Readers have short attention spans and lots of choices. If your book doesn’t pique their interest quickly they’ll put it down and pick up another from the bookstore shelf or click away to another Amazon listing.
People writing for the internet understand the problem. BJP Copywriting warns, “From the first moment a customer arrives on your website, the clock is ticking…you’ve got an average of just 7 seconds to grab a reader’s attention and give them the information they want, before they leave your site.”
Potential readers may give your book a few seconds longer, but you need to have a sense of urgency about grabbing their attention.
Charles Dickens could get away with beginning David Copperfield with, “I am born,” when it was published in 1849, but you can’t. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, your book needs a hook.
How do you engage the reader from the opening line of your book?
It’s a good idea to be guided by Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to, “Start as close to the end as possible.” In the first few lines you will want to let the reader know that what’s at stake in the book is important. At the same time you need to establish the voice and emotional tone which will carry the book forward. And you'll want to use action to do both, showing rather than telling your reader why they should continue reading.
In fiction, that means a great opening scene. As more writers employ the techniques of creative nonfiction their books as well may begin with scenes. Often that means breaking out of the book’s chronology to begin with a turning point or crossroads. In fiction that sets up the book’s conflict. In nonfiction it shows on a personal, individual level the importance of the subject the book will explore. In either case, once you have the reader’s attention you can flashback to show you got to that point or move forward from that point to resolve the conflict it sets up.
The first sentence should begin the process. Let’s look at some great opening lines to see how their author’s hooked their readers. Fiction first:
- They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise
- He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
- If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. —Saul Bellow, Herzog
- Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
- If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
The American Book Review has 95 more great opening lines of novels you might w2ant to look at.
Let’s look at some great opening lines from nonfiction books from a list on Creative Nonfiction:
- My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone. - Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
- By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. - Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man
- In the beginning, on a dog-day Monday in the middle of August when the West Texas heat congealed in the sky, there were only the stirrings of dreams. - Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights
- My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark. - Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club
- Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. - Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
Once you have grabbed your readers’ attention they will stay with you as you deliver on what your books opening lines promise.