First Lines of a Novel: Baiting the Hook, or Selling Snake Oil?

The BBC recently interviewed author Richard Ford, whose books include the Bascombe Trilogy: The SportswriterIndependence Day, and The Lay of the Land.  In that interview (which you can watch for yourself here), the interviewer asks whether the opening lines of Ford’s latest book, Canada, don’t give away too much.  She calls them “a kind of spoiler.” Here are the lines:

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

Ford shakes his head dismissively, then crooks his finger and sticks it into his cheek. “It’s a narrative hook,” he says.

“Couldn’t it be the opposite?” the interviewer wonders.

“No. No. You always have to deliver the goods in a novel, irrespective of plotting,” says Ford. “And that’s a plotted, you know, decision on my part to say to the reader, ‘Now, someplace along here in a few hundred pages, you’re gonna come to a murder, and you’re gonna come to a bank robbery.’  So it’s not a spoiler at all.  It’s actually a hook that needs to plant itself in the reader’s mind, perhaps not consciously all the time, but I think that once the reader reads that, certain kinds of pressures are acting, and then I get the good out of it.”  He pauses.  “I also get the advantage of a first good sentence. So for me, it was win-win.”

I’ve wondered about the type of line Ford uses to introduce the reader to Canada. The line that basically reads, “Within the covers of this book, you will find tantalizing mysteries, and to learn about them, you’ll have to keep reading.”  I’ve wondered whether in this context, “spoiler” here couldn’t also read “gimmick” and, if so, whether lines like that should be avoided or not.

But then I think of Ford’s comment about getting readers hooked. Finger-in-the-cheek hooked, so that they can’t swim off to nibble on some other book. What is it that hooks a reader?

There’s a list that I’ve seen in various forms across the internet—a list of the best opening lines from fiction.  One such list can be seen here.  A quick glance at this list will show that most of the so-called “best” lines are the first lines from big-name literary classics by big-name authors. Fitzgerald and Dickens and Joyce. By definition, the first lines of books are what you see first when you begin reading, and I can’t help but wonder if the inclusion of classics on such a list isn’t simply a function of their status as classics, and not necessarily a function of having the “best” opening lines.

Some lines on the list, however, do really stand out.  For example, take this line from Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942):

Mother died today.

First of all, it’s short.  It’s got an intimate feel that comes from the naming of “Mother.”  Not, “my mother,” but “Mother,” as though you, the reader, also know her and would call her that, too.  And of course there’s the how.  How did Mother die?  Is the narrator sad about this?  Happy?  Was Mother sitting on a big, fat lump of money that the narrator was just itching to inherit?  It’s these sorts of things that would hook me, the reader.

Here’s another line I like, from Ha Jin’s Waiting (1999):

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.

I think the reasons for my liking this line should be obvious, but in case they are not, I’ll spell them out. Lin Kong divorces his wife every year? How does that work? The reader can guess that it’s some sort of ritual, but then there’s a sense of mystery (or at the very least, a sense of bizarreness) around it. And then the reader might wonder whether the cyclical divorce is something Lin Kong wants, or whether he actually loves his wife. All these elements combine to make the reader want to continue—to invest the time it would take to learn the answers to these questions.

I have to admit that I have used the Richard Ford-style hook in one of my short stories, Contract for a Slice of Uruguay, which first appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs.  The line is:

In this story, there are two brothers.  One will die and the other will live.  The brother that will die is named Antoni, and the lucky one — I’ve heard some people call him that — is named Santiago.

I must also admit to having mixed feelings about this line.  On one hand, it’s got what Ford called a narrative hook. Antoni dies and Santiago lives.  However, it’s also got what might be called a gimmicky quality that could turn away some readers. In fact, an editor for one of the magazines who rejected the story said:

After a careful read, I have decided to pass on this one.  There’s too much back story for
our tastes, and the voice comes off as far too preachy at times.  Unfortunately, I feel this weakens the story for the reader.

At the time, I thought this was a damning summary that relegated my story to the digital ash heap.  Back story is one thing—I mean, Victor Hugo dedicates however many zillion pages of Les Misérables to the backstory of Father Madeleine, a priest with only a small role in the actual plot of the story.

No, it wasn’t the inclusion of backstory that bothered me. It was the word “preachy.” I read the story again, searching for parts of the story in which I’d preached.  Had I imposed any kind of moral judgment on the characters or coerced the reader in any way?  I decided that I was defining “preachy” incorrectly.  Bad preachers are like snake oil salesmen—trying to sell a product, vying for a quick buck. That, I think, was what the editor was getting at.  As far as they were concerned, the story had no intrinsic appeal, and relied on gimmicks designed to hook the reader.

Perhaps the more relevant point that the editor’s comment highlights is how intensely subjective criticism can be.  Not only was the story accepted by another publication; it was  included in their “Best Of” collection.  So the rejection could have read:

After a careful read, I have decided that this story does not float my boat.

As for Richard Ford’s novel, Canada, it may be that the issue of hooks and spoilers and gimmicks can only be settled by you, the reader.  Perhaps you have a special use for snake oil no one else has discovered yet.

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About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

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