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Hooking the Reader: Opening Lines that Sell
Sharon Rendell-Smock
Morris Publishers, 214 pages

Hooking the Reader: Opening Lines that Sell
Sharon Rendell-Smock
Sharon Rendell-Smock graduated from a Chicago area high school, moving to Florida where she worked as a newspaper features writer. Two years later, she returned to Illinois to enroll in the University of Illinois' social work program, almost achieving a master's degree in social work when she decided to become a writer. She wrote computer manuals for a number of years until turning freelance. Her books include Living with Big Cats and Getting Hooked: Fiction's Opening Sentences 1950s-1990s. She lives on Florida's Space Coast.

Sharon Rendell-Smock Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

Early in this book, writer Les Standiford offers the neat analogy, "Actors labor endlessly to fashion just the right 'entrance' onto stage -- and it should be the same for writers of fiction." For those fascinated by the sheer diversity of openings, this book offers hours of entertainment. Anyone looking for an analysis, however, will find some work ahead of them.

The book is a compilation of responses from genre writers (mystery, romance, SF & fantasy, western) when asked to supply "what they thought of some of their own opening sentences; to provide some of their own favorites and how they came up with them; and in general their thought processes when creating those sentences."

The sheer volume of correspondents is impressive -- "over 100 well-known authors," Sharon Rendell-Smock reminds us again and again. Their replies are divided into ten rather disorganized chapters. The examples in Chapter 1: "Best-Sellers: Built One Line at a Time" don't seem any different thematically than those of Chapter 8: "Interest Yourself and the Reader" or Chapter 6: "Reader and Writer Interactions." Chapter 3's title, "Techniques to Hook the Reader," is just plain repetitive.

Chapter 7: "What About Action?" and Chapter 5: "Set the Mood" claim to offer openings which focus on action or mood, but the examples generally support the obvious: that a good opening, consciously or not, usually plies the reader with more than one feature -- voice, setting, mood, etc.

Take, for example, the opening from Earl Emerson's suspense novel Fat Tuesday:

"I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper bag only complicated matters."
Emerson uses dead-pan humor and simple description to give us a sense of the narrator's personality and to set mood.

Likewise, SF writer Scott Mackay says,

"The openers I like best are ones where disparate and unexpected elements are juxtaposed one against the other."
These type of openings call attention to themselves (Emerson calls them "loud"), leaping off the page to grab the reader's imagination and wrestle it into continuing on with the story.

Mark Sumner points out that besides being "hooky",

"a good first line also sets tone, establishes place, even defines an arc that it takes the next 20,000 lines to complete. A first line is a promise between an author and a reader. It's also... a seamless part of the rest of the work."
Nancy Kress adds,
"It should raise questions in the reader's mind -- questions that he or she will keep reading to get answered. It should indicate the voice of the work... And it should at least begin to orient us in space and time."
Ellen Kushner and Peter Robinson both stress not content so much as the rhythm of the opening, and the mood it creates. Kushner offers the beginning of novel Swordspoint as an example:
"Snow was falling on Riverside... great white feather-puffs that veiled the cracks in the facades of its ruined houses, slowly softening the harsh contours of jagged roof and fallen beam."
There is an old literary slapdown that "real" literature doesn't need hooks. There's no counter-argument here, since all the participants happen to be genre writers. There are a few, however, who deemphasize the "hooky" opening. C.J. Cherryh writes,
"Opening lines have never been that definite for me: I just deal with them as I do any other line in the book..."
Walter Satterthwait weighs in with a slightly more heated opinion:
"Zippy opening sentences are often a swell thing, but the idea has lately taken root that they're absolutely necessary; and I think that this notion comes from television, where the opening to a series episode has to be a real grabber, or the poor boob watching it will hit the remote... recently, when I read one of those things, I tend to toss the book."
One of Rendell-Smock's more interesting inclusions are "Off The Shelf" sidebars, where she lists random openings -- typically, first sentences. Although Rendell-Smock offers no commentary, these sidebars are surprisingly useful for showcasing strong openers alongside weaker ones. For example:
"The World had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted" (Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon);
"Nola lay facedown on her bed, staring at the knife in her hand." (Piers Anthony and Julie Brady, Dream A Little Dream)
It would have been interesting to see some breakdown of responses by genre; more than one writer notes there are different requirements for, say, mysteries versus romance or science fiction. Others point out that short story openers are different than those for novels, but Rendell-Smock doesn't chose to pursue that either. The book also suffers from random interruptions by unnecessary sidebars, such as lists of mystery writers who include cats in their books, author pseudonyms, and the factoid that a majority of mystery writers base their series on the east or west coast.

This book is an enthusiastic fan's card file of openings; the only analysis comes from the participants themselves and ignites no discussion from Rendell-Smock, even when back-to-back authors' comments contradict each other. In the end, no grand secrets are revealed, just many, many examples, sure to ignite a writer's "inner critic", for clearly the quality of an opening is ultimately judged by the reader.

Copyright © 2002 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.

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