Writer’s Desk: Hook the Reader

Every writer knows the advantage given by a great opening line. Like here:

  • “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
  • “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The best first lines provoke curiosity. What drugs? How did Marley die? What the heck is a hobbit? Sometimes the more questions you can raise the better.

For examples of this, try looking not at great novel starts but newspaper ledes. Those are the Who/What/When/Where paragraphs that usually come at the start of a news item and can contain an entire novel’s worth of curiosity and detail if done right.

In “Florida Woman Bites Camel,” Calvin Trillin provides a delightful example of how one newspaper (in this case the Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana) accomplished this task in a story from 2019:

A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600 pound animal’s genitalia after it sat on her when she and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.

And it was all true. The reader who does not want to know more about this camel-biting pair from Florida is probably not a reader who would rather be watching television.

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