Monday, 25 February 2013

Baiting Your Hook

As a crime reader, writer and reviewer one of the things that interests me most is that all important first paragraph. A good one grabs me straight away while a bad one turns the air a kind of sweary blue colour. 

A good opening paragraph draws the reader into the book and immerses them in the story from the get go. Small errors later in the novel are forgiven or ignored because the reader is so engrossed in the story. Beware though, when it’s bad the reader may never make it far enough to read all the really good bits of your novel or story. 

Mundane everyday routine is a serious no no in any part of a novel and doubly so in the opening chapter let alone that all important first paragraph. What the reader wants is for something to happen and it’s gotta be exciting. We want a kidnap, violence or the discovery of a body to get our pulses racing. Introspection, routine and banality are not what crime readers want to start off with. Sure, use them as character displaying tools later on to round out your novel but wait until the reader cares about the characters. 

Take for example these two opening lines I’ve just made up. One should tickle your interesting bits while the other is blander than white fish with plain rice. 

·         Detective John Harrison washed the plate, returned it to the cupboard and trudged exhausted up the stairs. Creeping into his children’s bedrooms he kissed them both goodnight before undressing in the master bedroom. The hall light shone onto his wife’s beautiful face and he was tempted to wake her, to tell her of his long boring day shuffling endless forms. Deciding against it he slipped beneath the quilt and fell asleep in seconds.

·         The severed head of a child bounced off my windscreen as I pursued the Corvette. Blood splattered the now starred glass. Two months I had been chasing the McAvoy brothers. Their paedophile ring was going to get shut down. Today! Reaching beneath my jacket I un-holstered the Sig Sauer I always carried.

The first instance is to my mind bland and dull. It shows Harrison as being mostly desk bound and any cop who lives at home with a wife and kids is unlikely to be interesting to a reader unless he has a double life. This could only be used as an opening paragraph if the next paragraph was the one where the action kicked off.

The second instance starts you right in the action with a car chase, murder and paedophilia (surely the most despicable crime) there is also the prospect of revenge or vigilante action and the pulling of the gun announces its imminent arrival.

Get it right and you’re onto a winner right away. Get it wrong and you are struggling to retain your reader’s interest.

Please share your thoughts as to the opening lines that have grabbed you by the throat and forced you to keep reading or the ones which have repelled you.
PS Don't forget about Crime and Publishment. A three day series of writing classes culminating in the chance to pitch your novel to an agent. More info can be found at


  1. "Jack Nightingale opened his eyes to find the barrel of a police-issue Heckler & Koch MP5 Carbine about an inch from the end of his nose."...that the sort of thing?
    Good points, loved the two exaggerated examples. Too many people start with the dreaded back story

    1. Good call Andrew and thanks for the feedback

  2. Mine's a marmite first line. 80%/20% love/hate....

    Your two examples are interesting though and I'm feeling argumentative tonight. :-) If you chuck too much in in the first para, where else is there left to go and when do you let the reader draw breath? On the other hand your slow burner might pop if he realised his wife was actually dead - the contrast to the mundane would be even greater.

    I'd never start with backstory, but sometimes it's worse if you have an explosive first scene and then infodump all the backstory in chapter 2 - I'd rather know if I'm going to be bored rigid before I start so I can read something else instead!

    1. Well said Debbie. A good second paragraph can rescue the innocuous banality of the first, and I'm no advocate of a singular basket for my eggs.

      My point though, is that you should grab the reader as early as possible to ensure their continued commitment to your work.

      In my ideal world backstory should be banned from the first 5 chapters of a novel and eradicated wherever possible. However sometimes as a writer backstory plays such an important part of the whole story that it has to be put in at some point. Let us not forget that the ending has to be better than the beginning as readers remember the ending of a journey more than the start.
      It's all a case of managing the peaks and troughs really.

  3. I've lent it to my son so cannot quote it here, but the first line of Karen Campbell's 'The twilight time' sent me high as a kite with sheer pleasure, as much at the writing as anything (and the rest of the book, and the three following haven't failed to do so either).
    I wondered how much the change from third to first person had to do with the contrasting energy of the two examples; whether you believe that is an important element?
    And what you say to Debbie (back story + ending) is very valid indeed.

  4. Thanks Sandra.
    POV does have an impact on energy, but if you re-wrote the two pieces and reversed the POV the first would still be much blander than the second.

    First person is more immediate but the POV alone is not enough to instill excitement and pace. Plain rice will always be plain rice.

    1. Trouble with 1st person POV is that you know they must have survived in order to tell the tale. Which loses you tension points immediately, unless you write present tense - and I hate present tense crime and thrillers with a passion....