...

All great examples Vonnie. The best part for me is that I've already got most of these and want to read every one NOW, or I've already read them!

I agree with Joanne too btw. If it's any help I know you'll get it just right before it publishes dear.

Vonnie Davis said...

Jannine, glad you stopped by. I loved the visual you created in your opening.

Vonnie Davis said...

My sweet Mackenzie, so you're battling with a beginning, too? Calvin thinks I should begin with the drone attack that happens at the wedding, but I'm afraid the readers won't understand who is who and what is what. Ack!

Vonnie Davis said...

That first paragraph is so important, isn't it? I chuckled when I read yours. And I do love to laugh.

Vonnie Davis said...

Nona, sorry about your Kindle expense account. Shall we hold a fund raiser? LOL Make a list and keep chipping away with it. Thanks for stopping by.

Vonnie Davis said...

Calisa, thanks for your words of encouragement. I'll beat this bad boy into submission eventually...I hope.

Angela Adams said...

I always struggle with my book's opening. But once, I get started...By the way. I love the picture of the little child on a scale.

Beth Trissel said...

Terrific post, Vonnie! Love it and your super examples. I am in the process, funny you should mention it, of agonizing over that first line, paragraph, page, chapter of my WIP. And going over and over it.

Vonnie Davis said...

Thanks for stopping by, Angela. Yes, the little girl is a darling, isn't she?

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

The opening of everyone of my books darn near killed me. None of them worked, time and time again. Once I can get beyond the opening the story flows. Maybe it's because I know my characters better by then and haven't a clue who they are in the beginning. One opening had to be cut off all the way to three full chapters. I wish there was a magic solution to this task. Love all the ones you shared today, Vonnie.

Vonnie Davis said...

Beth, perhaps more of us struggle with opening hooks than I imagined. Our readers will never know how we anguish over every word and comma.

Vonnie Davis said...

Paisley, my friend with a new book coming out, thanks for stopping by. Love the cover, by the way. Yes, often we have to take a hatchet to our first chapters.

Alyson Reuben said...

I love this post, Vonnie! And you've included story openings that were written by dynamite-fantastic authors!

Vonnie Davis said...

Thanks, Alyson. I love surrounding myself with talent. I keep hoping it'll rub off a little on me. There's a lot of talent in the Garden.

Debra St. John said...

Just FYI-The naked man is in "This Can't Be Love"! :)

Vonnie Davis said...

Oh, thanks Debra. I'll be right on it. The book, not the naked man. ;-) Hey, what can I say, I've only had one cup of coffee so far.

Lynne Marshall said...

Vonnie - the pesky opening of a book is something that drives me crazy. I'm not one to demand a one-two punch with the first paragraph, but I certainly enjoy a snappy start!

Thank you for including one of my books in your examples.

Love the hives! And man, I've got to know more about those dragging on the pavement angel wings.

Great job! (being on loop digest makes me a day late)

Vonnie Davis said...

You're never late here, Lynne. My question is WHEN is Bear going to get his story? I can see him in an aerobics class with a bunch of women. A sloven man in a world of spandex...oh, the humorous possibilies...and the instructor or some uptight class participant captures his attention...oh, yeah.

As for the angel wings. I used a sight Calvin and I saw the last time we were in Paris. We were sitting at a sidewalk cafe across from the Pompedieu Museum when a man on a Harley slowly eased by, his shoulder-length hair blowing back (no helmets were required then)--and these beautiful angel wings fluttering down his back and dragging on the road. Calvin leaned over and quipped, "Hell's Angel???" I used that visual for my opening scene with Gwen.

Lynne Marshall said...

Vonnie - sounds fantastic! I love the visual.

Now as for Bear - I don't exactly see him as hero material. Some guys just have to remain in that secondary role. :) Though I'm so glad he resonated with you and many other readers.