However it is important to note we writers sometimes worry about it far too much. A great first line is a good thing, but it's no good if you don't follow it up with a strong first scene. And a weak first line may well be forgiven by the browsing reader if the rest of the first scene delivers on the tension. I know we live in the sound bite generation, but even today most potential readers will skim at least a couple of pages before deciding (or at least that's been my observation in bookshops).
So I think that when thinking about your opening it's more important to think about the first scene and the reader hook holistically rather than just focusing on the first line. If you can pull of a brilliant opening the first line should take care of itself.
And of course concentrating on the scene should help with avoiding first lines that are supposed to be hooky but come off as contrived. I'm sure we've all seen some of those before now.
But all this is by the by. How do we make our opening scenes hook the reader?
Well I've come across several suggestion - all of which can work solely or in combination.
- Open with a bang. Many thrillers do this literally. They open with someone in mortal danger. The theory is it hooks you, because you want to know if the person lives or dies. However you have to make the reader care you have to get them to empathise very quickly. If they don't they won't be anxious and will shut the book. But if you do it too well then kill said character they may be disgusted and shut the book instead of reading on to find out who did it. It's even worse if the dust cover tells you the person dies. It makes it hard to get attached if I know the outcome (for me anyway - people's reactions vary).
- Open in a moment of change. The theory here is that change, even good change makes us anxious and so opening a story in a moment of transition will hook the reader. Of course again this depends on building empathy for the viewpoint character. If you don't why would they feel anxious about the change in the character's life?
- Open in a moment of unease. Maybe nothing changes per se, but the character still feels uneasy about something. This should also hook the reader for similar reasons to points 1 and 2.
- One of the most common pieces of first line advice is to give the reader a question to ask. Make the reader read on to find the answers. This is good, but as I said it only works if you follow through on it.
- A Manuscript's Opening Scene - How to Use the First Five Pages to Sell your Manuscript
- Opening Scenes: An Overview This one is a book excerpt.
- How to Start Your Novel
- Writing a Great Opening for Your Novel or Screenplay
- How to Start Your Novel (Different article, same title as number 3)