It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
That is the first line from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. It’s an excellent example of well-crafted “hook,” that is…a one-line pitch from the author to the reader that the story that follows will be unique, thrilling, and very much worth the reader’s time.
Orwell’s opening is masterful in its simplicity. Note the rhythm of the two halves of the sentence. It was a 1, 2, 3 in 4, goes the first half; a “bright cold day in April”. The second half of the sentence starts with the same rhythm—and the 5, 6…; “and the clocks”—when suddenly the rhythm breaks. Extra syllables bunch everything up. Striking, not struck. Thirteen, not twelve. Now it reads wrong, and it is wrong, because clocks don’t strike thirteen. Something grave has happened to the world in my story, Orwell demonstrates to the reader. Don’t you want to find out what it is?
First lines—or hooks—can set the tone for impactful short stories or sprawling epics. What’s the first line of a story you’ve recently read?
To be sure, a great story doesn’t need a stunning first line. Some stories need time to flower. For example, in Tor.com’s 2016 staff picks, one of the books picked was The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Chris, our Content Director, was overjoyed by the sci-fi story, its characters, and its family-focused theme. But you don’t receive that particularly communal, warm tone from the book’s first line:
As she woke up in the pod, she remembered three things.
Instead, you have to earn the pay-off from Chambers’ story by sticking with the main character as she brings new people into her life. The story blooms, and in some ways the reader feels like they’re growing with the tale.
What are stories you’ve read that have great first lines?
And what are great stories you’ve read that don’t have memorable first lines?